“The Hedgehog & The Fox”, Isaiah Berlin

Book Reviews :

There is a line by the Greek poet Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. Isaiah Berlin analyses Tolstoy’s view of history – as expounded in War & Peace – from this viewpoint, that there are thinkers who exemplify a unifying idea versus those who see the world from multiple viewpoints. He concludes that Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog, which resulted in profound internal conflicts about human knowledge, motivation, and society that he was never able to resolve. He saw existence as fundamentally full of irreconcilable, unknown factors that drive human action but yearned for a unitary vision that would explain everything. This he never found.

Berlin compares Tolstoy with Maistre, a post-French Revolution, ultramontane Catholic, and extremely conservative thinker who thought Europe should return to the blind Catholicism and authoritarianism of the Dark Ages. He was a hedgehog.

I read the book because lately I have been encountering the distinction between the fox and the hedgehog in various places and have found it an interesting way to analyse myself and particularly my career and why it proceeded as it did. According to Berlin’s thinking, I am a fox, but one who was trained by hedgehogs (scientists). Most scientists can only do one thing, are encouraged to focus only on one thing, and generally drop everything else. I do many things very well and I cannot for the life of me see why I shouldn’t. In this view, Tiger Woods is an extreme example of a hedgehog. All he knows how to do is to hit a ball with a stick. Mozart is another. The US in particular lauds and rewards only hedgehogs. It has no place for foxes.

In the end, I thought it might have been helpful to poor Tolstoy if he had known about psychohistory as described by Isaac Asimov-another Russian-and I now wonder if Asimov had Tolstoy in mind. In Asimov, the psychohistoric equations can predict the behaviour of entire galactic populations. They subsume the binary categories of hedgehog and fox. Physicists have been struggling for years to reconcile gravitation and relativity.

Maybe the multiverse is a fox that is laughing at us as we try.

Sandya Narayanswami, 19 / 06 /22