Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

Are you a hedgehog or a fox? “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,” wrote Archilochus. Isaiah Berlin further developed this distinction.

I’m definitely a fox. I lack the capacity of knowing one big thing like the hedgehog. My mind is too unfocused and wandering for that. Some people are clever like foxes. That doesn’t describe me. I’m a fox simply because of not being a hedgehog. If I was capable of knowing one big thing, I’d gladly have pursued such a path. But the limitations of my mind don’t allow it. I long ago gave up on trying to find one big thing.

At first, I was thinking that most people are hedgehogs. The reason is because most people have something they believe in or adhere to and they feel no inclination to think beyond what they think they know, what is considered acceptable in mainstream thought or what is deemed to be true within the group they identify with. On the other hand, most people aren’t particularly consistent in their thinking either. I doubt that the average person knows one big thing, even if they tend to follow those who claim to know one big thing.

The average person in their lifetime is likely to jump from one big thing to another, depending on what is popular at the moment or depending on what is said by those perceived as authority figures. There is no single big thing they are likely to hold onto as something they personally know and care about. What they follow is more situational and that could be considered a more fox-like trait. So, I’d say most people don’t entirely fall into either category, which is maybe to be expected. As often is the case, the average person isn’t found at either of these extremes.

Whatever you are, it is more important the kind of person you listen to. As discussed in the BBC video (linked above), foxes are more accurate in their predictions than hedgehogs. There is more to life than predictions, though. In other research, pessimists were more accurate in assessing present conditions (depressive realism), even if they weren’t so talented at predicting changing conditions. A pessimistic hedgehog could still be right about his or her one big thing, as it applies to the present situation. In terms of decision-making, it matters whether you’re looking for immediate results or long-term planning.

Based on context, either a hedgehog or a fox could lead you astray. Then again, not all things are equal. A pessimistic fox might be the best balance, at least in terms of truth-seeking, whereas an optimistic hedgehog might be the least reliable on all accounts. Still, if you want to get shit done, an optimistic hedgehog probably will be the most motivated to act (and inspiring others to follow) according to their beliefs and hence change conditions so as to manifest them. Their delusions might make them more effective under the right conditions, in order to create new realities. But effective sometimes can be dangerous when a society is under the spell of authoritarian true believers.

I’ll stick to being a fox. It’s what I’m good at. Also, it’s a more interesting way of looking at the world. To be a fox is to be curious, if nothing else. That won’t stop me from looking for some one big thing, not that I’ll likely ever find it. I’ll run from one place to another, sniffing around the hedgehogs, as they are fascinating creatures. And who knows, a few of them might be onto something.

* * *

See previous post:

Fox and Hedgehog, Apollo and Dionysus

3 thoughts on “Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

  1. Berlin was an interesting if problematic figure. I exchanged a brief correspondence with him just before he died – nothing significant but he was polite, thoughtful and he wrote in his own hand on Oxbridge stationary (can’t remember if he was at Cambridge or Oxford but I think it was Oxford).

    Anyhow: Fox and hedgehog is interesting. Nothing wrong with either per se but it depends like most things on where along the spectrum they fall.

    • This post wasn’t any particularly deep thought. I was just throwing out some observations.
      I’ve never explored Berlin’s writings. So, I don’t know anything about what makes him problematic.
      I agree with your last point. That is basically all I was saying. It depends…

      • Berlin was an old school liberal appalled by the Bolshiviks and as he was from Russia it formed a personal antagonism towards the inevitable excess of revolution and a too easy advocacy for liberal incrementalism. Still an erudite and interesting figure.

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