Thursday, May 13, 2010

Favorite Parlor Game: Hedgehog or Fox?

One of this blogger's favorite parlor games is Hedgehog or Fox, which comes from the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin via an Archilochean fragment. From the essay of the same name:

There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.' Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog’s one defence. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance – and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or aesthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molie`re, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes. Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. But if it is not an aid to serious criticism, neither should it be rejected as being merely superficial or frivolous ...

I love this game. It works best at parties in groups of four or less -- which works well if you are the shy type, like me -- and where the music is not too loud. I've also found, over the years, that gin works particularly well in coming up with famous names and plausible explanations. I don't know why this is so, it just is. Here are a couple of my personal formulations, worked, over the years, at opening receptions, launches, with a varying cast of characters, but always with the aid of firewater:

Barack Obama: Hedgehog, obviously. But a mysterious one. Whatever the particulars of Barack Hussein Obama's one great mystery, it probably involves the vocabulary of the multicultural, multigenerational conversation of his Presidency. There is a tendency to think of Presidents in democracies as being almost always foxes. Bill Clinton, for example, was a smart, multitasking fox. Hillary, by contrast, is also a hedgehog. Her secret -- and who could ever know the particulars of what makes up the human personality? -- appears to involve the raising of the quality of life of the world's women and children. Considering the similarities of the central themes of Obama and Hillary, it is not surprising that they presently work together towards common ends.

Rupert Murdoch. This is a difficult one. Over the years people that I have respected have fallen on both sides of the spectrum. I ultimately believe Murdoch to be a fox. Sure, Murdoch's sober single-mindedness on the business of newspapers sets him apart from the more "artsy" approach. But Murdoch is about more than just newspapers, he is a creature of the media. And politics. And his legacy and the rise of the east. he knows many things, not some single, deep, great secret about running the media -- although he's doing a good job about that. Steve Jobs, by contrast, appears to me to be the prototypical media hedgehog, with some mysterious inner, innate knowledge of design and technology that is leagues ahead of his competitors.

Now that I've started you off with a couple of examples, run with it (and do so with gin).

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