The title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ' οἶδ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα ("The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"). In Erasmus Rotterdamus's Adagia from 1500, the expression is recorded as Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum.)
Berlin's essay analyzes Tolstoy's refutation of the view that great men make history. According to Tolstoy, the so-called "great man" is little more than the right man at the right place, taking advantage of circumstances and larger, impersonal historical forces that are the real cause of world historical events.
The essay has inspired numerous later writers who have adapted the vivid imagery of the hedgehog and the fox for other purposes from political science to business.
Isaiah Berlin was a political philosopher and historian of ideas, considered as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the twentieth century. He is regarded as one of the founders of the field of intellectual history, and was noted for his writings on political philosophy and the concept of liberty. Born in Riga, Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire, he studied at Oxford and was the first Jew to be elected to a prize fellowship at All Souls College, Oxford. He was knighted in 1957, and was awarded the Order of Merit in 1971. He was president of the British Academy from 1974 to 1978. He also received the 1979 Jerusalem Prize for writings on the theme of individual freedom in society.
Berlin's work on liberal theory has had a lasting influence. His 1958 inaugural lecture, "Two Concepts of Liberty," elaborated a distinction between positive liberty and negative liberty, which has influenced much of the debate since then on the relationship between liberty and equality. Berlin's essay Historical Inevitability (1953) examined the question of whether history is affected by the acts of certain exceptional individuals, or is the product of inevitable historical forces. He also introduced the concept of “value pluralism,” positing that values are subjective rather than objective; that different groups may hold equally valid, but conflicting, values; and that values, such as liberty and social order, may conflict within a society.
Isaiah Berlin was born June 6, 1909, into a Jewish family, the son of Mendel Berlin, a timber merchant, and his wife Marie, née Volshonok. He spent his childhood in Riga, Latvia, and Saint Petersburg (then called Petrograd), and witnessed the Russian Revolution of 1917. In spite of early persecution of the Jews by the Bolsheviks, the family was permitted to return to Riga in 1920; from there they emigrated, in 1921, to Britain. In 1945–1946, Berlin visited the Soviet Union, where his encounters with surviving but persecuted Russian intellectuals, particularly the poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, reinforced his staunch opposition to Communism, and formed his future intellectual agenda.
After the war, Berlin returned to Oxford, where he continued to teach and write on philosophy throughout the later 1940s and into the early 1950s. He began to concentrate on the history of ideas, particularly on Russian intellectual history, the history of Marxist and socialist theories, and the Enlightenment and its critics. He also published widely read articles on contemporary political and cultural trends, political ideology, and the internal workings of the Soviet Union. In 1950, a Research Fellowship at All Souls allowed him to devote himself to his historical, political, and literary interests, which were well outside the mainstream of philosophy as it was then practiced at Oxford.
The subtitle to Berlin's essay is "An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History." Berlin's basic premise is to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. The hedgehog, like his namesake, views the world through the lens of a single defining feature or idea. The hedgehog knows one thing and uses it in every situation. (Examples given include Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Proust). Foxes, on the other hand, rely on their cunning. They know many things and draw on a wide variety of experiences. For them the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, and Anderson).
After creating this dichotomy, Berlin turns to Tolstoy. At first glance, Berlin contends that Tolstoy escapes easy classification into one of these two groups. He postulates, rather, that Tolstoy represents both sides of the dichotomy. His artistic talents are those of a fox, however his personal religious and spiritual beliefs are that one ought to be a hedgehog. Thus, Tolstoy's own voluminous assessments of his own work are misleading. "…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."
Berlin goes on to use this idea of Tolstoy as a basis for an analysis of the theory of history that Tolstoy presents in his novel War and Peace.
Tolstoy does not subscribe to the "great man" view of history: the notion that history is the story of strong personalities that move events and shape societies. He believes that events are caused by social and other forces that are outside the control of any individual no matter how great. Great men merely seize their opportunity and take advantage of them. Napoleon, the purported Great Man, thought he had created the French Revolution, but actually he had simply happened along at the right time and usurped it. Tolstoy contrasts Napoleon with General Kutuzov, the Russian General. Tolstoy, armed with the knowledge of Napoleon's defeat at the hands of the Russian, portrays Kutuzov was more modest and more effective. Napoleon embodies what Tolstoy considers the folly of the Great Man, undermined by the unassuming General who has "history" on his side.
In the novel, Napoleon believes that he can control the course of a battle through sending orders through couriers, while Kutuzov admits that all he could do was to plan the initial disposition and then let subordinates direct the field of action. So Tolstoy depicts Napoleon frantically sending out orders throughout the course of a battle, carried by dashing young lieutenants—which were often misinterpreted or made irrelevant by changing conditions—while Kutuzov would sit quietly in his tent and often sleep through the battle. Ultimately, Napoleon chooses wrongly, opting to march on to Moscow and occupy it for five fatal weeks, when he would have been better off destroying the Russian army in a decisive battle. Instead, his numerically superior army dissipates on a huge scale, thanks to large scale looting and pillaging, and lack of direction for his force. General Kutuzov believes time to be his best ally, and refrains from engaging the French. He moves his army out of Moscow, and the residents evacuate the city: the nobles flee to their country estates, taking their treasures with them; lesser folk flee wherever they can, taking food and supplies. The French march into Moscow and disperse to find housing and supplies, then ultimately destroy themselves as they accidentally burn the city to the ground and then abandon it in late Fall, then limp back toward the French border in the teeth of a Russian Winter. They are all but destroyed by a final Cossack attack as they straggle back toward the west.
Even the burning of Moscow does not happen as the result of a "scorched earth policy" on the part of Napoleon or Kutuzov. After taking the city, Napoleon moved his troops in. Quickly, his tightly disciplined army dissolved into a disorganized rabble. In a wooden city and using fire to warm themselves, cook food, and smoke pipes, fires naturally broke out. Tolstoy concludes that the city was destroyed not by the free will of either Napoleon or Kutuzov, but as an inevitable consequence of battle-weary foreign invaders occupying an abandoned wooden city.
Some authors, for instance Michael Walzer, have used the same pattern of description on Berlin, as a person who knows many things, compared to the purported narrowness of many other contemporary political philosophers. Berlin's former student, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, has been dubbed a "hedgehog" by Berlin and readily admits to it in an interview after receiving the 2007 Templeton Prize.
Berlin expanded on this concept in the 1997 book of essays The Proper Study of Mankind.
Philip Tetlock, a political psychology professor in the Haas Business school at UC, Berkeley, draws heavily on this distinction in his exploration of the accuracy of experts and forecasters in various fields (especially politics) in his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?
Jim Collins, management expert, used "The Hedgehog Concept" taken from Berlin's essay in his bestselling book, Good to Great. He argued that "those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one extent or another, hedgehogs…. Those who led the comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, …"
The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History. (London, 1953: Weidenfeld and Nicolson; New York, 1953: Simon and Schuster; New York, 1957: New American Library; New York, 1986: Simon and Schuster, with an introduction by Michael Walzer)
The essay has been published separately and as part of the collection Russian Thinkers, edited by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly.
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