Foxes vs. hedgehogs, a history: From Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight, and Isaiah Berlin back to Archilochus of Paros.

On the Origins of Foxes and Hedgehogs: Is Nate Silver Really a Fox?

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March 19 2014 5:02 PM

On the Origins of Foxes and Hedgehogs

A hedgehog, and a fox?
Left: a hedgehog. Right: a fox?

Photo-illustration by Juliana Jimenez. Left: photo of a hedgehog by Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images. Right: photo of Nate Silver courtesy Randy Stewart​/Flickr.

This week we are welcoming to the Internet a new incarnation of FiveThirtyEight. The face of this “data journalism organization” is Nate Silver, a statistician justly renowned for his analyses of baseball and other American pastimes. The other face of the site belongs to a very flinty, very fleet Vulpes vulpes—a red fox. The critter crucially features in Silver’s introduction to the site, a manifesto referencing “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” the famous Isaiah Berlin essay named for a line of verse written about 2,600 years ago. Silver explains:

Our logo depicts a fox (we call him Fox No. 9) as an allusion to a phrase originally attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” We take a pluralistic approach and we hope to contribute to your understanding of the news in a variety of ways.

Given FiveThirtyEight’s professed dedication to its methodology, this moment of vulpine self-identification has struck some media analysts amiss (e.g., “I think @natesilver got the fox/hedgehog thing backwards”) and flummoxed some others (“I am flummoxed by this fox/hedgehog thing”). For this reason—and for the sake of tracing the evolution of an antique truth into a postmodern commonplace—I would like to consider the famous phrase in its original context.

I’d like to; however, the phrase as we know it does not have an original context. The work of Archilochus of Paros, like that of his near-contemporary Sappho, has survived only in fragments, and his most famous proverb comes to us as a mere shard quoted in a collection put together by Zenobius (who believed that Archilochus had been sampling Homer). Epigrammatic partly by virtue of being enigmatic—“an iambic trimeter which is as mysterious as it is charming”—it caught on back in the day. In 1500, when Erasmus dropped his blockbuster gathering of adages, he offered a trim translation (“Many-sided the skill of the fox: the hedgehog has one great gift”) and an interpretation that was 100-percent Team Hedgehog: 

[S]ome people do more with one piece of astuteness than others with their various schemes. The fox protects itself against the hunters by many and various wiles, and yet is often caught. The echinus … by its one skill alone is safe from the bites of dogs; it rolls itself up with its spines into a ball, and cannot be snapped up with a bite from any side.”

In 1953, the Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin put his rhetorical paws on the saying at the outset of an essay on Tolstoy. “Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words,” Berlin wrote. “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.” Berlin classed writers such as Dante, Ibsen, and Proust as hedgehogs (“who relate everything to a single central vision”); placed the likes of Shakespeare, Molière, and Joyce as foxes (“who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory”); and offered the hypothesis that “Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog”: “his gifts and achievement are one thing, and his beliefs, and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another.”

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate’s writer at large and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.

Before making that last point, Berlin took care to state the baseline pointlessness of his endeavor—“the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic, and ultimately absurd.” But as it was already clear that pressing that dichotomy is more fun than popping bubble wrap, writers began treating his warning light as a signal to speed ahead applying it to other fields. Economists were early adapters of the hedgefox taxonomy, but Berlin’s reformulation burrowed into brains across disciplines. For the philosopher Richard Rorty, John Dewey “was a hedgehog rather than a fox; he spent his life trying to articulate and restate a single vision.” For the jazz critic Gary Giddins, Miles Davis was “a born hedgehog who believes in being a fox.” For the historian Peter Gay, Freud was “a fox who at times affected a hedgehog’s clothing.”

This parlor game started getting out of hand in the 1990s—the decade of Judy Davis delivering a foxy, Berlin-inspired monologue as part of her sensational performance in Husbands and Wives, of dorm-room CD players inquiring “Are you a fox or a hedgehog?” on Luna’s hedgehogging Penthouse, of Michael Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin: A Life identifying its subject as “the type of fox who longs to be a hedgehog.” At the turn of the 21st Century, the idea exploded. I mean this to say that it fully emerged from the realm of the New York Review of Books into that of the bestseller lists, and also I mean to say that the idea ceased to have a coherent identity. As the idea drifted—into the deliberately difficult title of a Stephen Jay Gould book, into the branding of a quarterly magazine, into the jargon of marketing consultants and their jabbering ilk—its meaning shifted in several directions at once.

FiveThirtyEight arrives at its understanding of foxes and hedgehogs by way of Philip E. Tetlock, a professor of political psychology whose work reconfigures the woodland creatures as representatives of “cognitive styles.” As Silver wrote in his 2012 book, The Signal and the Noise, “Foxes, Tetlock found, are considerably better at forecasting than hedgehogs.” So hedgehogs are now popularly understood to be bad. Except when they’re good, as in this slide presentation, which explains the “hedgehog concept” as a corporate necessity on the order of a mission statement. (For an example of a fairly traditional usage of the concept in a corporate context, see the recent Wall Street Journal item headlined “McDonald’s and Wendy’s: A Modern-Day Fox vs Hedgehog”: “Wendy’s ... went full hedgehog—but instead of curling up into a spiky protective ball, it doubled down on its core burger lineup.”)

How on earth do people who communicate in buzzwords keep straight all the pluralistic (foxy?) usages of this one big (hedgehoggish!) concept? I understand that phrases, like words, can change their meanings over times. I understand, further, why the Archilochus adage has been enjoying its extended cultural moment: Its binary elegance slices a complicated world into tidy parts; its philosophical pedigree masks its brute simplicity; its Gladwellian polarity suits the contemporary culture of thought, such as it is; it’s fun to do self-diagnostic quizzes. I totally get why someone as otherwise astute as Silver—so clearly a hedgehog in Berlin’s sense, given his systematic central vision—should prefer to be thought of as a fox: Foxes are foxy.

Further, I have an idea about how to resign myself to a future where the development of ideas will sometimes involve their flummoxing degradation. Here’s a relevant line from the relevant chapter (“The Hedgehog and the Fox”) of The Passionate Mind, a book by an anthropologist with a relevant name (Robin Fox): “The fox had more or less come to accept that this was the way of the world: information accumulated while mind decayed.”

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