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The Hedgehog and the Fox

To the Editors:

Two topics that chanced to surface in a recent issue (NYR, March 20) conspire, in my mind, to request space to appeal to fellow readers for aid in resolving a problem that has long bothered me. Before I am through, I hope to have convinced others that it is worth pursuing.

One of the topics is the question of the meaning of Hannah Arendt’s now often (mis)quoted phrase, “the banality of evil”: one of your readers attempts in the letters column to straighten out an earlier reviewer and—or so I feel—it is the letter-writer who makes the proper points.

But elsewhere there is a related problem. The joint authors of the review of Isaiah Berlin’s writings refer (p. 36) to another oftquoted phrase—in this instance, Berlin’s use of a fragment of Archilochus, the early Greek poet, for epigram, title, and governing metaphor of his essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” As quoted by Berlin, Archilochus is saying: “The fox knows many little things. The hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin then proceeds to compare Tolstoy, the “fox,” to Dostoevsky, the “hedgehog,” and before he is through the Archilochus epigram seems to be saying that there are two different ways of approaching or knowing reality—put quite simplistically, the way of the far-ranging generalist and the way of the concentrated specialist.

As I admit, that is oversimplifying Berlin’s subtle arguments, but it is not my intention to accuse Berlin of anything. I do not even know who is responsible for the translation of the Archilochus that he uses. My point is that it is this reading of the Archilochus epigram that has held sway since Berlin used it many years ago: when people refer to “the hedgehog and the fox” these days, they are usually referring to this contrasting approach to the world. Furthermore, there is a general disposition to favor the way of the fox—although this may be entirely my own bias. For instance, the reviewers of Berlin refer to his “pluralism” and other aspects of our Western-liberal tradition that Berlin so epitomizes in a way that suggests we all are better for knowing a lot of things.

Again, that may be my own prejudice. At the very least we may allow that Berlin’s translation—and his thesis—award equal status to these two animals. Yet when we look closer at the original Archilochus, or rather at some other translations, the issue is not so clear. To begin with, “thing” tends to become “trick,” and the “one big thing” that Berlin’s hedgehog knows is how to curl itself into a ball to escape its enemies—including, presumably, the fox. There is thus the implied, if not explicit, suggestion that although the fox knows many tricks, it is the hedgehog with one “big trick” that ends up defeating the fox. In this reading. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky would not just be taking different routes to reality: they would be in conflict—and Dostoevsky would outfox Tolstoy!

This version of the Archilochus is given its most committed translation by Guy Davenport (Carmina Archilochi: The Fragments of Archilochus: University of California Press, 1964) when he first translates the original with what he states are the literal seven words: “Fox knows many, / Hedgehog one / Solid trick.” Davenport then provides an alternate translation that he claims expresses the true thrust of the original: “Fox knows / Eleventythree / Tricks and still / Gets caught: / Hedgehog knows / One but it / Always works.” Not all translators go this far, but others do imply that (1) the hedgehog’s trick is superior to the fox’s many tricks, and (2) the hedgehog’s trick may actually defeat the fox.

Nor is that the end of the problem. It has been suggested by at least one (hedgehoggy? foxy?) student of this matter that although the hedgehog may roll itself into a ball to elude the fox, it has been observed in nature that a fox may roll said hedgehog down a slope into water, where the hedgehog will either drown or be forced ashore to be killed by the fox. Your reviewers of Berlin may be hinting at this when they write that “an ironist would remark” that the one big thing that the hedgehogs of this world know is “that there is not, or should not be, any hedgehog’s thesis about human affairs to expound.” (Note that it is the fox’s way, again, that is being favored.)

But I am willing to call a halt at such convolutions. My question is really quite straightforward: Do any readers of this journal have any solid thoughts to offer on this topic? As to why we all should be concerned, it is because the Berlin version of the Archilochus is referred to several times a year in journals such as this—in the sense, that is, that there are two different ways of knowing reality, not fighting enemies, and that both ways are of at least equal value. Certainly we should all want to know what this allusion is based on.

Whatever the response, I do not expect ever to see the end of this (mis)representation of Archilochus—anymore than I expect your other letter-writer has ended the (mis)quotation of the Arendt phrase.

John S. Bowman

Northampton, Massachusetts

Jonathan Lieberson and Sidney Morgenbesser reply:

Mr. Bowman seems to be correct that the Archilochean fragment is compatible with diverse interpretations, as several Greek scholars of our acquaintance have assured us. Indeed, an allusion to the ancient secular tradition of “practical knowledge” (or better, the cunning of knowing how to “get on” in the world) seems to be contained in the fragment, which would suggest that the hedgehog does indeed “compete” with the fox and does know the one “solid” trick that the fox does not—as the translations of Guy Davenport (cited by Mr. Bowman) and François Lasserre would indicate. (Lasserre, in his Archiloque: Fragments [Paris: Société d’Edition “Les Belles Lettres,” 1968, p. 53] offers the following translation: “Il sait bien des tours, le renard. Le herisson n’en connaît qu’un, mais il est fameux.”) Thus, we fear the most that can be said about the Archilochean fragment is that there is no one transparently correct interpretation of it—only many different risky ones.

But in his charming and serious letter Mr. Bowman raises or implies a number of questions about pluralism, reality, and knowledge, only some of which can be addressed here. Some readers have taken our article to suggest that Berlin supports a currently fashionable view—sometimes called “pluralism”—that at any given time scientists possess a number of theories that are mutually inconsistent but that, in light of the available data, are equally plausible, and that they enjoy the luxury of picking and choosing among them, whether on grounds of simplicity or ideology or aesthetic considerations. We think this interpretation of Berlin is based on a misreading of his work. His qualified defense of Vico and Herder commits him, it is true, to the pluralistic thesis that diverse cultures may each have their own ways of interpreting human experience. But this pluralistic thesis applies within history and the humanities, and is not the extreme relativistic view we have just outlined. Berlin is not claiming certainty for Vico and Herder, but he does think their views are more plausible than those of better known thinkers such as Descartes and Voltaire and their modern successors.

Berlin is often interpreted as maintaining that the methods of the humanities and social sciences are not applicable to the subject matter of the natural sciences. He is said to hold that the historian may (or does) acquire knowledge by special acts of understanding or verstehen. He makes no such claim. As we argued, Berlin is defending a number of separate theses which require distinguishing among such locutions “knowing that something is the case,” “knowing how to do something,” “knowing what it is to be something,” and so on. Berlin also calls our attention to the diverse cognitive skills that are needed, not only to confirm hypotheses but even to understand them. We suggested some qualifications of Berlin’s views, but even if our qualifications are overlooked or rejected, we believe that he is best interpreted as holding, at most, that there are some ways of knowing some realities and alternative ones for knowing other aspects of other realities, and not the view implied by Bowman that there are alternative ways of knowing “reality.”

We should also enlarge on two points, not discussed by Mr. Bowman, but which may have troubled some of our readers. First, although we discussed Berlin’s views on determinism and freedom, we did not claim that Berlin had proved that determinism was false, or that be knew it to be false. Instead as we wrote, “several of his analyses emphasizing the freedom and unpredictability of human choice appear to undermine psychological determinism—the view that all our actions can be explained by general laws and information about our desires, preferences, and beliefs”. Our accompanying discussion should have made it clearer that we are skeptical of those versions of freedom which presuppose psychological determinism. Berlin himself claims that determinism is incompatible with beliefs about merit, blame, responsibility, etc., which are embedded in normal speech and thought.

Secondly, it was perhaps unwise of us to have initially described Berlin’s conceptions of negative liberty as “the absence of interference—by the state, a class, a corporation, or another individual—with what one wishes to do” and not explicitly noted at the outset that Berlin, in the second edition of Four Concepts of Liberty, made it clear that this formulation did not represent his considered position. We want to say now that we did not intend to commit Berlin to the view that all that is involved in negative freedom is the lack of obstacles to the fulfillment of desires people currently have, a view which may lead to the consequence that the person who has no desires at all is the freest.

We alluded to some of these issues when we spoke later of negative liberty not as involving desires but as the “absence of impediments (or obstructions) to action.” Furthermore, we expressly said Berlin might claim that “it is not true that we desire liberty simply in order to realize ideals we currently have” (italics added). We didn’t define negative freedom, but we might have done more to distinguish between the ideal of negative freedom and that which might be labeled “spiritual freedom.” As we see it, those who seek pure spiritual freedom would aim at complete independence from the influence of social and economic arrangements, and hence often believe that they are freest when they have no desires which can be thwarted by social institutions, concluding that the less “earthly” their desires, the freer they are. Defenders of negative freedom, on the other hand, want us to be able to develop our talents and interests even at the risk of conflict among them; they know that their ideals of liberty can be thwarted by improper social arrangements.

We agree with Berlin’s view that defenders of negative liberty should try to specify the conditions under which we are free to act. Specific desires and preferences should not, we think, be brought into the definition of negative liberty—rather, they are best regarded as presupposed by a claim that a person is in fact free; similarly for capacities or powers. This approach comports with common sense. Most of us, for example, are negatively free to walk on our ears or eat books; there is no law prohibiting us to do these things; yet to be able to do them generally does not count as “freedom” precisely because most people do not have those preferences or capacities, and accordingly it does not occur to us to speak of a corresponding freedom.

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