The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ The writer Isaiah Berlin quotes this ancient saying to draw a contrast between two kinds of intellectual style. Sometimes we use many tools to work on a range of problems. At other times, we use a single powerful lens to illuminate most of human experience.
In some of our work in PPE we are like hedgehogs, studying, for example, human decisions about everything from purchasing to marrying to managing nations under the model of rational choice. Just as often, though, we in PPE are more like foxes, taking a topic like environmental policy or military ethics and approaching it with methods from all three core disciplines.
Here is some of what Berlin had to say:
"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 defence. 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."
And here is a bit more:
"For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, loss or more coherent to articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel--a single, universal, organising 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 to no moral or aesthetic principle....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, Balzac, Joyce are foxes."--Isaiah Berlin, "The Hedgehog and the Fox" (1978)
The essay uses the classification to give us a devastating reading of Tolstoy as a "fox bitterly intent upon seeing in the manner of a hedgehog." But the contrast has taken on a life of its own since Berlin invented it.
See for example: