The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953): A Prelude to The Humanist Forum

The Humanist Forum is a new initiative devoted to the belief that humanism in the twentieth century has suffered insult and injury from simplification, special pleading, and Philistinism.

Ripped from the pages of classical letters and philosophy as though its origin and development were merely incidental,   humanism became variously and fashionably associated with naturalism, secularism, and more recently new atheism as a “reputable” synonym for ideas the humanists of history could not have imagined and almost certainly would have found repugnant.

This evolution has something to do with what I have called “movement humanism”–the agendas of organizations that grew up in the shadowy antithesis of democratic socialism and fascism and their aftermath between 1932 and 1950.  In the main, these organizations have failed, both politically and culturally, and today they attract an increasingly strident cadre of religion-haters with little sense of “real” history and even less understanding of the important role humanism must play as a critic not only of religious fundamentalism–the fascism of the spirit– but scientific reductivism–the fascism of the mind.

Humanism is not a quantifiable essence, a political position, a lifestance, or a “rejection” of supernaturalism.  It is an affirmation of the human in its towering and bewildering complexity.  It embraces the desirability of knowledge in the concrete sense: that we are knowing animals whose salvation seems to consist in knowing more about the world and shaping the world to our own  ends. But it does not conclude that science and reason are the sufficient ends and definition of humanity. Rather, they are tools and ciphers that help us to describe the world and provide context for our existence.   For that reason, humanism eschews scientific hegemony over the human spirit when it disallows questions about the meaning and end of life, the question of being and becoming, and the role of art and religion as expressions of the human quest.  Bluntly put, science has no capacity to decide the question of God, while humanism may reasonably assert that the question has no bearing on how life is lived or what existence “means.”  Humanism can assert on its own terms, and as a part of its own distinctive history, what science has no special competence to assert..

In 1953, Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), penned an essay entitled the Hedgehog and the Fox.  It is the clearest statement of Berlin’s belief that the “human sciences” (including philosophy) study the world that human beings create for themselves and inhabit, while the natural sciences study the physical world of nature. Why should this make a difference to the way they are studied? One answer is that the two worlds are fundamentally different in themselves. But this seems under-theorized. Berlin preferred the argument that the human and natural worlds must be studied differently because of the relationship between the observer or thinker and the object of study. We study nature from without, culture from within.

His essay is offered here to provoke discussion, but also as a starting point for an important initiative to return humanism to its rightful place as an entrepot between science and the humanities, which recognizes not only their role as separate expressions of the human imagination, but their commitment to self-understanding and self-criticism.

The Hedgehog and the Fox (excerpt) Sir Isaiah Berlin Simon & Schuster, New York, 1953.

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’. Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defense. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For 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, organizing 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; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.

Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic, and ultimately absurd. But if it is not an aid to serious criticism, neither should it be rejected as being merely superficial or frivolous; like all distinctions which embody any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting-point for genuine investigation. Thus we have no doubt about the violence of the contrast between Pushkin and Dostoevsky; and Dostoevsky’s celebrated speech about Pushkin has, for all its eloquence and depth of feeling, seldom been considered by any perceptive reader to cast light on the genius of Pushkin, but rather on that of Dostoevsky himself, precisely because it perversely represents Pushkin-an arch-fox, the greatest in the nineteenth century-as a being similar to Dostoevsky who is nothing if not a hedgehog; and thereby transforms, indeed distorts, Pushkin into a dedicated prophet, a bearer of a single, universal message which was indeed the centre of Dostoevsky’s own universe, but exceedingly remote from the many varied provinces of Pushkin’s protean genius. Indeed, it would not be absurd to say that Russian literature is spanned by these gigantic figures-at one pole Pushkin, at the other Dostoevsky; and that the characteristics of the other Russian writers can, by those who find it useful or enjoyable to ask that kind of question, to some degree be determined in relation to these great opposites. To ask of Gogol’, Turgenev, Chekhov, Blok how they stand in relation to Pushkin and to Dostoevsky leads-or, at any rate, has lead-to fruitful and illuminating criticism. But when we come to Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy, and ask this of him – ask whether he belongs to the first category or the second, whether he is a monist or a pluralist, whether his vision is of one or of many, whether he is of a single substance or compounded of heterogeneous elements, there is no clear or immediate answer. Does he resemble Shakespeare or Pushkin more than Dante or Dostoevsky? Or is he wholly unlike either, and is the question therefore unanswerable because it is absurd? What is the mysterious obstacle with which our inquiry seems faced?

The question does not, somehow, seem wholly appropriate; it seems to breed more darkness than it dispels. Yet it is not lack of information that makes us pause: Tolstoy has told us more about himself and his views and attitudes than any other Russian, more, almost than any other European writer; nor can his art be called obscure in any normal sense; his universe has no dark corners, his stories are luminous with the light of day; he has explained them and himself, and argued about them and the methods by which they are constructed, more articulately and with greater force and sanity and articulately and with greater force and sanity and lucidity than any other writer. Is he a fox or a hedgehog? What are we to say? Why is the answer so curiously difficult to find? Does he resemble Shakespeare or Pushkin more than Dante or Dostoevsky? Or is he wholly unlike either, and is the question therefore unanswerable because it is absurd? What is the mysterious obstacle with which our inquiry seems faced?

I do not propose in this essay to formulate a reply to this question, since this would involve nothing less than a critical examination of the art and thought of Tolstoy as a whole. I shall confine myself to suggesting that the difficulty may be, at least in part, due to the fact that Tolstoy was himself not unaware of the problem, and did his best to falsify the answer. The hypothesis I wish to offer is that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog; that his gifts and achievement are one thing, and his beliefs, and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another; and that consequently his ideals have led him, and those whom his genius for persuasion has taken in, into a systematic misinterpretation of what he and others were doing or should be doing.

No one can complain that he has left his readers in any doubt as to what he thought about this topic: his views on this subject permeate all this topic: his views on this subject permeate all his discursive writings-diaries, recorded obiter dicta, autobiographical essays and stories, social and religious tracts, literary criticism, letters to private and public correspondents. But this conflict between what he was and what he believed emerges nowhere so clearly as in his view of history to which some of his most brilliant and most paradoxical pages are devoted. This essay is an attempt to deal with his historical doctrines, and to consider both his motives for holding the views he holds and some of their probable sources. In short, it is an attempt to take Tolstoy’s attitude to history as seriously as he himself meant his readers to take it, although for a somewhat different reason-for the light it casts on a single man of genius rather than on the fate of all mankind.

13 thoughts on “The Hedgehog and the Fox (1953): A Prelude to The Humanist Forum

  1. Thank you for, as ever, well reasoned and insightful commentary. I, too, bemoan the bludgeon simple mindedness of New Atheism, but most people, for most of their lives, live them unexamined. An unexamined embrace of New Atheism may simply substitute, for many, as a belief system (an accusation from many a religionist who mistakenly think the truth of such an allegation strengthens his or her claim to Truth).

    Academics, “thought leaders,” and the simply inquisitive (that’d include yours truly) should know the truth and complexities of arguments for and against their positions. Unfortunately many “atheists” I know understand their “belief outlook” little more than the “Christians” who simply herd themselves to socially compulsory (hereabouts) weekly services.

    I best like well informed, thoughtful compatriots who appreciate the social and historical tapestry of our religions, realizing that when all the layers are peeled away, religion was only layers anyway (no delicious divine core of Truth – sorry).

    In the real world i live in, I’ll prefer mindless atheism over mindless (fill in locally dominant religion) any time. New Atheists are smug (occasionally insufferable), but the don’t commit the atrocities we see too often from the mindless faithful.

    • Atheism, in my opinion, isn’t, or isn’t very often anything like mindless, or indeed clinical and unfeeling, though it is often caricatured as such by those who don’t like straight, brave thinking.🙂

      Of course, an atheist can be a mindless person, but I think the percentage in this pigeon hole is a bit lower than for religion, which seems to me, no offense to any of the faithful reading, to involve the very essence of convenient thinking.

      As for Humanists, or even humanists, they’re a nice bunch, though some seem a tad too keen for my liking to retain some of the trappings of religion.

  2. Does Berlin’s distinction between hedgehog and fox add anything to the already well-known distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian? And how exactly does Berlin’s essay launch this Humanist Forum, besides exhibiting, in a decidedly non-New-Atheistic way, a great interest in and respect for the thinking of Tolstoy even though he happened at a rather late date not to have been an atheist?

    • Plato located universals in a realm that was separate from the world; Aristotle located them in the world itself. Archilochus the Greek poet used an analogy of a fox and a hedgehog to draw a dichotomy between those who know one big thing and those who know many things. Erasmus records it, but with a cat. Berlin takes it further. He has adapted the visual analysis and applied a possible dichotomy between the human sciences and the natural sciences, and then locates our greatest human writers and thinkers within one or another, and these thinkers are interesting for own discussions. Berlin’s acutely incisive Tolstoy analysis demonstrates a possible flaw in the simplicity of the analogy in its application and compacity cope with the complexities of human thinking. It is an example I think, of conflicts of Tolstoy’s own critical spirit as well as its brilliance and demonstrates the complexity of human ideas, clashing and blending with emotion and even the impact of the process of evolution of the emerging sciences on his struggle. Perhaps.

      Joseph Hoffmann has introduced the idea as an analogy to demonstrate the difference between historical humanism versus it’s modern hijackers and explained: Humanism is not simply the reduction of things to their natural explanation, it is also the acknowledgement that what we accept as natural always exceeds the human. Berlin’s essay is his clearest statement of Berlin’s essay belief that the “human sciences” (including philosophy) study the world that human beings create for themselves and inhabit, while the natural sciences study the physical world of nature. Why should this make a difference to the way they are studied? One answer is that the two worlds are fundamentally different in themselves. But this seems under-theorized. Berlin preferred the argument that the human and natural worlds must be studied differently because of the relationship between the observer or thinker and the object of study. We study nature from without, culture from within.

      Berlin’s essay, the inspiration, is offered here to provoke discussion, but also as a starting point for an important initiative to reclaim humanism for what it is: an entrepot between science and the humanities, which recognizes not only their role as separate expressions of the human imagination, but their commitment to self-understanding and self-criticism. Berlin himself declared he wrote the Fox and the Hedgehog he never meant it to be taken seriously – he wrote it as a kind of intellectual game. I think it was inevitable would become so popular given the fact that his idea is expressed with such clarity, and has been of benefit to and influenced further thinking.

  3. I’m not sure if it’s the right place or right post to ask this question, but can anyone tell me the difference between freethinking and secular humanism?

    • Freethought humanism is secular humanism. “Movement humanism” is a term identifying modern organised groups and associations described as rationalist, irreligious, atheistic, “bright”, secular, and freethinking. They are committed to a view that human morality and ethics are based on an atheistic or naturalistic world view. I don’t think these groups and associations bear much resemblance to the atheism and freethought societies of the nineteenth century.

  4. I take Berlin’s essay, its heuristic theme, to be a parable (indirect language, meaning by implication) to set forth Tolstoy as the archetype standard of the human condition – the standard for making judgments about the human condition. Thus, Tolstoy’s interpretation of the idiom the Hedgehog and the Fox must be taken as the standard, as well as his attitude to history. I.e. “it is man’s sole duty to fulfill these commands derived primarily from the Sermon on the Mount, that in this lies the only reasonable meaning of life.”
    By way of clarity another excerpt from Berlin’s essay: “Tolstoy (in his Fox period) perceived reality in its multiplicity, as a collection of separate entities round (all to one end, shaping his world to his ends), and into which he saw with a clarity and penetration scarcely ever equaled.” But in his philosophy and theology (of his Hedgehog period), “he believed only one vast, unitary whole,” which he finally formulated as “a simple Christian ethic (derived above all from the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount) divorced from any complex theology or metaphysic …., the necessity of expelling everything that does not submit to some very general, the very simple standard: say, what peasants (the oppressed) like or dislike, or what the gospels (above all the Sermon on the Mount) declare to be good,” two standards that were often the same for Tolstoy.”
    By Tolstoy’s definition, Humanism can only be the Fox, however sympathetic to the “religion”, which suggests a Tolstoy paraphrase of the 4th paragraph of the essay: (The Hedgehog) “is an affirmation of (the divinity in) the human in its towering and bewildering complexity (obscurity from recognition). It embraces the (ultimate necessity) of knowledge in the (extrasensory) sense that we are knowing animals whose salvation – – consist (not simply) in knowing more about the world and shaping it to our own ends. But it does not conclude that science and reason are the sufficient ends and definition of humanity. Rather, they are tools and ciphers that help us describe the world and provide context for our (understanding of) existence. For that reason, (the Hedgehog) eschews scientific hegemony over the human spirit when it disallows questions about the meaning and end of life, the question of being and becoming, and the role of art and religion as expressions of the human quest. Bluntly put, science has no capacity to decide the question of God, while (the Hedgehog is compelled to) assert that the question has (absolute) bearing on how life is lived and what existence means. (The Hedgehog) can assert on its own terms, and as part of its own distinctive history, what science has no special competence to assert.” I find it to be of tantalizingly interest that almost the entire paragraph can be quoted with so little insertion.

    • For the record I repost the above comment revised.

      I take Berlin’s essay, its heuristic theme to be a parable, setting forth Tolstoy as the archetype standard of the human condition – the standard for making judgments about human existence. Thus, Tolstoy can be taken as the standard interpretation of the idiom the Hedgehog and the Fox with his attitude to history: “it is man’s sole duty to fulfill these commands derived primarily from the Sermon on the Mount, that in this lies the only reasonable meaning of life.”
      By way of clarity another excerpt from Berlin’s essay: “Tolstoy (in his Fox period) perceived reality in its multiplicity, as a collection of separate entities round (all to the purpose of shaping his world to his ends), and into which he saw with a clarity and penetration scarcely ever equaled.” But in his philosophy and theology (of hiis Hedgehog period), “he believed only one vast, unitary whole,” which he finally formulated as “a simple Christian ethic (derived above all from the commandments of the Sermon on the Mount) divorced from any complex theology or metaphysic …., the necessity of expelling everything that does not submit to some very general, the very simple standard: say, what peasants (the dispossed) like or dislike, or what the gospels (above all the Sermon on the Mount) declare to be good,” two standards that were often the same for Tolstoy.”
      By Tolstoy’s definition, Humanism can only be the Fox, it can identify no one vast unitary whole in which one could believe. Which suggests a Tolstoy paraphrase of the 4th paragraph of the post: (The Hedgehog) “is an affirmation of (the divinity in) the human in its towering and bewildering complexity (yet its obscurity from recognition). It embraces the necessity of (extrasensory Ultimate) knowledge in the sense that we are knowing animals whose salvation – – consist (not simply) in knowing more about the world and shaping it to our own ends. But it does not conclude that science and reason are the sufficient ends and definition of humanity. Rather, they are tools and ciphers that help us describe the world and provide context for our (understanding of) existence. For that reason, (the Hedgehog) eschews scientific hegemony over the human spirit when it disallows questions about the meaning and end of life, the question of being and becoming, and the role of art and religion as expressions of the human quest. Bluntly put, science has no capacity to decide the question of God, while (the Hedgehog is compelled to) assert that the question has (absolute) bearing on how life is lived and what existence means. (The Hedgehog) can assert on its own terms, and as part of its own distinctive history, what science has no special competence to assert.” I find it to be of tantalizing interest that the paragraph can be quoted with so little insertion.

  5. The last statement of the essay: “In short, it is an attempt to take Tolstoy’s attitude to history as seriously as he himself meant his readers to take it, although for a somewhat different reason – for the light it shines on a single man of genius rather than on the fate of all mankind.” To the contary Berlin’s parable, picturing Tolstoy as the arch-type for understanding the human condition, necessarily implies that Tolstoy’s attitude to history is the standard, the fate of all mankind, universal: “it is man’s sole duty to fulfill these commandments derived primarily from the Sermon on the Mount, that in this lies the only reasonable meaning of life;” over against the attitude to history which “consist in knowing more about the world and shaping it to our ends”.
    It is in a totally literal sense that Tolstoy’s perception of the human condition informs Berlin’s interpretation of the Hedgehog and the Fox: “But taken figuratively the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark the deepest difference which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For their 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, organizing principal in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principal; these last lead lives, preform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.”

  6. Comment continued.
    “The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality – – “, but just here a huge ambiguity creeps in, one which Berlin seems to recognize: “Of course like all simple classifications of this type. the dichotony becomes, if not pressed, scholast, and ultimately absurd.” Indeed Tolstoy does make “a classification of this type” absurd. Again with his “sanity and penetration scarcely ever equaled” he goes to great length to avoid this aparent ambguity. Tolstoy tells us in his unmistakable detail that he was for the greater part of his life a personified Fox, which reflects his “natural” personality. It was only at the point of a distinct revelation, when he came to the conviction that the teachings of Jesus as contained in the Sermon on the Mount were intended to be taken literally, that he became a Hedgehog: “It is man’s sole duty to fulfill these commandments, that in this lies the only reasonable meaning of life”. From this point on Tolstoy was the personified Hedgehog. The point here is the fact that all humans begin their lives as the Fox. Only and if, one comes to a life changing experience of some form of Ultimate Reality, can one unambiguously be designated a Hedgehog. The light which Tolstoy casts on the topic, in any sense as “on a single man of genius”, is the utterly unique fact that he stands as perhaps the single man, of any intelectual level, to personify the fullest extension in every aspect of the meaning of the human condition. Thus the light that Tolstoy casts on the topic is unmistakably “the fate of all mankind”.

    • Further comments by way of adding some clarity to my particular take on Berlin’s essay.
      Berlin’s treatment of Tolstoy in terms of the Hedgehog or the Fox was based on Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869), written during his period as the Fox, in which he only expressed only disillusions over his period as the Fox. Before his dramatic conversion to his period as the Hedgehog, which began with his spiritual crisis at the end of the 1870’s. “The message of Tolstoy’s Resurrection (1899) was that the teaching of Jesus was to be taken literally. The final chapter of the novel was a commentary on the Sermon on the Mount in which the protagonist pictured to himself ‘what this world might be like if people were taught to obey those commandments’. In that realization, the excitement and the ecstasy that came over him convinced him that ‘it is man’s sole duty to fulfill these commandments, that in this lies the sole meaning of life.’ In that realization, it was as though, after long pining and suffering, he had suddenly found peace and liberation.” (Jaroslav Pelikan)

  7. In his letter to Mohandas Gandhi: “The whole of Christianity, so brilliant on the surface, grew up on an obvious, strange, sometimes conscious but for the most part unconscious misunderstanding and contradiction (of the authentic teachings of Jesus). For 19 centuries Christian mankind has lived this way . . . There is such an obvious contradiction that sooner or later, probably very soon, it will be exposed and will put an end either to the acceptance of the Christian religoion which is necessary to maintain power, or to the existence of an army and any violence supported by it, which is no less necessary to maintain power.”
    Only since the 80’s have our top NT scholars under the force of present historical methods and knowledge come to a clear conviction stated in the words of Schubert Ogden; “We now know that none of the writings of the NT is apostolic witness to Jesus”. Thus not sources for knowledge of Jesus. This is a historical judgment from within the Guild of NT Studies.
    Then we have Eric Zuesse’s probe: “The religion of the New Testament actually has nothing to do with the person of the historical Jesus.” This is a scientific judgment from outside.
    Signnificiently, no evidence was raised to question the Guild’s conviction that we have a NT source which contains the original and originating witness to Jesus, namely the Sermon on the Mount.
    All to say Tolstoy stands as the unique standard for all judgments related to human existence.

  8. I seem to have ended what was to have been an extended discussion.
    Tolstoy does so absolutly set the one identity over against the other beyond discussion. Like Athiest v/s Thiest.

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