Seeing Double: On Foxes and Hedgehogs

As humans, we have an addiction to dividing the world into two kinds of people. The problem, however, is that no one can agree on what those two groups are. Even when we do organize ourselves into two groups, like Democrats and Republicans, the labels prove inadequate. Take the Editorial Board of The Student. Despite being a broadly liberal group, the Editorial Board strongly disagrees on essentially every political issue of the 2020 presidential race, as we saw in the editorial two weeks ago. As shocking as it may sound, a thinker’s mind has more dimensions than a single ideological plane. Thus our tendency to categorize people in groups of two poses a problem.  

One potential solution would be to throw out binary systems entirely. But where would we be if we couldn’t divide the world between athletes and nonathletes, humanity majors and STEM majors?  Dualities are too psychologically appealing to pass up. But what if there were another split that explained people’s differences of opinion in some deep and understandable way? I think I’ve found that categorization, and it doesn’t revolve around donkeys and elephants, but foxes and hedgehogs. 

The Hedgehog-Fox dichotomy dates back to Archilocus, an ancient Greek warrior poet (truly, a spiritual forefather of Amherst) who wrote that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” In the 1950s, Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin expanded that quote into a crucial distinction between the two kinds of thinkers in the world. Hedgehogs, according to Berlin, “relate everything to a single … organized, universal principle”. They are determined, focused and work with big ideas. Famous hedgehogs include Karl Marx, Ayn Rand and George Washington. Foxes, on the other hand, are people who “pursue many ends, often unrelated or even contradictory.” They are flexible and quick to see connections, but unwilling to fit all the ideas they encounter into the same box or narrative. Well-known foxes include Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Jefferson. 

The Hedgehog-Fox dichotomy has been a popular method of self-identification since its introduction. FiveThirtyEight, the statistics and opinion polling-focused news outlet, uses a fox as its logo in tribute to founder Nate Silver’s preferred side of the binary, while historian Joseph Ellis has written extensively on how George Washington’s “hedgehog-like” nature was essential for the creation of the United States. Likewise, psychologist Philip Tetlock has devoted his career to comparing how foxes and hedgehogs make political predictions differently and based on different criteria. 

Of course, trying to place everyone into one of two categories is bound to be reductive. Everyone holds multiple, disconnected interests and sees some spiritual or ideological connection between their various activities and beliefs. But there’s truth to the notion as well. 

Take this very column. For the most part, I am a fox. My articles are varied and often exploratory; when taken together, they offer no broad universal direction (you’ll find that this one is no exception). 

My co-columnist, Cole Graber-Mitchell ’22, identifies as more of a hedgehog. His columns, regardless of their topic, always circle back to his ideologically progressive center. Neither of us stick to our scripts completely, of course, but if you read a Seeing Double article decrying a great moral outrage in the world, it’s probably by Graber-Mitchell. That sort of thematic consistency is textbook hedgehog.

The Hedgehog-Fox dichotomy exists on a completely separate axis from political alignment. Although political factions can sometimes correlate to fox-hedgehog splits (think polymath Hillary Clinton versus crusader Bernie Sanders), more often than not, hedgehogs and foxes exist across the political spectrum. Senator Bernie Sanders is a hedgehog, but so is former Representative Ron Paul. Former President Barack Obama is a fox (in more than one way), as is Senator Mitt Romney. The style and rhetoric these people use often has a lot to do with their personality types, even if we don’t always realize it. Think of Sanders’ endless repetition of his favorite wealth inequality statistics or Mitt Romney’s infamous flip-flopping, exemplified when one of his advisors compared his campaign to an etch-a-sketch.

So now that we’ve conclusively established that everyone is either a fox or a hedgehog, we should ask ourselves, what does this mean for our lives? Every categorization system is only as good as its broader implications — which is why I don’t really want to know what kind of burrito I am (thanks anyway, Buzzfeed). 

Understanding if you’re a fox or a hedgehog allows you to understand why you align with certain candidates more than others, and grants you a window through which to communicate with people who have seemingly different values. 

Anyone who has attended a Thanksgiving dinner with extended family can attest to how difficult it is for liberals and conservatives to communicate with each other. Yet when you add another axis of identification, it’s easier to find common ground. You and Uncle Carl may have very different opinions about President Trump, but if he’s a fox and you are as well, then you share an underlying philosophical framework. 

It’s no secret that America’s current one-dimensional political spectrum creates huge problems. Having one ideological axis turns politics and discussion into an inflexible dichotomy. We need to add more axes to this crude model. 

I think that the Hedgehog-Fox dichotomy can fill the y-axis of this chart, and turn it into an illustration of not just what you believe but also why. In this new chart (perhaps called the Seeing Double political alignment chart) people can find similarities they would never have thought they possessed. Obviously, this model might still be oversimplified and sometimes just wrong. 

But nevertheless, given the alternatives we have been using to divide ourselves, this metric  has the potential to quite literally open up our internal political map to a whole other dimension.