[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Fox v. the Hedgehog

Are you familiar with Isaiah Berlin's parable of the fox and the hedgehog? It goes, in part, like this:
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 defense. 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, organizing 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 by 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, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.
I thought of this over lunch today, when the contrasting styles, and increasing combativeness between, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, came up for discussion.

Sanders, of course, is the hedgehog in this iteration, with Clinton as the fox.

Now, as I have previously noted, the most perceptive reviewer of my first book, First Amendment, First Principles: Verbal Acts and Freedom of Speech labelled me a First Amendment Hedgehog. Guilty, m'lud. Berlin was right, at least as applied to my analysis of the Supreme Court's case law applying the Free Speech and Press provisions of the First Amendment. I am a hedgehog.

So is Sanders. A look at the numerous sub-topics on the issues page of his website demonstrates the centrality of economic inequity to his thought. Indeed, this facet of his thought has been embraced by his supporters, and in no small part energizes them.

Clinton, by contrast, is almost typecast as the fox. Her issues page reads like a series of essentially discrete mini-essays on the various topics she addresses, and gives a précis of her background and position on each. The fox views each issue in its own light; the hedgehog has linked them thematically. For Sanders, the issues are briefly adduced as exemplifying his theme; for Clinton, each issue raises its own set of concerns, which need to be weighed and analyzed. In internet terms, Sanders tweets; Clinton posts.

One can overdo this, of course; while Sanders tends to view most issues through the prism of economic justice (sometimes as economic injustice enabling and reifying unjust hierarchies that bring in other concerns), he does treat with the unique facets of given issues. Likewise, Clinton sometimes strings seemingly discrete issues thematically. But the cast of their minds is that of a fox and a hedgehog. Clinton can come off as overly rehearsed, and low energy, a dull technocrat, at her worst. Sanders's unifying narrative is easily compelling--as robertson Davies famously wrote, "Never neglect the charms of narrative for the human heart." But that amenability to the charm of narrative sometimes leads Sanders to the shallow and facile generalizations of his embarrassing Daily News interview.

As a fellow hedgehog, I find myself attracted to Sanders's use of narrative. As a voter, I think I prefer Clinton's detailed, issue-by-issue focus. This hedgehog is inclined, this one time, at least, to favor the fox.

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