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From Michelangelo to Nabokov, Everyone's a Hedgehog

Aug 2, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 43 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Isaiah Berlin's "The Hedgehog and the Fox" is one of this century's most famous essays -- a virtuoso performance in which Berlin lays down his convenient distinction between two basic intellectual personalities, foxes and hedgehogs. Berlin's main topic is Tolstoy's historical thinking in light of Joseph de Maistre's but the categories he introduces in order to explain Tolstoy are thriving on their own, like characters who have escaped from a novel and set up housekeeping. He based the distinction on Archilochus' familiar fragment, "The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big one." According to Berlin, the intellectual world divides into fox-type thinkers and hedgehog types, and there is a "great chasm" between them. The foxes have many ideas and "pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory." The hedgehogs "relate everything to a single central vision." The distinction is now well established. Does it make sense?

Berlin (not coincidentally) knew many things himself, and it will always be a pleasure to follow him as he strolls spryly through the intellectual landscape pursuing many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory. His work is a noisy party where you meet lots of interesting people. His range and depth are wonderful. His elegant dove-gray prose is always graceful and neatly tailored. His best sentences rise in long mesmerizing plumes, like smoke streams elaborating themselves at the glowing tips of after-dinner cigars in Oxford dining halls. "The Hedgehog and the Fox" is a tour de force.

But when the piece is done and you have finished applauding, the impression grows on you that you have been had. On inspection, Berlin's logic is sketchy and his conclusions unsupported. It isn't clear what a fox or a hedgehog really is. The weaknesses of the scheme show up clearly when you try to apply it to thinkers Berlin himself doesn't discuss and you get lost immediately.

Consider for the sake of argument two wildly different Renaissance men: Vladimir Nabokov and Michelangelo. Nabokov, like Berlin, is a Russian expatriate who is in vogue this year, the centennial of his birth. Michelangelo is in vogue every year. Both men are exceptional for the grand scope of their interests and accomplishments, and their magisterial command of detail. Berlin's scheme fails on both. If we follow his guidance, we misdiagnose them both as foxes, and they were both blatant hedgehogs.

Berlin is in fact consistently pro-fox, anti-hedgehog. No wonder; he associates hedgehogs with the idea that "truth is one and undivided, and the same for all men everywhere at all times" (as he writes in another context, in "Giambattista Vico and Cultural History"); foxes he associates with the tolerant, humane pluralism that he admires above all other virtues. His biases, however defensible, distort his view of the human mind. He doesn't probe for the deep streams that underlie and unify an artist's varied work. He doesn't investigate the hovering visions (cloud by day, fire by night) that beckon an artist forward -- as Racine is drawn, in Robert Lowell's poem, "through his maze of iron composition, by the incomparable wandering voice of Phedre." He doesn't confront the astonishing fact that when a man seeks unity in nature, he usually finds it. Unity is a basic human desire: We seek sexual union, and often a form of social union with the community or nation. Scientists seek unity in nature and monotheists in God. But Berlin dislikes hedgehogs and disdains to investigate what one might call the "unity drive." He knows many things -- but he misses many, too. And he never succeeds in proving that there is any such thing as a "fox."

What makes a so-called fox? For Berlin the quintessence of foxness is meticulous, concrete observation of real life in all its dazzling variety. A fox is a happy browser in life's shopping mall; a hedgehog dashes in with a shopping list, grabs what he needs, and dashes out. Thus, we know that Tolstoy is a fox because, says Berlin, "he perceived reality in all its multiplicity. . . . No author who has ever lived has shown such powers of insight into the variety of life." A hedgehog, on the other hand, scans the world through the narrow gunsight of his preconceptions. He is interested only in such facts as confirm his pet, pat theory, whatever it is. Marxists are Berlin's paradigm hedgehogs: They can only sustain their Marxist beliefs by ignoring all contrary evidence.