The Hedgehog and the Fox

In this essay on Tolstoy, philosopher Isaiah Berlin argues that there is a fundamental distinction between those who are fascinated by the infinitive variety of things (foxes) and those who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system. The distinction comes from a saying of the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The little book (90 pages) is dense with information, literary and philosophical, and at times very conceptual.

Of course, the distinction between foxes and hedgehogs is a simplification, but at the same time irresistible. One can easily draw from daily life to find examples. Most experts, talking heads and the vast majority of politicians and artists are hedgehogs, whereas foxes are in most cases the more intellectual leaders like Obama and Merkel. Berlin, being a philosopher, sees Shakespeare and Erasmus as good examples of the latter.
This basic notion has resonated with many people ever since; also with psychologist Philip Tetlock. As described in his latest book, he found that ‘foxy’ experts are more accurate in predictions than expert with one big hedgehog idea.

The Hedgehog and the Fox – Isaiah Berlin (1953)

 

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