Friday, 16 March 2018

Greatness is being both a Hedgehog and a Fox


This week Stephen Hawking passed away at the age of 76. Hawking was certainly one of the world's brightest minds in physics - but it's quite apparent that he was susceptible to much mental mediocrity too. So much so that he very publically fell for each one of the 3 biggest scams humanity has ever created. They are:

1) Atheism - the Promethean fantasy that tries to dispense with God

2) Socialism - the central planning fantasy that reveres state hegemony

3) Climate Change alarmism - the Gaia-driven fantasy driven by crony capitalism

Regular readers will be familiar with my antidotes to these scams, so in this post I want to touch on something a bit more specific: how people with highly intelligent minds can be great in some areas and yet so woefully inadequate in others. Perhaps the biggest human failing when it comes to cognition is failing to observe Pascal's piece of wisdom:

"A man does not prove his greatness by standing at an extremity, but by touching both extremities at once and filling all that lies between them."

For me, this is one of the best summaries of how to approach mental excellence - understand each extreme but at the same time occupy enough of the ground between in order to retain a balanced view where you've fully captured both sides of the argument. It takes a certain skill to harvest the uncertainties in the world while at the same time collating a succession of views and observations that you feel will still be the case for the rest of your living days. For this we shall turn towards Isaiah Berlin.  

Isaiah Berlin once wrote an essay called "The Hedgehog and the Fox", which is based on a fairly well known parable from the Greek poet Archilochus - "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing". The observation is that the fox has cunningness, fleetness of foot, and the crafty ability to plan its course of attack. The fox does many things really well. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is slower and behaviourally less complex - but he has one big thing to outwit the fox; he can roll into a ball, show his spiky defences and render the fox's crafty planning ineffectual. The hedgehog does one thing really well.

In the essay, Isaiah Berlin wants to define the various thinkers in philosophy and literature into two groups - the hedgehogs and the foxes. The hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining narrative around which all other ideas revolve. Those single defining narratives can be theistic or atheistic convictions, political ideologies, liberalism, and things of that kind.

The foxes view the world as a more complex, scattered, intractable and open-ended narrative; with all ideas feeding into a system that leaves questions unanswered, that has subjective expressions appreciated, and that has multiplicity of subsidiary ideas instead of a single defining narrative. If Pascal's observation about 'filling all that lies between' can help us become excellent, then understanding how the fox and hedgehog mentality can be applied will also be of great use.

Now the Hedgehog and Fox illustration is not perfect (see appendix* below) But it does provide a pretty good signpost to a potentially rewarding treasure chest concerning the pursuit of mental excellence. For I believe that if one is to become master of one’s own reasoning, and find the key to enhanced understanding of reality through the various lenses, then one must seek and find expertise in both kinds of thinking. That is to say, the true genius, if he or she is to reach the highest mental attainment, must be a master fox and a master hedgehog. He must do both things well if he is to 'fill all that lies between'. 

He will need to develop the ability to view the world through the lens of a single defining narrative around which all other ideas revolve. That narrative does not have to be one singular driving force at the exclusion of all the rest – it can be a synthesis of singular ideas in conglomerate form – but the most important thing is that it contains the blueprint to produce a framework of the narrative in simple terms, consistent with how reality is.  

He will also need to develop the ability to view the world through the lens of a more complex, scattered, intractable and open-ended narrative, with the multiplicity of subsidiary ideas complementing his singular framework of simplicity. As a consequence, reality for him will be seen in the right way, as being amenable to lots of statements that convey truths about nature and the concomitant human ideas, and how they can be assembled into some fundamental truths that form a singular narrative.

And also it will be seen as being at the same time complex, incomplete, intractable, highly subjective, and equivocally open to interpretation and speculation as the story unfolds and at times remains beyond our scope. Embracing a reality that is a synthesis of these two things is the first step to the highest mental attainment

Two thinkers I admire greatly – William Blake and Soren Kierkegaard – produced works that wonderfully exemplify the kind of thing I mean when I talk of mastering the hedgehog style of thinking. They each had an individual worldview that tended towards love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, the transcendent, and the metaphysical through the singular excellence of mind and imagination, but in a way that puts the divine at the heart of their narrative. Another thinker I admire greatly is William Shakespeare – but I part company with Isaiah Berlin, in that I think Shakespeare exhibits the fox-type of thinking over a rich body of work.

Like Blake and Kierkegaard, Shakespeare constructed a worldview that explored deeply the subjects of love, grace, mercy, justice, forgiveness, the transcendent, and the metaphysical through the singular excellence of mind and imagination, but he is not easily pinned down to a hedgehog-type discipline, or singular narrative.

His exploration came more from the measure of man and the human ability to use the mind to piece together scattered fragments of ideas and experiences in spite of a fairly open and inclusive narrative. His pain at the uncertainties revealed through the exploration moved him to confront those fragments through the excellence of mind and imagination, which makes him hard to pin down as a hedgehog. 

How you attain your own mental excellence will vary from individual to individual – but as I've said before, if humans work hard to pursue it with honesty and integrity, we should in theory pretty much agree on most things factual.

One of the key skills in conflating the hedgehog and fox mentality is about mentally arranging a lot of diverse data into succinct concepts, while at the same time understanding the complexity that underlies them. For example, the theory of evolution can be succinctly expressed well in a single essay, but it captures a lengthy and intractable timescale that includes fossil records, natural selection, genetic analysis, comparative morphology and the forming of nested hierarchies through illustrations like a phylogenic tree. 

Whether it is Charles Darwin on evolution, Adam Smith on market economies, John Milton on free expression, Albert Einstein on relativity, Thomas Kuhn on the nature of the paradigm, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on the natures of rhizomatic theory, or anything that makes up a succinct summary of complex data, the important thing is that one has a method of developing life goals and wisdom on the singular narrative, but at the same time work hard to refine the complexity of data into more tractable and manageable heuristics. Whether you are in business, psychology, science, politics or the teaching industry, and even if your principal interests are philosophical, theological and literary, you are not going to have a competent worldview if you veer too far into one extreme. 

If you are too much of a fox without recourse to hedgehog considerations, your worldview will lack that structured framework that locks your diverse thinking together into a singular narrative. But equally, if you are too much of a hedgehog without recourse to fox considerations, your worldview will be too oversimplified, and too black and white to capture the real diversity of reality, and the kind of pursuits we need to be making.

Of course Pascal's wisdom about "touching both extremes and filling all that lies between” serves to make a good point even better. Here the two extremes are the fox and hedgehog-type thinking, and filling all that lies between involves mastering both, and capturing the vast spectrum that lies between them.

The fox-type genius has broad vision as he perceives the complex interaction of seemingly scattered, unrelated and even inconsistent ideas. He will be a master if he can transcend the limits of the hedgehog and gather a rich nexus of experiential protocols into a worldview built on mental excellence. The hedgehog-type genius can compress the data of that broad vision into a woven fabric of consistently illuminating visions attached to more singular perspectives. 

If they were two people, the hedgehog would need the fox, and the fox would need the hedgehog. The really great thinker is the one who becomes both those people simultaneously; he is someone who masters the fox-mentality with every area the hedgehog could consider his own speciality. He would understand physics, but also the infelicity of human scams like the ones above. 

In Stephen Hawking's case, though, history will forget this, and rightfully remember him for his tremendous contributions to science, in spite of a debilitating illness that would have beaten lesser humans.

 
*Appendix:
The underlying theme behind Isaiah Berlin's essay was to place Tolstoy as the greatest writer because he most aptly incorporated the skills of the Hedgehog and the Fox into his work. Berlin also wanted to show how other distinguished writers largely fell into one camp or the other:

Foxes: Plato, Lucretius, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen and Proust

Hedgehogs: Herodotus, Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin and Joyce

Now personally I don't see much merit in demarcating authors in this way - not just because that selection of people omits a whole canon of thinkers worthy of consideration over and above some of those writers (although that is an issue), but primarily because I don't think one can make those kinds of judgements, or that level of simplistic demarcation, without meeting those writers and thinkers in person and getting a lot better sense of how they think by spending time with them.

In other words, an individual’s writing tends to reveal only a limited sample of the full diversity of that individual’s thinking - and such sparse sampling from people like Isaiah Berlin, born after they have died, doesn't capture anything like enough of the essence of the writers in totality. 

I think that’s the big thing that virtually every classifier misses, and something you'll do well to remember - the majority of minds are too diffuse to be easily categorised. They are a morass of hedgehog and fox-type mentality - a bundle of impressions that give the feeling of being some way between complete and incomplete.

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