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 that was published as a book in 1953. It was one of his most popular essays with the general public. However, Berlin said, "I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something".[1] It has been compared to "an intellectual's cocktail-party game".[2]


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.)[citation needed]

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).[dubious ]

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 compares Tolstoy with the early 19th-century thinker Joseph de Maistre. As Berlin explains, while Tolstoy and de Maistre held violently contrasting views on more superficial matters, they also held profoundly similar views about the fundamental nature of existence and the limits of a rational scientific approach to it.

The essay ends with Berlin reiterating his view of Tolstoy—by nature a fox but a hedgehog by conviction— by concluding that this duality caused Tolstoy great pain at the end of his life.


In business and forecasting[edit]

James C. Collins refers to the story in his 2001 book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't , where he clearly shows his preference towards hedgehog mentality.

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?[3][4] Tetlock summarized substantial research claiming that most experts and well-paid pundits think like hedgehogs with one big idea; on average they make poor forecasts. Meanwhile, people who draw information from a large variety of often-conflicted sources, like foxes, make better forecasts. However, both are often beaten by formal models like autoregressive distributed lag models.[5]

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.[6]

In 2018, the author John Lewis Gaddis refers to Berlin's essay as well as Tetlock's work in his 2018 book On Grand Strategy.[7]

In other disciplines[edit]

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, was dubbed a hedgehog by Berlin and admitted to it after receiving the 2007 Templeton Prize.[8]

Legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin's 2011 book, Justice for Hedgehogs, argues the case for a single, overarching, and coherent framework of moral truth.

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.[9]

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 who wants to be a hedgehog) with philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was "by nature a hedgehog, but after 1929 transformed himself, by great intellectual and imaginative endeavour, into a paradigmatic fox".[10]

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.[citation needed]

Peter Kivy refers to the essay when describing philosophy of art in the current day as the age of the fox (best represented by Noël Carroll), contrasting it with the previous era of the hedgehog (best represented by Arthur Danto).[11]

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.[12]

Leading Judge, Lord Hoffmann, observed that "Copyright law protects foxes better than hedgehogs" in his Judgment in the case Designers Guild Ltd v Russell Williams (Textiles) Ltd in the UK House of Lords.[13]

Linguist Mark Aronoff divides linguists into these two groups, essentially those that emphasize linguistic theory versus those focused on empirical accuracy and generalizations. He identifies as a fox and states, "I find it hard to understand why hedgehogs make the moves that they make. It has always been especially puzzling to me why they react with such vehemence to what strikes me, a fox, as entirely reasonable or even unremarkable."[14]

In popular culture[edit]

Hedgehogs and foxes[edit]


Name Classified by Notes
Plato Isaiah Berlin In the original essay
Dante Alighieri Isaiah Berlin In the original essay
Friedrich Nietzsche Isaiah Berlin In the original essay
Fyodor Dostoyevsky Isaiah Berlin In the original essay
Abraham Lincoln John Lewis Gaddis A hedgehog who used foxy means
Carl E. Reichardt James C. Collins "stripped everything down to its essential simplicity"[17]
Miles Davis Gary Giddins "a born hedgehog who believes in being a fox"[18]
Wendy's Tom Gara "it doubled down on its core burger lineup"[19]
Karl Marx Isaiah Berlin In the original essay
Ayn Rand Charles Murray [20]
Napoleon John Lewis Gaddis[21]
Winston Churchill Philip Tetlock "not a man who let contradictory information interfere with his idées fixes"[22][23]
René Girard Roberto Calasso[24]
George Washington Joseph Ellis[25] "the one big thing he knew was that America's future as a nation lay to the West"[25]
John Dewey Richard Rorty[18]
Bernie Sanders Harold Meyerson[26]


Name Classified by Notes
Shakespeare Isaiah Berlin In the original essay
Aristotle Isaiah Berlin In the original essay
James Joyce Isaiah Berlin In the original essay
Leo Tolstoy Isaiah Berlin In the original essay ("a fox who all his life sought, unsuccessfully, to be a hedgehog")
FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver Its logo is a fox, alluding to Archilochus' saying[6]
Warren Buffett William Thorndike
Sigmund Freud Peter Gay "a fox who at times affected a hedgehog's clothing"
McDonald's Tom Gara "firing multiple shots in all directions"[19]
Pauli Murray Peter Salovey[27]
Grace Hopper Peter Salovey[27]
Benjamin Franklin Peter Salovey[27]
Hillary Clinton Harold Meyerson "much more comfortable addressing a wide range of topics"[26]


In addition to the essay's 1953 publication as a book, it has been published as part of a 2008 collection of Berlin's writings, Russian Thinkers, edited by Henry Hardy and Aileen Kelly.[28] The essay also appears in a 2000 anthology of Berlin's writings, The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays.[29]

See also[edit]

  • Conceptual framework
  • Foxes in popular culture, films and literature
  • Hedgehogs in culture
  • Homo unius libri, similar sentiment
  • Lumpers and splitters
  • Gould, Stephen Jay, The Hedgehog, the Fox, and the Magister's Pox


  1. ^ Jahanbegloo, Ramin (2000), Conversations with Isaiah Berlin, London, p. 188{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link).
  2. ^ Morrow, Lance (19 July 2021). "The Hedgehogs of Critical Race Theory". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  3. ^ Kristof, Nicholas (26 March 2009). "Learning how to think". Opinion. The New York Times. Retrieved 6 April 2009. Report on the book Expert Political Judgment by Philip Tetlock, who uses the fox and the hedgehog as a parable for political and economics experts.
  4. ^ Tetlock, Philip (26 January 2007). Why foxes are better forecasters than hedgehogs (video seminar). Long Now Foundation.
  5. ^ Philip E. Tetlock (2005). Expert Political Judgment. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-12302-8. Wikidata Q24038183. See esp. pp. 76-77.
  6. ^ a b Silver, Nate (17 March 2014). "What the Fox Knows". FiveThirtyEight.
  7. ^ Hoffman, Frank (19 April 2018). "Vulpine Virtues and Strategic Success". War on the Rocks. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  8. ^ Spiritual Thinking, Templeton, archived from the original on 20 March 2007.
  9. ^ Hoeckner, Berthold (2007). "Wagner and the Origin of Evil". Opera Quarterly. 23 (2–3): 151–83. doi:10.1093/oq/kbn029.
  10. ^ Hacker, P. M. S. (1996), Wittgenstein's Place in Twentieth Century Analytic Philosophy (Blackwell, Oxford, UK & Cambridge, MA, USA), p. 98
  11. ^ Carroll, Noël (2017). "Art Practice, Art Criticism, and Philosophy of Art". Conversations on Art and Aesthetics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199686100.
  12. ^ Rodrik, Dani (2015). Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science. Norton & Co. ISBN 978-0-393-24641-4.
  13. ^ Hoffmann, Leonard (23 November 2000). "House of Lords Judgments - Designer Guild Ltd v Russell Williams (Textiles) Ltd". UK Parliament. Retrieved 21 August 2022.
  14. ^ 8: Aronoff, Mark (2017) A fox knows many things but a hedgehog one big thing in The Cambridge Handbook of Morphology: Issues in Morphological Theory 2, Andrew Hippisley and Gregory Stump (eds.) Cambridge University Press
  15. ^ a b Patterson, Troy (19 March 2014). "On the Origins of Foxes and Hedgehogs". Slate. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  16. ^ "The Hedgehog and the Fox". Princeton University Art Museum.
  17. ^ James C. Collins (2001). "Hedgehog Concept in the Business Sectors: An Excerpt from Good To Great". Jim Collins. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  18. ^ a b Troy, Patterson (19 March 2014). "On the Origins of Foxes and Hedgehogs". Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  19. ^ a b Gara, Tom (24 January 2014). "McDonald's and Wendy's: A Modern-Day Fox vs Hedgehog". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on 12 March 2014.
  20. ^ Boaz, David (4 June 2010). "Charles Murray on Ayn Rand". Cato at Liberty. Cato Institute. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  21. ^ "Master Plan: An Interview with John Lewis Gaddis". Octavian Report. 4 (4): 1. Fall 2018. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  22. ^ Menand, Louis (27 November 2005). "Everybody's an Expert". The New Yorker. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  23. ^ Gady, Franz-Stefan (6 March 2015). "What Can Isaiah Berlin Teach Us About Defense Analysis?". The Diplomat. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  24. ^ Fleming, Chris (16 August 2020). "The Last of the Hedgehogs". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  25. ^ a b Ellis, Joseph J (17 October 2000), Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (1st ed.), Knopf, p. 134.
  26. ^ a b Meyerson, Harold (18 January 2016). "Bernie and Hillary, the Hedgehog and the Fox". The American Prospect. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  27. ^ a b c Salovey, Peter (26 August 2017). "Thinking Like a Fox". Office of the President. Yale University. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  28. ^ "Russian Thinkers". Penguin Random House. Retrieved 14 August 2021.
  29. ^ "The Proper Study of Mankind". Macmillan. Retrieved 14 August 2021.

External links[edit]