The Hedgehog and the Fox

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The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History
First edition
AuthorIsaiah Berlin
PublisherWeidenfeld & Nicolson
Publication date

The Hedgehog and the Fox is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin—one of his most popular essays with the general public—which was published as a book in 1953. However, Berlin said, "I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something".[1]


The title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: πόλλ' οἶδ' ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ' ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα ("a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing"). In Erasmus's Adagia from 1500, the expression is recorded as Multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. The fable of The Fox and the Cat embodies the same idea.


Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include Plato, Lucretius, Dante Alighieri, Blaise Pascal, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust and Fernand Braudel), and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Herodotus, Aristotle, Desiderius Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Molière, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Aleksandr Pushkin, Honoré de Balzac, James Joyce and Philip Warren Anderson).

Turning to Leo Tolstoy, Berlin contends that at first glance, Tolstoy escapes definition into one of the two groups. He postulates that while Tolstoy's talents are those of a fox, his beliefs are that one ought to be a hedgehog and so Tolstoy's own voluminous assessments of his own work are misleading. Berlin goes on to use this idea of Tolstoy as a basis for an analysis of the theory of history that Tolstoy presents in his novel War and Peace.

In the latter half of the essay, Berlin illuminates Tolstoy by an extended comparison between him and the early 19th-century thinker Joseph de Maistre, a comparison that gains in piquancy because while Tolstoy and de Maistre held violently contrasting views on more superficial matters, they held some profoundly similar views about the fundamental nature of existence and the limits of a rational, scientific approach to it.

In the final few paragraphs of the essay, Berlin reasserts his thesis that Tolstoy was by nature a fox but by conviction a hedgehog and goes on to say that the division within himself caused him great pain at the end of his life.

The essay has been published separately and as part of the collection Russian Thinkers, edited by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly. The essay also appears in a widely representative anthology of Berlin's essays, The Proper Study of Mankind.


Some authors such as Michael Walzer have used the same pattern of description for Berlin himself, as a person who knows many things, compared to the purported narrowness of many other contemporary political philosophers. Berlin's former student, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, has been dubbed a hedgehog by Berlin and readily admitted to it in an interview after receiving the 2007 Templeton Prize.[2]

Philip E. Tetlock, a political psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, drew heavily on this distinction in his exploration of the accuracy of experts and forecasters in various fields (especially politics) in his 2005 book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?.

In his Founding Brothers about key figures of the American Revolution, the historian Joseph Ellis, uses Berlin's "Hedgehog and Fox" concept in evaluating George Washington, noting that "Washington was an archetypal hedgehog. And the one big thing he knew was that America's future as a nation lay to the West, in its development over the next century of a continental empire," which was one of the reasons, according to Ellis, of Washington being devoted to construction of canals.[3]

James C. Collins refers to the story in his book Good to Great where he clearly shows his preference towards Hedgehog mentality.

Claudio Véliz uses Berlin's construction to contrast Anglo-American and Spanish patterns of settlement and governance in his 1994 book The New World of the Gothic Fox Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America.

The artist Richard Serra referenced the name in the title of his sculpture installed at Princeton University campus in 2000.[4]

Legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin's book Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), which argues the case for a single, overarching, and coherent framework of moral truth, takes its title from Berlin's conceit of the hedgehog.

Music historian Berthold Hoeckner applies and extends Berlin's distinction in his 2007 essay "Wagner and the Origin of Evil". One of Hoeckner's key insights is that the historiography of Wagner's antisemitism, much like that of the Holocaust, has two main branches: a hedgehog-like functionalist branch that sees the composer's polemic jabs at Jewish culture as mere assimilationist rhetoric, and a fox-like intentionalist branch that sees them instead as violent expressions of genuinely eliminationist Judenhass.[5]

In his book Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy, Oxford philosopher Peter Hacker uses this metaphor to contrast Berlin's Tolstoy, "a fox by nature, but a hedgehog by conviction", with the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was "by nature a hedgehog, but after 1929 transformed himself, by great intellectual and imaginative endeavour, into a paradigmatic fox".[6]

In his 2012 The New York Times bestselling book The Signal and the Noise, forecaster Nate Silver urges readers to be "more foxy" after summarising Berlin's distinction. He cites the work of Philip E. Tetlock on the accuracy of political forecasts in the United States during the Cold War while he was a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley. Silver's news website,, when it was launched in March 2014, also adopted the fox as its logo "as an allusion to" Archilochus' original work.[7]

In 2018, the author John Lewis Gaddis refers to Berlin's essay as well as the work of Tetlock in his book On Grand Strategy.

In Woody Allen's 1992 film Husbands and Wives, the character of Sally, played by Judy Davis, muses while having sex about various people she knows as to whether they are Hedgehogs or Foxes.

Philosopher of art Peter Kivy refers to Berlin's essay when he contrasts current philosophy of art as the age of the Fox, best represented by Noël Carroll, to the previous age of the Hedgehog, best represented by Arthur Danto.[8]

Harvard political economist Dani Rodrik applies the distinction to "hedgehog" mainstream orthodox economists who apply "the Liberal Paradigm" to everything everywhere always and "fox" heterodox (political) economists who have different answers to different times, places, and situations in his 2015 book Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science.[9]


  • The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1953; New York, 1953: Simon & Schuster; New York, 1957: New American Library; New York, 1986: Simon & Schuster, with an introduction by Michael Walzer.
  • Berlin, Isaiah (25 March 2008), Hardy, Henry; Kelly, Aileen (eds.), Russian Thinkers, Penguin, ISBN 978-0-14-144220-4; Aileen Kelly, introduction by; Jason Ferrell, glossary.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Jahanbegloo, Ramin (2000), Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, London, p. 188.
  2. ^ Spiritual Thinking, Templeton, archived from the original on 20 March 2007.
  3. ^ Ellis, Joseph J (17 October 2000), Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (1st ed.), Knopf, p. 134.
  4. ^ "The Hedgehog and the Fox". Princeton University Art Museum.
  5. ^ Hoeckner, Berthold (2007). "Wagner and the Origin of Evil". Opera Quarterly. 23 (2–3): 151–83. doi:10.1093/oq/kbn029.
  6. ^ Hacker, P. M. S. (1996), Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy (Blackwell, Oxford, UK & Cambridge, MA, USA), p. 98
  7. ^ "What the Fox Knows". 538. 17 March 2014.
  8. ^ "Noël Carroll". Conversations on Art and Aesthetics.
  9. ^ Rodrik, Dani (2015). Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-24641-4.

External links[edit]