Friday 4 December 2015

Countercurrents among Hedgehogs and Foxes


A classification of two polar types among 'dichter und denker', creative artists and intellectuals, has been described by Isaiah Berlin in term of Hedgehogs and Foxes - Hedgehogs who know one-thing and Foxes who know many-things; those who are systematic and those who are many-fold...

- Langland versus Chaucer, Dante versus Shakespeare, Heidegger versus Wittgenstein, Bach versus Beethoven, Hegel versus William James, Henry James versus Walter Scott... and so forth.

But people seldom self-identify either as having one one big idea or as having many unrelated ideas. Hedgehogs like to believe that they have many strings to their bows - and do not often notice that they are saying the same thing over and over again with variations.

Foxes, on the other hand, do not like to suppose that their various activities are 'randomly' unrelated - but like to claim that they are all facets of some central and unifying idea, some deep theme.

Thus biography most often tells of Hedgehogs who want to be, who clam to be Foxes - and vice versa (this was, indeed, the main theme of Isaiah Berlin's essay on the subject).

So perhaps this is the true division of poets and thinkers - into Hedgehogs who want to be Foxes, and Foxes who claim to be Hedgehogs?   

Myself? Well, I think of myself as a Fox - but no doubt there is one, or just a few, themes upon which I merely ring changes - and long term readers can probably see the same basic idea coming up again and again, thinly-disguised under various headings.

So maybe I am really a Hedgehog with pretentions of Foxitudosity?... 


pyrrhus said...

Very true. But still, hedgehog/fox is a useful way of distinguishing between various bodies of work, don't you think?

Bruce Charlton said...

@P - indeed - didn't I just?!