Notes on “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by Isaiah Berlin

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

  1. Why History Was Important to (a Young) Tolstoy

    I think Berlin’s answer to this is fascinating, something that I find worth unpacking.

    History alone–the sum of empirically discoverable data–held the key to the mystery of of why what happened happened as i did and not otherwise; and only history, consequently, could throw light on the fundamental ethical problems which obsessed him as they did every Russian thinker in the nineteenth century. What is to be done? How should one live? Why are we here? What must we be and do?

    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.

    More later.

  2. 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):

    Freedom of will is an illusion which cannot be shaken off, but, as great philosophers have said, it is an illusion nevertheless, and it derives solely from ignorance of true causes. The more we know about the circumstances of an act, the farther away from us the act is in time, the more difficult it is to think away its consequences; the more solidly embedded a fact is in the actual world in which we live, the less we can imagine how things might have turned out if something different had happened. For by now it seems inevitable: to think otherwise would upset too much of our world order. The more closely we relate an act to its context, the less free the actor seems to be, the less responsible for his act, and the less disposed we are to hold him accountable or blameworthy. The fact that we shall never identify all the causes, relate all human acts to the circumstances which condition them, does not imply that they are free, only that we shall never know how they are necessitated.

    Tolstoy central thesis…is that there is a natural law whereby the lives of human beings no less than that of nature are determined; but that men, unable to face this inexorable process, seek to represent it as a succession of free choices, to fix responsibility for what occurs upon persons endowed by them with heroic virtues or heroic vices, and called by them ‘great men.’

    (pg. 28)

    …because above all he (Tolstoy) is obsessed by his thesis–the contrast between the universal and all-important, but delusive experience of free will, the feeling of responsibility, the values of private life generally, on the one hand; and on the other the reality of inexorable historical determinism, not, indeed experienced directly, but known to be true on irrefutable theoretical grounds.

    Tangential quote from Henry Melvill, an Anglican preacher (often misattributed to Herman Melville, although I’m not 100% certain about all this:

    “We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”

    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.

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