Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Hedgehog and the Fox

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
-- Archilochus

According to Isaiah Berlin, Tolstoy is a natural fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. IB suggests that Tolstoy was too broad minded to be able to fully embrace a single doctrine, which could satisfactorily explain how the world works:

Any comforting theory which attempted to collect, relate, 'synthesize'
reveal hidden substrata and concealed inner connections, which, though not
apparent to the naked eye, nevertheless guaranteed the unity of all
things... [Tolstoy] exploded without difficulty.

At the same time, Tolstoy wanted to be able to find some Einsteinian unified theory of everything (TOE), but was too talented as a critic to be able to do so.

What oppressed Tolstoy most was his lack of positive convictions; and that
famous passage in Anna Karenina in which Levin's brother tells him that he-
Levin- has no positive beliefs.

This division within himself caused him great pain at the end of his life.

As you can see, the writing here is not flowery, but rather complex and requires a high degree of attention. Unfortunately, this is exactly what I lacked given the circumstances of moving to Seattle.

This short book / essay was supposedly intended as a joke (an elaborate one, at 90 pages). Part of the fun is classifying people into animals, for example, here's IB's take:

  • Foxes: Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Shakespeare, Balzac and Joyce
  • Hedgehogs: Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Neitzsche, Ibsen and Proust

My conclusion is that Foxes > Hedgehogs. The world really is complex, and a simple unified theory seems very unlikely. Also, I'll have to read more IB, in less turbulent circumstances. And more Tolstoy!