Hedgehogs and foxes

There is a fragment of wisdom that is often attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus:

“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Writing in his essay on Leo Tolstoy, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin (pictured) expands Archilochus’ passage into a broad concept of two types of thinkers:

“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, 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.”

In The Signal and the Noise, the statistician Nate Silver expanded on this again, and gave some illuminating examples:

“Unless you are a fan of Tolstoy—or of flowery prose—you’ll have no particular reason to read Berlin’s essay. But the basic idea is that writers and thinkers can be divided into two broad categories:

  • Hedgehogs are type A personalities who believe in Big Ideas—in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society. Think Karl Marx and class struggle, or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious. Or Malcolm Gladwell and the “tipping point.”
  • Foxes, on the other hand, are scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a multitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity, and dissenting opinion. If hedgehogs are hunters, always looking out for the big kill, then foxes are gatherers.

Hedgehogs believe in a single, neat, unified approach. Foxes believe in many, messy, disparate approaches.

Or as Karl Weick might put it, hedgehogs and foxes are specialists and generalists.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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