Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Hedgepads and iFoxes

"There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing’."

Thus begins Isaiah Berlin's (OP) famous essay about what may well be the fundamental bisect affecting the way that thinking people do their thing. He continued...

"For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes selfcontradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes."

...and the iPad is a fox while the Kindle is a hedgehog.

Indeed, the moment I discovered that my Kindle wasn't even prepared to tell me the time was dramatically revelatory. There are technological reasons behind this, such as the fact that it only draws on its battery power when the user presses Next Page, but there's also a certain abstract loftiness about the Amazon device's determination to be very good at one thing, only.

I think of myself as a fox, but the hedgehogginess of the Kindle profoundly appeals to me; I wonder how common this is. In contrast, a device like the iPad, which might be almost ideal in multiple circumstances is a bit of a turn off. (The remainder of the Berlin essay focuses on the historical theories of Tolstoy who, while clearly being a fox, believed quite utterly in the need for hedgehog posturing and therefore set about throwing up a smokescreen around his 'real' beliefs. More on this another day...)

On another tack...America's culture wars are essentially a confrontation between that nation's hedgehogs and foxes. While these make for a rather playground-like political discourse, they are generally less deleterious in their effects than head on clashes by different forms of state-sponsored hedgehog-isms, as Europe learned to its cost in the twentieth century.

Should we be more worried now that the world's dominant civilisation is being stalked by the giant, mutant and militant hedgehog that is Islamism? Well, if we take the view that confrontations between foxes and hedgehogs create more noise than actual noxious consequences, then perhaps not. The Islamists appear to understand this, which is why their underlying strategy appears to be to bring out the hedgehog in the western politician — for the more like them we become, the more 'Biblical' the conflict is likely to become; which is just how they want it.

Some commentators up in el norte seem to think that the separation of church and state espoused by many of the founding fathers of the United States was intended to foster a prototype secular society....a project which has clearly gone spectacularly wrong.

In fact, the underlying foxy idea had a definite hedgehoggy current within it. You might even say that the Constitution was construed as the portal to a prickly arcadia — for if no one type of hedgehog can ever assume control of the state, the American citizen is left with a wonderfully diverse set of well-honed insectivorous lifestyles to choose from. Even atheism (Dawkins or Dennett-style) becomes just another little slow-moving and quite stupid spiny mammal amongst many.

One can have so much choice, so much freedom, that one can almost imagine that one lives in a genuinely pluralistic society.

Back to my Kindle.


Mark said...

While Jefferson expressed opinions consistent with a separation of church and state, he was in the minority. Virginia actually had a state religion, and the Constitution's aim was merely to prevent an official federal religion. It wasn't until much later that secularists seized the court and developed the modern, common (mis)understanding of this principle.

The US has been divided since the revolution; in the beginning only a few supported revolution, 70 years later a few supported secession, and the country is similarly divided today among social, cultural and economic lines.

What is so remarkable about a nation of 300 million so diverse people is not that the differences exist but that unlike most of the rest of the world we have largely been at peace for the last two centuries.

If only we had adhered to Washington's admonishments to avoid 'foreign entanglements' the last century would have been a more peaceful (and prosperous) one.

El Blogador said...

Not much to disagree with there.

It seems pretty clear to me that the Constitution was worded to allow for a proliferation of very singular outlooks while preventing any one of them from gaining a monopoly in the use of force. And I'd agree that, starting with the perspectives of Jefferson and Hamilton, there has also been a fundamental divide in American political life ever since.

I don't think the 600,000 dead of the Civil War can be that easily discounted, can they?

And certain 'foreign entanglements' have been unavoidable, such as the one which occurred after Pearl Harbour when Hitler declared war on the United States.

Maybe the real problem started AFTER WWII when Truman and McArthur clashed over whether to cross the 38th parallel in Korea and thereby begin the US's career as an armed exporter of a particular way of life.

In the Truman library one can find an imporant doc titled NSC-68, which is a proposal for America to become a military superpower to tackle Communist aggression. It marks a very significant change in post-WWII American attitudes.

Mark said...

"I don't think the 600,000 dead of the Civil War can be that easily discounted, can they?"

Not at all, but it really is the exception, and if you'll recall the southern states seceded one at a time, and most only after Lincoln raised an invasion army. Even old Virginia seceded only after they had been called on to provide troops to Washington to invade South Carolina.

I think FDR was virtually inviting Japan to attack. Whether he had any idea it would be Pearl vs. Wake Islands or just a random ship in the Pacific we can't say, but he clearly was an interventionist at a time when America remained decidedly against foreign entanglements.

It is heresy to suggest that we should not have gotten involved in WW1 or WW2 but this is increasingly my own opinion. Hitler would likely not have come to power were it not for the Treaty of Versailles, and had that mistake been unavoidable, Stalin would not likely have waged his reign of terror had we not defeated Hitler, and tens of millions more would have survived.