Monday, August 10, 2009

The Fox and the Hedgehog

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Archilochus (7th century BC)

According to the Greek poet, humans are categorized as either foxes or hedgehogs. This comparison is found in European and Asian fables, and basically states that the life of a hedgehog is the embodiment of a single, central vision of reality, while foxes pursue many divergent ends. Foxes know life is too complex to be squeezed into any unitary scheme; their sense of reality prevents them from formulating a definite grand system of everything.

Princeton professor Marvin Bressler says, "You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They're hedgehogs." Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor—they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it. "Those who leave the biggest footprints," said Bressler, "have thousands calling after them, 'Good idea, but you went too far!' "

Isaiah Berlin, in his 1993 book, Studies in Ideas and their Histories, writes that "Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance—and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory....Their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes..."

Personally, I believe all of us harbor a little of both. We can be fixated or scattered, obsessed or dispersed. We all suffer a bit of Attention Deficit Disorder, but can lapse into delusional fixations if the issue at hand is important enough. In other words, our pastimes and avocations are fox-like, while our passions are hedgehogical (my new word.)

This, of course, merges nicely with my belief that, to a greater or lesser extent, all of us suffer from forms of multiple personality disorders. If the disorder is too intense, Jekyll to Hide or vice-versa transformations, we may want to refer to the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) and get help. But if our MPD is not extreme, a passing thing that does not harm, then it might be called a mood change. We may be sad without being really depressed, take care of details without having an obsessive/compulsive disorder, have concerns for the future without being paranoid.

Personally, I like the idea of being a fox, though I've had a real weakness for hedgehogs ever since I found one in a friend's backyard in France. It was, without a doubt, the cutest thing I have ever seen. And we are in a hedgehogical age. The specialists reign supreme while the foxes--Renaissance animals almost by definition--have been shunted aside. When everyone has a small area of expertise, there's little room for a generalist.

Maybe one day this will change, but I doubt it. More and more, whether in education or daily employ, we find large areas of knowledge being split into increasingly smaller ones. There are no astronomers, physicians or chemists anymore. There are astrophysicists, gastrointestinologists and biocellular engineers.

And yet there is a need for foxes. Someone has to be able to link the knowledges of the world; we need people who know a little bit about a lot of things or we'll simply end up having an awful lot of folks knowing nothing about anything.

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