Our Friend the Literary Hedgehog

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’

Thus spake literary critic Isaiah Berlin in a famous 1951 essay about the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who he considered a classic hedgehog: a writer with a singular vision and a focused intensity. Berlin continues:

… there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel — a single, universal, organising 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, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.

I was reminded of this classic formulation by a new article in the Jewish Daily Forward by Robert Zaretsky called Sometimes Isaiah Berlin Felt Like a Fox, Sometimes He Felt Like a Hedgehog. Just as Berlin analyzed Tolstoy’s animal spirit (and found an odd mixture of hedgehog and fox), Zaretsky attempts to analyze Isaiah Berlin himself and determines that he was too pluralistic to be a hedgehog.

That there exists a single explanation or a sole truth for why the world is the way it is, and why we do what we do, is a deeply compelling claim. Berlin nevertheless believed it to be a siren call we must resist. First, it makes for failed art. When literature trumps theory, we find ourselves in the presence of a Tolstoy; when theory trumps literature, we are left with Ayn Rand.

However, we can be foxes and hedgehogs on many levels at once, and I think Zaretsky calcifies the distinction when he suggests that a pluralist must be a fox. I think the determining factor between a hedgehog and a fox has more to do with a person’s style of thinking than with their metaphysical beliefs. The Pragmatist philosopher William James was a pluralist to the bone, of course — and yet William James pursued his pluralism like a hedgehog until his dying day. As hedgehogs always do.

In one sense, as Zaretsky emphasizes in his article, a hedgehog is a monist and a fox is a pluralist. But in another sense, a hedgehog is simply single-minded about something, anything, while a fox exists in a passive mental state, observing and reacting rather than projecting a strong vision of reality. Hedgehogs make good engineers, of course, and foxes tend to excel in sales. Since good writing can involve engineering or salesmanship, hedgehogs and foxes both have shots at making it in the literary world.

I’ve written about hedgehogs and foxes before on Litkicks, particularly with reference to two independent publishers I used to observe in New York City, one of whom was a classic hedgehog, the other a classic fox. I determined that, for better or worse (usually worse), my own style as an independent writer and self-publisher is to be a hedgehog to an extreme degree. I submit as evidence the fact that I have been running this website Literary Kicks for nearly 19 years, for a reason nobody has yet figured out, all these years barely lifting my head up to notice the world flying by me. That’s how we hedgehogs roll.

It’s interesting to note that, while foxes show up in many myths and fables and folk tales, the Isaiah Berlin essay provides one of only two well-known cultural reference points for the hedgehog (the other, of course, is a video game character). It occurred to me to do a little reading about hedgehogs, who turn out to be cute little creatures. Their typical life span is 2 to 7 years, which is pretty sad (and which is about the life span of a typical Brooklyn writing career). No idea whether these creatures like Tolstoy or not, but I imagine they do.

4 Responses

  1. I don’t want to be a fox, too
    I don’t want to be a fox, too smart. I don’t want to be a hedgehog, too cute. I don’t want to be a cat, too many lives. I don’t want to be a dog, too dumb. I’d like to be a goat, so whenever i get hungry i won’t have to be too picky.

  2. Sure, Levi, you can call me
    Sure, Levi, you can call me Wojo. I’ve been called a lot worse!

  3. It’s nice to see someone else
    It’s nice to see someone else thinking about the Fox/Hedgehog dichotomy. My wife and I have been dealing with it quite a lot on our own blog. We come back to it frequently.

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Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!