June 19, 2013
The hedgehog or the fox?
Choosing a philosophy of life for Argentina
Sixty years ago, the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin published an essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox. It captured the popular imagination. Berlin used a pithy parable attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus (680-645 BC, or, if you prefer, BCE) that “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” to simplify a theory.
That quotation, which Berlin used to divide the world’s great thinkers into two broad groups, took wings. The idea of the swift, wily fox and slow moving, prickly hedgehog as a metaphor for two philosophies of life is still flying into human minds.
Professor Berlin drew up two teams. He gave hedgehog jerseys to figures such as Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust. Numbered among the foxes were Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Joyce, Balzac and Anderson.
Readers will have noted that Berlin left the hedgehog team two members short of the required 11. I will even the sides by choosing Fidel Castro and Margaret Thatcher on the recommendation of Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. who notes that both “are imperious, dogmatic and impervious.” I could name a substitute for Lady Thatcher, but don’t worry, I won’t.
If you are wondering about Tolstoy, who was actually the subject of Berlin’s essay, he has to be left out because Berlin couldn’t make up his mind as to whether the author of War and Peace was a hedgehog or a fox.
The Wikipedia entry describing what Berlin thought of as an “enjoyable intellectual game” is delightful, which is not always the case with the people’s encyclopaedia. Before I wrote last week’s column I removed a paragraph from the entry for the great Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto that was not only false but included a joke in bad taste. But the Wikis who wrote up Berlin and his famous essay did him proud: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Isaiah–Berlin http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/The– Hedgehog–and–the–Fox.
I am certainly not the only one to see the world in terms of hedgehogs and foxes. The Wikipediasts report that Woody Allen’s movie Husbands and Wives tells of the predicament of a wife who could not make love with her husband (played by Liam Neeson) “because she is mentally sorting her friends into foxes and hedgehogs.”
They also found out that Wagner was both hedgehog and fox and that George Washington was “an archetypal hedgehog.”
The contrasting world views of the hedgehogs and foxes, it seems, are useful in the business world, too. One website is headed “Are you a HedgeHog (sic) or a Fox. Learn how this ancient Greek aphorism applies to your business.” Berlin’s essay is quoted: “There exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision... and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory... The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes.” That is said to be “the story behind companies like Starbucks, how they became successful and evolved into great business icons.”
The hedgehog has also appeared in a novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by professor of philosophy Muriel Barbery and in a film of the same name,
In my hunt through the Internet for hedgehogs and foxes, I also discovered that the top two of the Fab Four are also a pair, The Hedgehog is John Lennon and the Fox is Paul McCartney. See http://www.historyaccess.com/isaiahberlin’she.html for this analysis:
“Lennon is happiest, lyrically, when he is staring at his navel, focusing on himself, his mood, his angst, and/or how he is being affected by what’s happening around him: Help!, In My Life, She Said She Said, Tomorrow Never Knows, I’m So Tired, Yer Blues, The Ballad of John and Yoko (a magnificently self-absorbed travelogue), Mother, Instant Karma (in which he examines his life in the second-person narrative voice, using “you”), Jealous Guy, Starting Over.
McCartney delights in expanding his lyrics outward to depict a variety of people and things: Paperback Writer, Eleanor Rigby, She’s Leaving Home, Lady Madonna, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, Get Back, You Never Give Me Your Money, Another Day, Junk, Junior’s Farm, Girls’ School.
But now for the serious stuff: Ronald Dworkin, one of my favourite living philosophers, argues that value in all its forms is one big thing: that what truth is, life means, morality requires, and justice demands are different aspects of the same large question.
He deals with “moral scepticism, literary, artistic, and historical interpretation, free will, ancient moral theory, being good and living well, liberty, equality, and law” among many other topics.
“Scepticism in all its forms — philosophical, cynical, or post-modern — threatens that unity. The Galilean revolution once made the theological world of value safe for science. But the new republic gradually became a new empire: the modern philosophers inflated the methods of physics into a totalitarian theory of everything. They invaded and occupied all the honorifics — reality, truth, fact, ground, meaning, knowledge, and being — and dictated the terms on which other bodies of thought might aspire to them, and scepticism has been the inevitable result. We need a new revolution. We must make the world of science safe for value.”
Read more at http://ndpr.nd.edu /news/25427-justice-for-hedgehogs/
And also, including a beautiful picture of a hedgehog: http://www.justiceforhedgehogs.com/
I am sad that I have to report that there are no hedgehogs (erizos) in Argentina, unless they have been smuggled in as pets.
But we do have an animal, the porcupine (puercoespín), that while a distinct species is similar in appearance. http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Porcupine
And I am delighted to be able to report that the humble porcupine is claiming a place in journalism and literature, if not yet in philosophy.
http://www.elpuercoespin.com.ar/elpuercoespin (lower case in the style of e.e. cummings) is a website that announces that it deals with politics, journalism and zoology (not much of the latter, however). It was founded/created by Gabriel Pasquini and Graciela Mochkovsky, two journalists who abandoned the traditional media a decade ago. They who have responded to the challenge posed by the parlous state of the media in Argentina today and the retreat from words printed on paper with a varied chronicle of ideas and events. It is stunning in its eclectic range. Among its blogs, master journalist Jon Lee Anderson writes from the front on the war in Syria while Gabriel Magnesio describes how he survived in Paris “with nothing and as a nobody.”
elpuercoespin is now roughly two and a half years old. Will the porcupine prove itself to be the equal of the hedgehog in recognizing “the one big thing” in Argentina today? That “big thing” is, of course, the defence of human rights and democracy.