fox and hedgehog

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

“The Hedgehog and the Fox” is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin which was published as a book in 1953. Berlin said that he never “meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something.”

But he didn’t invent this way of viewing people. The Greek poet Archilochus  (680 –645 BC) wrote “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one big thing.” In 1500, Erasmus wrote his Adagia (adages) and one of them was “Many-sided the skill of the fox: the hedgehog has one great gift.” Erasmus’ interpretation favored the hedgehog.

[S]ome people do more with one piece of astuteness than others with their various schemes. The fox protects itself against the hunters by many and various wiles, and yet is often caught. The echinus [hedgehog] … by its one skill alone is safe from the bites of dogs; it rolls itself up with its spines into a ball, and cannot be snapped up with a bite from any side.”

Later interpretations have gone both ways. Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining idea. Examples often given include Plato, Dante Alighieri, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Marcel Proust.

Foxes draw on a wide variety of experiences. For a fox,  a world view can’t be contained in one idea. Fox examples might include Aristotle, Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Goethe, and James Joyce.

I had heard of this concept somewhere in my undergraduate days but had totally forgotten about it until recently when I came upon the book, On Grand Strategy. It is by John Lewis Gaddis who based it largely on a class he has co-taught at Yale for about twenty years.

Why have Yale students competed to get into this “Studies in Grand Strategy” seminar? (It is actually taught by Gaddis, Paul Kennedy, and Charles Hill.) The premise of the seminar is that this is a way to prepare future leaders by looking at lessons from history and the classics.

In his book, Gaddis looks at how leaders and decision makers fare as foxes and hedgehogs.

Political psychologist Philip Tetlock had earlier studied people who made predictions for a living. These people are at universities, think tanks, in governments and nowadays in the media. He found that the foxes were more accurate because they were more intuitive thinkers and could piece together information from different sources. Hedgehogs tended to be ideologues with big ideas to explain the world. But for television and headlines, hedgehogs are better guests and interviews. Easy sound bites rather than those discursive foxes.

One situation Gaddis looks at leaders during wartime. Who would you follow into battle – a fox or a hedgehog?

Though not everyone agrees on which is the best approach, but the fox and the hedgehog concept has influenced many people.

In The Signal and the Noise, forecaster Nate Silver (who received much attention during the past election cycles) sides with being “more foxy” and a fox is his website’s logo.

A short clip of Gaddis explaining how a “grand strategy” works in the real world.

On the podcast Hidden Brain, I heard a modern day story about a hedgehog surgeon.
In “The Fox And The Hedgehog: The Triumphs And Perils Of Going Big,”
you’ll hear about how he hesitantly became a pioneer in gender reassignment surgery.   LISTEN