According to philosopher Isaiah Berlin (in an idea modified from the Greek poet Archilocus), people fall into two categories: the fox, who knows many things, and the hedgehog, who knows one big thing. When I first learned about this intellectual ‘game’ in college, my friends and I used to try to sort ourselves and each other. It was clear to us, with our post-modern filters, that we thought it was superior to be a fox because the world is complex and varied and evolving and subjective. I tried to be a fox. But in the end, I feared and now know that I am more of a hedgehog.
But I have also learned that foxes and hedgehogs can and must co-exist. In fact, they need each other. Without foxes, hedgehogs can become ideologues, lacking the data and complexity that disciplines their commitments. Without hedgehogs, foxes can become nihilists, lacking guiding principles they can adhere to.
And we live today in a world where ideologues are too often celebrated as hedgehogs and foxes are too often vilified as nihilists.
I don’t claim to have all the answers to the myriad and complex challenges that we face today. But as an “accidental” hedgehog, I do have ONE answer. At heart, most of us (not all) do share some core human values (things like respect, compassion, fairness), and it is at least as important to us (and possibly more so) that we are seen by our fellows (those we decide to affiliate with) to be true to those values. This tension can lead us into all sorts of problematic behaviors where we feel we must condemn those whom we define as outside that group of fellows; where we believe stories that objectively we would recognize as false, merely because they support that affiliation; and where we find ways to craft a contorted story that aligns our behaviors with those shared core values mentioned above. This set of intellectual contortions, for most of us, is NOT intended as a rejection of those core values; it is the pitfall of the hedgehog who does not know and respect foxes.
Today, hedgehogs exist on all sides of critical issues — COVID-19, climate change, the rule of law, racial justice, responsible policing, etc. Sadly, they often do not know how to talk to each other and importantly, learn from and influence each other to move beyond ideology to “informed” shared values.
I am a Democrat who has voted Republican when the Republican candidate shared the core human values to a greater degree than the Democrat. I am pro-choice but respect a commitment to life; I just think that there are more nuanced and consistent ways to achieve that shared objective that do not violate women’s rights and health than simply banning abortion. I acknowledge the terrible reality of climate change but also believe that we can find ways to maintain employment and economic prosperity while we make the changes necessary to slow and reverse its inexorable march.
But as a hedgehog, I know that it is actually the foxes (often scientists and historians and sociologists) who will lead us to the solutions I seek. As someone who strives for and values clarity and simplicity, I know that a respect for complexity is the only way to find that simplicity — that “higher innocence,” as the poet William Blake would term it, or the peace on the other side of understanding.
In the upcoming November election and especially in its aftermath regardless of who prevails, I ask all the hedgehogs out there to try to truly hear the foxes, and to understand that it is often the messy and challenging and “foxy” insights that will serve our single-pointed hedgehog commitments. Divided as we may feel, most of us can indeed commit to the same core human values.