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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fox in a Snowstorm

The last ice in the harbor (photo on “A Shot in the Light”) was not the last snow of the season. Seasons, anyway, are designated by human beings, not respected by Nature as hard boundaries of behavior, and so we woke this morning to snow falling (blowing sideways) at a rate of one inch per minute, with all schools “for a hundred miles around,” although “around” in this context, on the side of a peninsula, must not be taken literally. It’s all right. We have all the necessities of life, and being snowed in one more time is no tragedy for a pair of foxes. Yes, I am a fox.

No, not the cute little red or grey creature, half-cat, half-dog, but a philosophical bookseller snowed in at home during a spring blizzard. A fox? In what way?

Isaiah Berlin makes the distinction in his well-known essay titled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which takes its title from a fragment of Greek poetry attributed to Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin acknowledges that scholars give different interpretations of the poet’s sentence, but he has no desire to take sides or to give a competing interpretation. His intention is to use the contrast between hedgehog and fox figuratively, in order
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, more or less 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 to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last live 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.

That was a lengthy quotation, I realize, with complicated sentences, but anyone with the patience to read it carefully sees that Berlin’s basic distinction is simple.

Hedgehog: The hedgehog is only interested in capital-T Truth, and that Truth must be unitary and all-encompassing. The hedgehog is, then, a True Believer. Everything must be made to fit into the Truth he has found, and no other perspectives are of any interest to him.

Fox: The fox’s interests are wide-ranging, his curiosity about the world limitless. What does not interest the fox is trying to force all experiences and ideas and bits of knowledge into one over-arching Truth or theory.

Berlin gives some examples of philosophers and writers (any field will yield some of each), and as it should be he tells us that Plato was a hedgehog, Aristotle a fox. Yes! Who on earth could ever love Plato and Aristotle equally? One must choose between them, which is to choose between idol worship and independent curiosity. The focus of the essay, however, is Tolstoy—specifically, Tolstoy as historian, and Berlin’s thesis is that “Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog....” In other words, Tolstoy’s nature (or, we might say, his personality) was in conflict with his beliefs.

Haven’t you known people whose stated beliefs clashed with their nature? Long ago, I had a professor of religion who was the diametrical opposite of Tolstoy, in that he was by nature a hedgehog but believed in being a fox. He avowed very Western European democratic ideals. According to his beliefs, he had us move our desks into a circle at the beginning of each class period. More democratic. According to his beliefs, he assigned each of us a segment of the course material to prepare and present to the rest. His hedgehog nature, however, got the better of him session after session. A student would be only one or two sentences into a presentation—this is not an exaggeration; I kept close track—when the professor would interrupt, take over and deliver a lecture, from his place in the circle, for the rest of the class. It was not that the student had made an error or had not done a good job of preparation, because the professor never waited long enough to find out. He just could not restrain his own nature, and time after time it collided with his beliefs. I watched the dynamic repeatedly, and when my turn came to present material I stood up from my desk and went to the blackboard. My presentation did not require terminology and diagrams on the blackboard, but having a chance to deliver my presentation required that I take a position of authority. Naturally, the professor interrupted me, too. Did you think he wouldn’t? But I interrupted back and continued and managed to present the material more or less as I had planned.

Teachers have several classes a semester of students, so it’s far easier for the students to remember a professor’s name than vice versa. I must admit, though, that meeting the professor on campus that very same semester and speaking to him, after my presentation, I was chagrined that he had no memory of me at all, with or without a name.

That’s one of the problems with hedgehogs, you see. Even when you think you’re having a conversation with one, you are more or less invisible and inaudible. Your presence as another sentient warm body might be noted, and perhaps the hedgehog would observe later that you were, in some vague, general way, either bright or dull, attractive or repulsive, attentive or pig-headed. But your ideas will not be heard as your ideas, if indeed they are heard at all. You will be given no credit for any contributions or insights. The hedgehog has it all figured out, you see. Why should he care what you say or think?

I used to feel sorry for hedgehogs but have learned a few things from encounters with them. They don’t feel sorry for themselves (how could they, when they possess Truth?), so I can save my pity. Also, there is a definite limit to any personal, conversational, philosophical or any other kind of rewards I might hope for when engaging with a hedgehog. Initially, there is a chance to hear someone else’s Truth--always interesting--and many examples or references will probably be given. But then? Since the hedgehog’s Truth is unchanging, there will be nothing more, nothing new. Impasse. Dead end.

The animal hedgehog is adorable, sweet and unaggressive and droll. The human hedgehog is an armed fortress, closed except to other True Believers of the same Truth. Thank you, I would rather run with my fellow foxes, exploring woods, fields and shore, books, blogs, bookstores, libraries, coffee shops, small towns, big cities, the open road--the list is endless. The world is so rich and multifacted, so full of mysteries and delights! Sarah, I’m happy to say, is on my side when it comes to the outdoor adventures, and David is on board for the rest, so I can go solo or in company, the way foxes do.


Jerry Dennis said...

P.J. -- Brilliant! I hope you'll develop this into an essay for publication. Your interrupting professor reminds me of Tertullian, the 2nd-century Christian hedgehog, who dismissed Aristotle's scientific thinking with the words: “For us, curiosity is no longer necessary.”

-- A Fellow Fox

Gerry said...

I half suspect myself of being a hedgehog in fox clothing, but I'm not sure about it one way or the other.

P. J. Grath said...

First, thank you for leaving comments, Jerry and Gerry. Philosophy can sometimes clear a room faster than an unannounced mime act, so I’m grateful to you both for hanging around. Jerry, your encouragement does not fall on deaf ears. Gerry, we all yearn for truth, but you are too wise to stretch theory past its tearing point.

Anonymous said...

I believe I would have to identify with Berlin's characterization of Tolstoy, for, while he was a fox undoubtedly, he respected (and also tried to be) a hedgehog. I certainly have spent good portions of my life trying to be a hedgehog and yet, every time I do, I find myself back where I started and usually in a comical amount of time.

If I have any sort of internal cohesion it is certainly in some loose sense which meets the minimum qualifications for it to be defined as such. I really prefer to have chaos I don't need answers because I simply don't think they are necessary. An answer, is an "answer for something". It has use value, is practical, helps me navigate the world, etc. I think Heidegger argued along these lines in BEING AND TIME (which I need to finish reading) when he argued that when a new scientific theory comes along and explains a given phenomena better than a previous theory that doesn't make the previous theory wrong. It was in the loose sense
"true" in that it contained use-value for us while we used that theory but simply because a new theory is more accurate doesn't make it more True, it just makes it more accurate.

People that want to extend truth further than that scare me, because I frankly find it hard to believe that they could, in their heart of hearts, really believe in absolutes. The evidence is overwhelmingly against them, yet they believe it anyway. They've got it all figured out, and you don't. Aren't you jealous?

Getting back to myself, my forays into hedgehog thinking serve to remind of why I am a fox. And while I, like Tolstoy, can respect and in my weaker moments seek to emulate a hedgehog I will never be one and I will never understand them no matter how hard I try.

P. J. Grath said...

Matthew, it sounds as if you are happy (for the most part) as a fox. Berlin thinks, as do I, that Tolstoy was not. My feeling from a recent reading of ANNA KARENINA was that the author was very disappointed in life and in human beings, including himself. Berlin puts it much more strongly. Here is the last paragraph of his essay: “Tolstoy’s sense of reality was too devastating to be compatible with any moral idea which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world [!], and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilized world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.”

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'll read ANNA KARENINA next. I'm about halfway done with 3 books here and I don't know if they're going to finished at this point.

I don't know that I am happy being a fox, I mean I accept it of course, but the idols in my life, most of them were hedgehogs, or at least tried to appear as such. Of course there are important exceptions and it is important to remember those exceptions so we don't go the way of Tolstoy.

Also, now that you have read ANNA KARENINA, do you regard it as the greatest novel ever written, or at least one of the greats as many do?

P. J. Grath said...

AK is definitely a great novel. As for THE GREATEST, I resist naming one, though I have no argument with the committee that named ULYSSES #1 of the 20th century. There are many great books, each great in its own unique way.

Kathy said...

You should be publishing things like this in literary magazines, Pamela. I am still taken by the image of a fox in a snowstorm. For some reason, it's evocative today.

P. J. Grath said...

Kathy, I have a friend (named Kathie) who takes fabulous photographs of wildlife from inside her house. Her latest masterpiece features a bobcat and, watching the bobcat without being seen, a chipmunk. Brilliant! I should have asked her if she had a fox in her archives that I could use. I'm sure some people were drawn to this post by the title and then disappointed to find no images whatsoever.