Monday, 13 July 2015


Everyone who’s anyone knows Isaiah Berlin’s essay, “The Fox and the Hedgehog”, written around the postulate that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” It’s a good essay, although too famous for its own good. I would not presume to dispute the divine wisdom of Archilochus. But I’ve always thought that, applied to academic philosophy, the following would be more apt: the fox knows a variety of medium-sized things, the hedgehog knows an extremely large number of small things. Generalists, specialists. And having Big Ideas is yet a third thing. Having One Big Idea isn’t like slipping through the dappled forest, lightly, alertly. But it also isn’t waddle, hunker, clench. Waddle, hunker, clench. Write a tight little article, in which you anticipate 14 objections to your point and answer them, one by one. Defending yourself by preemptively making it too much bother for a potential predator to attack you from any conceivable angle is a classic academic tactic, but not a Big Idea thing.

Nietzsche agrees with me. “To be prickly towards what is small, seemeth to me wisdom for hedgehogs.” (Zarathustra,49.2)

What we need is a theory of how, sometimes, hedgehogs, in my sense, can soar – can cover a lot of ground, despite their anatomic unsuitability for dashes through the forests of thought.

Perhaps sometimes they sprout wings! Or perhaps they stick, like burrs, to some larger, fast-moving thing. They were in the right place at the right time to get picked up and carried along.

Also, we need a better animal to stand for the One Big Idea style: fiddler crab? Bull moose?

Also, there are the angler fish: philosophers who seem to have One Big Idea, but it’s a lure, a trap, in dark waters. Nietzsche, Wittenstein. Behind the glowing ‘Idea’ is the philosopher’s personality itself. He will eat you up!

Nietzsche on foxes – well, their hunting – is also interesting. From “Schopenhauer As Educator”:

Then there is a certain drive to dialectical investigation, the huntsman’s joy in following the sly fox’s path in the realm of thought, so that it is not really truth that is sought but the seeking itself, and the main pleasure consists in the cunning tracking, encircling and correct killing. Now add to this the impulse to contradiction, the personality wanting to be aware of itself and to make itself felt in opposition to all others; the struggle becomes a pleasure and the goal is personal victory, the struggle for truth being only a pretext. Then, the man of learning is to a great extent also motivated to the discovery of certain ‘truths’, motivated that is by his subjection to certain ruling persons, castes, opinions, churches, governments: he feels it is to his advantage to bring ‘truth’ over to their side.

So you have foxiness, to catch foxes. But it is related to a kind of hedgehogish derpiness – prickly defensiveness re: one’s priors.

I’ve been here before, admittedly. I am a bit of a hedgehog, though I like to think of myself as so foxy. Who isn’t? Who doesn’t?

No comments:

Post a Comment