The Hedgehog and the Fox

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The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History
First edition
Author Isaiah Berlin
Country UK
Language English
Publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Publication date
Followed by The Proper Study of Mankind (1997)

"The Hedgehog and the Fox" is an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin. It was one of Berlin's most popular essays with the general public. Berlin himself said of the essay: "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 one important thing"). In Erasmus Rotterdamus'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, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, 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, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce, Anderson).

Turning to Tolstoy, Berlin contends that at first glance, Tolstoy escapes definition into one of these two groups. He postulates, rather, that while Tolstoy's talents are those of a fox, his beliefs are that one ought to be a hedgehog, and thus 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 last half of the essay, Berlin illuminates Tolstoy by an extended comparison between him and the early nineteenth-century French thinker Joseph de Maistre, of whom Tolstoy was aware, 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 this division within himself caused the Russian 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 the widely representative anthology of Berlin's essays entitled The Proper Study of Mankind.


Some authors (Michael Walzer, for example) 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 admits to it in an interview after receiving the 2007 Templeton Prize.[2]

Philip E. Tetlock, a political psychology professor in the Haas Business school at UC, Berkeley, draws 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?.

The historian Joseph J. Ellis, in his Founding Brothers about key figures of the American Revolution, uses Berlin's "Hedgehog and Fox" concept in evaluating George Washington, noting that "George 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, Washington was devoted to construction of canals.[3]

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

Claudio Véliz uses Berlin's construction to contrast Anglosphere 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 P. M. S. 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 New York Times best-selling 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 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 at Berkeley. Silver's news website, when launched in March 2014, also adopted the fox as its logo "as an allusion to" Archilochus' original work.[7]


  • 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. ^
  5. ^ Hoeckner, Berthold (2007). "Wagner and the Origin of Evil". Opera Quarterly 23 (2–3): 151–183. doi:10.1093/oq/kbn029. 
  6. ^ Hacker, P. M. S. (1996), Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy (Blackwell,Oxford, UK and Cambridge, Mass., USA), p98
  7. ^

External links[edit]