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Are You A Fox or A Hedgehog?

by David Edmonds

Follow David on twitter @DavidEdmonds100

Are you a Fox or a Hedgehog?  In practical ethics, far better to be a hedgehog.

Isaiah Berlin drew a famous distinction when discussing great writers and thinkers of the past.  The hedgehog knew one big thing.  The fox knew many things. 

It’s a brilliantly useful division, though naturally not everyone falls neatly into one category or the other.  But Marx, for example, was a hedgehog.  He knew that capitalism and class tensions would inevitably play out to produce the revolution. (Aristotle and Shakespeare were foxes, according to Berlin).

It’s a fun parlour game to classify contemporary thinkers.  Take the focus of our practical ethics blog, moral philosophy.  Peter Singer?  Definitely a hedgehog.  He has a fully worked out utilitarian theory that he can apply with ruthless logic to a broad range of issues – abortion, embryo research, capital punishment, charity, the environment, animal rights.  The recently deceased Bernard Williams?  Definitely a fox.  If he knew one thing, it’s that there was not one thing to know.

Ethicists who have influence beyond the seminar room have some of a basket of qualities – compelling intellectual arguments, powers of persuasion and rhetoric, the will to engage in public debate.  But, as in the worlds of marketing and advertising, a message which is too nuanced or cluttered, will be lost.

Almost everyone who met Williams was struck by his luminous genius.  And he did engage in public debate.  He chaired an important committee on pornography and indecency, for example.  But Singer has had much more influence – he’s the father of the modern animal rights movement, for starters.  And the difference in their impact has something, I believe, to do with foxes and hedgehogs.

My problem?  I think I’m a fox.

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12 Comment on this post

  1. Philip Tetlock looked at how well predictions about policy turned out, and found that foxes outperformed hedgehogs – you can predict things well if you have the right theory, but most of us (even experts) have the wrong theory. So the foxes were on average more right. But people remember bold hedgehog predictions.

  2. Matheus De Pietro

    Well, this is very relative and I fear it is related to one’s culture and society. It should be interesting to consider how these categories would work in different cultures, for instance, regarding Singer’s reception in Germany or the long-term success of foxes in China or Brazil. I suppose (no data for it, sorry) foxes, such as those educated by American liberal arts colleges, seem to fare better in the market or in market-oriented academic environments, while hedgehogs would tend to be preferred by the academy or research institutes.

    It would also be worth thinking about the hiring policies of said research centers: wouldn’t hiring both foxes and hedgehogs in a certain proportion be beneficial for everyone?

    By the way, while reading this I couldn’t help but think of Simon’s article: “a-leader-without-a-doubt” (from 04.2013).

  3. Why is being a fox a problem? Is being prolific and ‘influential’ more important than being sensible? Don’t you think academia has two many hedgehogs armed with wrong theories? Why should you, or anyone, want to join them?

      1. Why indeed? In his ‘Isaiah Berlin: A life’ Michael Ignatieff suggests that Berlin was “a fox who longed to be a hedgehog”. I do not agree with him, but there does appear to be a default position in some circles, especial in practical ethics, that the repeated application of a theory to various issues is doing philosophy. I am not at all sure the David’s comparison between Singer and Williams works. Singer’s strident repeated application makes him first and fore mostly a moral reformer not a philosopher. Williams was a philosopher all the way down, so he was never going to be so influential because very few people have any interest in philosophy.

          1. I do not have a ‘definition’ of philosophy. As Nietzsche said “The only things that are definable are those that have no history”. It is not, as I say, the repeated application of a theory to various issues. It should interpret the world and not seek to directly change it (obviously the top hedgehog Marx would not agree). But in the end the only way to get near a definition is to ‘do philosophy’ and compare it with that which is sometimes passed off as philosophy.

            There is certainly a role for moral reformers, but they can’t be compared with philosophers such as Williams. He was at home in many areas of philosophy (not just ethics), he brought scholarship to his work, he did not bolster his work with pseudo-science, he explored thinking and, as with Berlin, he could mess about with your mind.

      2. I didn’t mention being prolific. And it goes without saying that we don’t want wrong theories to have influence, except in unusual cases. But presumably part of the point of doing practical ethics is to have influence?

        1. I agree with you, David. One of the least discussed issues in practical ethics might be ‘what kind of influence should ethicists seek?’ I wonder if professional ethicists are worse than political philosophers when it comes to the seduction of power, the ‘lure of Syracuse’.

  4. Couldn’t it be that foxes and hedgehogs both have influence, but in different ways? The influence of someone like Singer (or John Rawls) is direct and fairly transparent: you can see from the content, and to some extent the style, that authors in many disciplines and in public policy are engaging with his particular focus. I agree that you can’t see the influence of someone like Williams in such a clear way. But it might very well be there, in that his writings had great impact on an entire generation of moral theorists, who have gone on to have influence of their own. I think it would be possible – though not transparent – to show that Williams’ ideas are alive in many branches of contemporary moral theory, including those that interact directly with the world outside academe.

    Maybe the hedgehog’s advantage is not in doing practical ethics, but rather in doing so in a way that gets noticed.

  5. You are probably right, Gina. But doesn’t that mean contemporary ethicists are incentivised to be a hedgehog because we’re under pressure to show – in a clear and direct way – the ‘relevance’ of our research?

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