Thread on the famous essay. One quick point. I was first attracted to this essay because of hedgehog and fox dichotomy. Berlin suggests that thinkers can (or tend to be?) one or the other. Simply, foxes know many things, while hedgehogs know one big thing. I wanted to learn more about the two categories. Unfortunately, the essay says very little about this. The categories are mostly a springboard or a backdrop for an investigation into Leo Tolstoy’s conception of history, epistemology, and philosophy. Still, I ended up learning and thinking about the way people fall into different categories, in terms of their outlook, thinking, and personality, and the way this seems seems to frame or influence debates about key topics in philosophy and politics. I’ll try to go into that in the next comment section.
2 thoughts on “Notes on “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin”
Why History Was Important to (a Young) Tolstoy
I think Berlin’s answer to this is fascinating, something that I find worth unpacking.
Earlier Berlin mentioned that empirical data–i.e., concrete facts involving people and events that anyone could observe–attracted Tolstoy, as he was suspicious or turned off by abstract theorizing. I can understand this. Empirical data is substantive, more real–something less prone to intellectual or verbal manipulation and trickery.
At the same time, Tolstoy seems to make an assumption (at least initially) that I wouldn’t have–namely, that cataloging and then analyzing all of historical data, in a science-like process, could reveal causes of actions and events. If this could happen, then yes, I think this could help provide or at least point to answers to some of the existential questions above.
But Tolstoy realized the impossibility of such a process. There were too many factors to know and evaluate; identifying causes, in a reliable, rigorous way, was impossible–and I tend to agree. According to Berlin, Tolstoy was contemptuous of the type of explanations historians used to address the ultimate causes (e.g., the great man theory). In a way, I think you could argue that he was expecting too much from history.
Tolstoy Believes in Determinism and the Problem This Causes for Him
Apparently, Tolstoy didn’t believe in free will. Berlin gives an explanation–and I’m actually unsure if the description is strictly of Tolstoy’s beliefs, Berlin’s, or both–and I’ve heard strict materialists give a similar explanation–one that I’m fuzzy on (so if any of you can explain it to me, I’d greatly appreciate it):
Tangential quote from Henry Melvill, an Anglican preacher (often misattributed to Herman Melville, although I’m not 100% certain about all this:
I like the writing, and it relates to the complex series of causes and effects that, in my view, make it impossible for history to become a science.