About the Hedgehog and the Fox

What is The Hedgehog and the Fox?

The main aim of this website is to feature podcasts that present fresh ideas and stimulating conversations on a wide variety of subjects. Its particular focus is on books published by university presses.

Some of these interviews may present bold new theories (in the spirit of the hedgehog: see below) while others may focus in detail on something quite small, even overlooked (in the spirit of the fox). The driving forces are curiosity and the desire to communicate original thinking in an engaging, accessible way.

Why focus on books from university presses?

A couple of years ago, journalist Sam Leith said in a much-quoted article in the Guardian:

“The mainstream may be getting dumber by the day, but we are living in what looks like a golden age of publishing for, of all people, the university presses. […] These days I’m very seldom excited by a trade non-fiction title, roaring as most of them are down the middle lane of the same motorway, to the degree I’m excited by the original and vital byways that university presses are exploring for the general reader.”

Like all such generalizations, it’s not 100% true, but it struck a chord with me and made me reflect: wouldn’t it be great to bring together interviews about the best new thinking from across the university press world? That’s the remit of this site.

In addition to talking about new books, I also want to look back at older titles which have become classics, reflecting with their authors – or later scholars – on what has given them staying power. Beyond that, there will be other features as the site grows, and, I hope, contributions from others in the university press world.

How does it work?

Editorial control is mine, but presses and other appropriate potential sponsors are invited to support programmes to keep the site afloat. Support will always be explicitly mentioned and programmes will never be adverts.

So why The Hedgehog and the Fox?

You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy this site. You don’t need to know how long I deliberated over what to call it and how many names I considered, then rejected. But it may be of interest to discover that it is not named after two randomly selected woodland mammals.

It goes back to the Greeks. The ancient Greek poet Archilochus said:

‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’

Archilochus’ work survives only in fragments and quotations, so it’s impossible to be categorical about what he meant. At its simplest: the hedgehog, unlike the wily fox, has just one trick up his sleeve, but it’s a good one. But who are the hedgehogs, and who are the foxes?

In 1953 the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin published an essay on Tolstoy’s view of history called ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’. In the essay Berlin draws a distinction between thinkers – and indeed human beings in general – who seek “a single, universal organizing principle”  (hedgehogs) – and foxes, who pursue many ends, “often unrelated and even contradictory”.

In the hedgehog camp Berlin put Dante, Plato, Pascal, Hegel, and Dostoevsky, among others. His foxes were Shakespeare, Aristotle, Montaigne, Goethe and Joyce. He was not suggesting that the categories were watertight, or that one was better than the other. Today, we would probably present it as a fox–hedgehog spectrum.

Berlin later claimed he regretted the title he gave his essay, suspecting that it accounted for The Hedgehog and the Fox being his most widely read book (though in a late interview Berlin himself divulged: “I am probably a fox; I’m not a hedgehog.”). But the essay and the distinction it draws have proved influential.

Stephen J. Gould (in The Hedgehog, the Fox and the Magister’s Pox) conceptualized it as hedgehogs sticking to one style of thinking, one key idea, while foxes move again and again, reinventing themselves. For Gould, the fox’s virtues include possessing an easy flexibility and knowing when to change tack, while the hedgehog’s are knowing what it wants and pursuing it when others fall by the wayside. Or, to switch metaphors, they ‘locate one vitally important mine’ and keep digging (though that sounds a bit more like moles to me).

By the time we get to statistician Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise (2012), foxes seem clearly in the ascendant: being “foxy” has come to mean being sceptical of grand theories and flexible enough to shift your position when faced with data that warrants it. Being a hedgehog, by contrast, means being intellectually stubborn, ideologically rigid. Tough on Berlin’s grand dreamers.

All of which is probably more detail than we need to get this website on the road. For what it’s worth, my working definition will be:

Hedgehogs = system-builders and grand explainers
Foxes = seekers of depth and detail

But as Isaiah Berlin said in a 1980 interview:

“I used {Archilochus’] isolated line as a peg on which to hang my own reflections: the metaphor of hedgehogs and foxes was not, I warned the reader, to be driven too far.”

We could do worse than heed his advice. And if you’ve read this far, you deserve something more fun to end on. The famous New Yorker cartoonist Charles Barsotti (1933–2014) once drew a middle-aged, balding bartender mopping his bar with a cloth. A hedgehog, glass in hand, leans towards him as far as his diminutive size will allow and says:

“They say, ‘the foxes knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one great thing.’ Want to hear it?”

On this site I hope you’ll hear great things from both hedgehogs and foxes…