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.

Away Herrick, Shakespeare I’m Not Donne!

Sonnet 18

(To My Mistress Thirty Years On)

Your ass is a couplet

Without any rhyme.

I’d make it a sonnet

But haven’t the time.


Your tits in their realm

Are as Scylla to Charybdis:

To come in between them

Requires preparedness.


I’d sing of things other–

E.g.,  your white thighs–

If only my mother

Hadn’t said Don’t tell lies.


In short this refrain

Is all about beauty;

Your brain is a drain

And you don’t have the booty.