A Hedgehog in a Fox’s World

I’m ordinarily reluctant to complain. This is partly a function of personality and partly a matter of conviction. I’m reticent by nature, and I tend to think that most complaining tends to be petty, self-serving, unhelpful, and tiresome.

That said, I’ve found myself complaining recently. I’m thinking of two separate incidents in the last week or so. In one exchange, I wrote to a friend that I was “Well enough, in that stretched-so-thin-people-can-probably-see-through-me kind of way.” In another conversation, I admitted that what annoyed me about my present situation, the situation that I’ve found myself in for the past few years, was that I was attempting to do so many things simultaneously I could do none of them well.

I teach in a couple of different settings, I’m trying to make my way through a graduate program, I’ve got a writing project that’s taken me much too long to complete, and I’d like to be a half-way decent husband. I could list other demands, but you get the idea. And, of course, those of you with children are reading this and saying, “Just you wait.” And that’s the thing: most people “feel my pain.” What I’m describing seems to be what it feels like to be alive for most people I know.

I was reminded of Isaiah Berlin’s famous discussion of the fox and the hedgehog. Expounding on an ancient Greek saying — “the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing” — Berlin went on to characterize thinkers as either foxes or hedgehogs. Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, for example, were hedgehogs; they had one big idea by which they interpreted the whole of experience. Aristotle, Montaigne, and Goethe were foxes; they were more attuned to the multifarious particularities of experience.

Berlin had intellectual styles in mind, but, if I may re-apply the proverb to the realm of action in everyday life, I find myself wanting to be a hedgehog. I want to do one thing and do it well. Instead, I find myself having to be a fox.

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that this was, in fact, a pretty good way of thinking about the character of contemporary life and competing responses to the dynamics of digital culture.

Clearly, there are forces at play that predate the advent of digital technologies. In fact, part of the unsettled, constantly shifting quality of life I’m getting at is what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity.” The solid structures of pre-modern, and even early modern society, have in our late-modern (postmodern, if you prefer) times given way to flux, uncertainty, and instability. (If you survey the titles of Bauman’s books over the last decade or so, you’ll quickly notice that Bauman has something of the hedgehog in him.)

The pace, structure, and dynamism of digital communication technologies have augmented these trends and brought their demands to bear on an ever larger portion of lived experience. In other words, multi-tasking, continuous partial attention, our skimming way of thinking, the horcrux-y character of our digital devices, the distraction/attention debates — all of this can be summed up by saying that we are living in a time where foxes are more likely to flourish than hedgehogs. Or, put more temperately, we are living in a time where foxes are more likely to feel at home than hedgehogs. This is great for foxes, of course, and may they prosper.

But what if you’re a hedgehog?

You cope and make due, of course. I don’t, after all, mean to complain.

10 thoughts on “A Hedgehog in a Fox’s World

  1. I don’t see this as you complaining. Your thoughts are valid and your feelings are valid. Talking or writing about the things going on in our lives can be a very useful tool in helping us cope with whatever is going on in life.

    My blog is full of complaints, but I’ve found that to be quite helpful because I’m letting my frustrations out and not stuffing them inside, where they are sure to explode at some point.

  2. People who know or are able to do one thing very well, like playing piano or violin, or being a comedian, are very much appreciated in our times. As ever, probably. However, i think i, as most people (would be my guess), prefer the foxes around in daily life. They are easier to bear and enjoy. ;)

  3. This and your blog about the austerity of attention are beautifully written and very meaningful for me. It’s comforting to know that I am not the only one berating herself on a daily basis for being too hedgehoggy!
    Thank you for these blogs.

  4. Reblogged this on Smokus's Blog and commented:
    I think this is a great comentary on society and generalism…in general. I think that the idea of a specialist has fallen to low levels because of the ideals that have been held high by those who have come before us. Yes, is there a “common” core (gasp!) of skills and knowledge? Of course there is. But a blacksmith is a blacksmith because of his devotion and dedication to the art of metalworks. A musician is a musician for the same reason. There was a farily silly debate about marching band on a rec.arts croup many years ago, and I just now am starting to realize some of the fallacy in my youthful thinking. Warhol was made great because of his ability to recreate modern brands into art that met his stylistic taste and because of things that made his inner chord resonate. It was unique for that time, but not everyone can be a Warhol. Not everything is a loop, or a remix, or a digital permutation on something already created – there still has to be original, specilaized work. Hedgehog work! I love this article. Thanks!

  5. perhaps hedgehogs are, or will come to be, in more demand as the foxes become relatively more abundant?

    my personal experience not meant to be a general point: i’ve found it more instructive to think of the two types as something to be done together, navigated as conversation, rather than separate categories one chooses from / is naturally inclined to. the best hedgehogs are good foxes and vice versa. personally, i don’t think i could do the one long hedgehog-y project i am working on for years and the short fox-y (lol) essays i write online without each other. reconciling the the two types *together* is a difficult line to navigate, but attempting to has been more important, useful and satisfying for me than separating them.

    1. Nathan, Both your points seem reasonable to me, and I’m inclined to agree, particularly with respect to academic projects, etc.

      This was a fuzzy post because I started out with a vague “feel of life” sort of thing with regards to all that we try to balance (or to the multiplication of roles we’re asked to fill) and then extended that to include the habits of digital culture (or something like that). In other words, it feels like a very fox-y zeitgeist (sadly I couldn’t figure out a way of working “What Does the Fox Say” into this post). And that is a very subjective judgment, I realize.

      All of that said, arriving at a healthy balance is, as it usually is, the best thing to aim for. Although, I think that old saying applies here: Good work … if you can get it.

  6. A nice piece, as usual, Michael, and, as usual, I relate. (Also as usual, this parallels issues I discuss in my book.) And you’re right regarding kids; Just wait!

    One thought from a Ellulian perspective: Technique doesn’t care whether a you’re naturally a hedgehog or a fox; it will bend you to its own purposes.

    1. Doug, yes, in my more disgruntled moments I do feel that rather coercive dimension. Technique does not care and there is a sense in which I’m feel as if I’m being bent into a shape I do not care to take. The I recall that great line from Flannary O’Connor: “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you.”

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