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The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History

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The masterly essay on Tolstoy's view of history, in which Sir Isaiah underlines a fundamental distinction between those people (foxes) who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and those (hedgehogs) who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system.


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The masterly essay on Tolstoy's view of history, in which Sir Isaiah underlines a fundamental distinction between those people (foxes) who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and those (hedgehogs) who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system.

30 review for The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History

  1. 4 out of 5

    Ted

    I've added a quote and a question at the bottom. This was the first book I read by Isaiah Berlin, and thus came to learn that he was one of the great scholars of the 20th century. After reading it I dragged out my old Modern Library copy of War and Peace (which I had never read) and discovered that following Part One of the book (the novel itself, all 1100 pages of it) comes Part Two, Tolstoy's essay on his view of history (about 35 pages). I immediately read the essay, then put W&P away for ano I've added a quote and a question at the bottom. This was the first book I read by Isaiah Berlin, and thus came to learn that he was one of the great scholars of the 20th century. After reading it I dragged out my old Modern Library copy of War and Peace (which I had never read) and discovered that following Part One of the book (the novel itself, all 1100 pages of it) comes Part Two, Tolstoy's essay on his view of history (about 35 pages). I immediately read the essay, then put W&P away for another couple years (when I finally did read it, it blew me away - possibly the one novel I would rate above all others I've read). A year or two after this I read The Crooked Timber of Humanity, also by Berlin, and also an extremely interesting book. These two books are surely among the dozen or so books that I have found to be the most densely intellectual books I've ever read. - - - - - - - - - - - - The short book reviewed here (basically an essay) first appeared in 1951, and was published with this title in '53. Herewith a quite edited version of Berlin's first paragraph, which covers the first page and then some....among fragments of a Greek poet we find, 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'... Taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general... on one side, some 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, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are or 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... 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, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are foxes. One (this one), ruminating, asks himself whether Berlin ever reflected while writing it about where to place, in this dichotomy, a woman who, over that long Leningrad night in November 1945, revealed to him - as she discussed her life, her views of other writers, and especially as she read to him her poetic masterpieces: Poem Without a Hero and Requiem - an older woman who had an intellectual, artistic, and emotional depth he had never encountered before. Anna Akhmatova - hedgehog or fox?

  2. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    I cannot tell you how delighted I am that I did not discover this book until just this month. I'll give you an overview of this wonderful essay and then explain my personal satisfaction to those who care to stick around afterwards. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." This is the translation of the fragment of verse of Greek poet Archilochus that this essay is based on. In short, Isaiah Berlin's argument is that there are two kinds of thinkers: foxes and hedgehogs. I cannot tell you how delighted I am that I did not discover this book until just this month. I'll give you an overview of this wonderful essay and then explain my personal satisfaction to those who care to stick around afterwards. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." This is the translation of the fragment of verse of Greek poet Archilochus that this essay is based on. In short, Isaiah Berlin's argument is that there are two kinds of thinkers: foxes and hedgehogs. He argues that there is a great difference between the two types: "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 to no moral or aesthetic principle." The first type being the hedgehogs and the second type being the foxes. Dante, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Neitzsche, Ibsen and Proust are hedgehogs (to varying degrees). Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin ("the arch-fox, the greatest in the nineteenth century"), Shakespeare, Balzac and Joyce are foxes. Berlin's famous argument is that Tolstoy: "is by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog; that his gifts and achievement are one thing, and his belief and consequently his interpretation of his own achievement, another." That is, Tolstoy had all the gifts of a fox. But he had no desire to be one. He would have much preferred to find an "all-embracing" vision of the world, a unitary set of principles that explained everything. He had a very deep sense that this is what he should feel and want, despite the fact that all the evidence told him otherwise. Yet, tragically for him: "Tolstoy was by nature not a visionary... Any comforting theory which attempted to collect, relate, 'synthesize' reveal hidden substrata and concealed inner connections, which, though not apparent to the naked eye, nevertheless guaranteed the unity of all things... he exploded without difficulty. His genius lay in the perception of specific properties, the almost inexpressible individual quality in virtue of which the given object is uniquely different from all others. Nevertheless he longed for a universal explanatory principle, that is, the perception of resemblances or common origins or single purpose or unity int he apparent variety of the mutually exclusive bits and pieces which composed the furniture of the world." Berlin argues that this is most clearly shown through his unfairly denigrated and ignored views on history. Tolstoy was strongly contemptuous of the typical composition of and apparent beliefs of, current history. He believed that free will was an illusion and that the idea that great events happen because of "great men", that we can say that one thing happens because one commander made this decision, is ludicrous. There are too many factors that go into why one thing happens to account for it by the actions of one individual, and only the decisions that actually were made and were known to be made are perceived to be important (that is, we discount the thousands of other unknown decisions, and, more importantly, the could-have-beens that now seem impossible next to the "inevitable" nature of what actually occurred). Moreover, the actions of the individual are so constrained by their place, their time, their society, their upbringing and the conventions of relations with those around them that the idea of "free will" in any sort of society is false (Tolstoy allowed for immediate physical free will- lifting of one's arm- but as soon as two people related to each other, he no longer believed that it existed). "Great men", he believed were "ordinary human beings who are ignorant enough and vain enough to accept responsibility for the life of society, individuals who would rather take the blame for all the cruelties, injustices, disasters justified int heir name than recognize their own insignificance and impotence in the flow which pursues its course irrespective of their wills and desires." (Tolstoy paraphrased by Berlin.) This explains the extended "fuck you," to Napoleon, most of the Russian generals and even a little bit, Alexander, that was War and Peace. He believed that historians were too apt to ascribe some advance in history to someone's "power" over others, or to "historical forces" or "national forces," all of which are unquantifiable, mystical things that cannot be verified. Therefore, history was an unscientific study that produced results that could not be trusted. This would never work for Tolstoy because, as Berlin argues, Tolstoy was and always professed to be an empiricist. He thought that experience, concrete observation and analysis were the only ways towards true knowledge- in that much he was agreed with the scientific spirit of his day. However, he firmly believed that the scope of what humans could know was firmly limited to the "surface" of life. That is, physics was all very well and good and true as far as it went- but it wasn't what really mattered. What really mattered was the "inner" parts of life, the things under the surface that were impossible to observe or quantify- the daily motivations and decisions that make up human life, and the greater decisions that come together to create history and societies. Thus far, he agrees with some of the other great authors of his generation- Turgenev and Flaubert in particular, both of whom urged him to abandon his philosophizing and get back to what he did best- drawing the inner life of characters and the minute particulars of every day life, since the inner life is the only real truth in the world. But although he agreed with them on this point, that that could never satisfy Tolstoy because "this was not to give the answer to the question of what there is, and why and how it comes to be and passes away, but to turn one's back upon it altogether." And he cared about these questions more than anything. He had the deep theoretical conviction that there should be a unifying system in life. That it was just below the surface and in our unconscious somewhere and we would never quite be able to get to it because it could not be empirically observed. This is what eventually lead to his idealization of peasants and "simple people" whose minds were "uncorrupted" by the empty theories and false ideas of learned men- he thought that "simple people" usually had feelings and ideas that were closer to the "universal truth" around them that others could not see. That their lives were closer to universal truths and therefore more likely to reveal that almost-too-subconscious-to-perceive set of universal principles. Therefore, his heroes are almost always those with simple "folk wisdom" who sit back and "go with the flow" of life, rather than trying to change or effect it in any way, since this was a complete illusion. As both his writings on history and his philosophical writings attest, his deep divide between what he knew very well was and what should be was never resolved. This explains both the phase of his great novels and his late religious and prophetic phase since "the more obsessive that perhaps the quest was vain, that no core and no unifying principle would ever be discovered, the more ferocious the measures to drive this thought away by increasingly merciless and ingenious executions and more and more false claimants to the title of truth...all his life he looked for some edifice strong enough to resist his engines of destruction and his minds and battering rams; he wished to be stopped by an immovable obstacle, he wished his violent projectiles to be resisted by impregnable fortifications." He was by his talents a critic who excelled and tearing down edifices and yet "what oppressed Tolstoy most was his lack of positive convictions; and that famous passage in Anna Karenina in which Levin's brother tells him that he- Levin- has no positive beliefs, that even communism, with its artificial 'geometrical' symmetry, is better than the total scepticism of his- Levin's- kind, in fact refers to Lev Nikolaevich himself and to the attacks on him by his brother Nickolay Nikolaevich." Thus his tragedy was a dual one: first, that he could never reconcile his talents and his beliefs (which would have entailed giving up the desire to be a hedgehog) and that he never found the belief that would have justified his lifelong search. In the end, Tolstoy could "close his eyes, but never be rid of the awareness that his eyes were closed." * * * Beyond the immediate interest and insight offered on Tolstoy personally (which is rich enough), it is evident how Isaiah Berlin's thesis would provide a wonderful intellectual parlor game and argument to be had around a fire at the holidays. The temptation to begin sorting the authors one has read into 'foxes' and 'hedgehogs' immediately is irresistible. Berlin has even started the list for us. As mentioned above, Dante, Dostoevsky, Proust, Henry James, hedgehogs. Shakespeare, Turgenev, Pushkin, Joyce, Balzac, foxes. Discuss and expand. See how it illuminates their thoughts and your own. Further discussion: Which do you find superior? Foxes or Hedgehogs? Resist the easy temptation, given modern democratic sensibilities, to say "fox," immediately (let's be real, it's hard not to) and really think about what each has offered to the progress of thought and can offer us now to help us figure out what we ourselves think. Which one are you? Are you a hybrid? Why? See? Endless amusement. Judging by the secondary material included after the main essay itself, it seems to certainly have become just such a game for many intellectuals. By way of fault, so you don't think that I am merely here to praise Caesar, I will say that Berlin can be quite repetitive and even this short 80 page essay could have been an elegant 10 pages in a literary magazine, especially if his Part II, where he analyzes the similarity of de Maistre's thought with Tolstoy's was separated, as it probably deserves to be, into its own argument. (And it was fascinating on its own, though I can see why he wanted the link and thought it belonged here.) Also, he loves Tolstoy. He really does- it is impossible not to see his passion for him- that's part of the reason he repeats himself- I think both in unconscious imitation of Tolstoy himself and due to his deep respect and passion for his view about him. I will say that despite this love he does offer some criticism of Tolstoy and agree with some critics of him, namely the historian Kareev who protested that the "great man" theory could not be totally discounted, and that individual decisions and the "power" that they exercised over others could not be totally discounted. Even if the concept of "power" was unsatisfyingly explained, the fact remained that it existed and could be proved to have some effect on life. So he is not completely biased here. But nonetheless, he thinks, as I do, of Tolstoy as a great tragic, brilliant figure who never came to peace with himself or with the world around him, and perhaps, given the state of the world at the time, it is understandable he should not have. * * * And now, as a postscript, my personal satisfaction in reading this book is that before I was aware of its existence, this dictotomy of what Tolstoy wanted and what his intellectual gifts allowed him to do was the main thing in Tolstoy that I also responded to and pulled out of my reading experiences. Of course, I did it without the erudition, learning, manifold examples and development that Berlin did, but nonetheless, it was nice to know that someone smarter than me agreed with me and responded to this as well. In Anna Karenina, I had very strong feelings about the ending and what he does to Anna, which I felt stemmed from Tolstoy's reluctance to leave us with an "unresolved" ending or answer- the same thing with Levin's indescribable, unexplainable epiphany as he looks at Kitty and their child. That Tolstoy felt just too guilty, too wrong about leaving us with nihilism and questions at the end (the worst thing he could possibly imagine for himself.) Similarly, in War and Peace, what I responded to was Tolstoy's author-proxies looking and looking all their lives for some great vision or great man that they could hand off their responsibilities to, and never finding it. I thought that his longing for The Answer was just as strongly evident as his scornful inability to find something satisfying- because he can't stop asking questions. Anyway, the upshot of that is that I am totally biased about this work because Berlin responded to all the same stuff I did and defended his feelings much better than I could have, and so provided me with much better ammunition the next time I go back into the Tolstoy argument fray. You're the best, Berlin! I will be reading more of you.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Brad Lyerla

    Long ago, the Greek poet Archilochus famously wrote, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." In 1952, Isaiah Berlin borrowed Archilochus’ parable to distinguish between two very different ways of looking at history. The hedgehog interprets history according to a unifying principle. Whereas the fox is skeptical that such a principle exists and learns a craftiness that embraces variety, subtlety and unresolved multiplicity. Examples of the former include Plato, Dostoyevs Long ago, the Greek poet Archilochus famously wrote, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." In 1952, Isaiah Berlin borrowed Archilochus’ parable to distinguish between two very different ways of looking at history. The hedgehog interprets history according to a unifying principle. Whereas the fox is skeptical that such a principle exists and learns a craftiness that embraces variety, subtlety and unresolved multiplicity. Examples of the former include Plato, Dostoyevsky and Dante Alighieri. The latter include Shakespeare, Montaigne, Goethe and Aristotle. Leo Tolstoy defies such easy categorization. According to Berlin, that is because Tolstoy is by nature a fox. Indeed, Berlin considers him one of the most talented foxes ever. However, Tolstoy’s nature as a fox is belied by his belief that there must be a unifying principle. He is, therefore, a fox who longs to be a hedgehog. Berlin’s essay THE FOX AND THE HEDGEHOG is quite persuasive and fun. I have decided to read WAR AND PEACE and have placed it in my queue coming up shortly. As for reading more Berlin, I am uncommitted. Evidently, he hated writing and THE FOX AND THE HEDGEHOG was put into book form by others working from the transcript of a largely extemporaneous lecture given by Berlin at Oxford University, where he taught for many decades. He must have been a wonderful teacher. His spoken prose was said to be a thing to behold. Judging from this essay, which is only 80 pages (not including extensive footnotes added by others) and barely edited from the original, he was indeed a unique talent. I would love to know if there exist recordings of his spoken word. It seems to me that would be a superior way to engage with him rather than reading more of his “books”.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Lynne King

    Thanks to Ted's review I finally read this essay (82 pages in length) yesterday. I'm definitely not on a philosophical level as such but this work is brilliant. The analysis of Leo Tolstoy and, more particularly, his War and Peace is sublime. I must confess that there are some "thinkers" mentioned that I had never heard of but then that's life...

  5. 4 out of 5

    Roy Lotz

    I still remember the day when I finished War and Peace. It was both one of the most triumphant and most perplexing days of my reading life. Imagine me, on a hot summer day, having woken up early to devote the necessary hours to plow through the remaining hundred pages or so of this novel that had so completely dominated the previous month of my life. As I saw the finish-line approaching, my heart began to beat faster and faster—my mouth watered at the prospect of completing this iconic tome: a b I still remember the day when I finished War and Peace. It was both one of the most triumphant and most perplexing days of my reading life. Imagine me, on a hot summer day, having woken up early to devote the necessary hours to plow through the remaining hundred pages or so of this novel that had so completely dominated the previous month of my life. As I saw the finish-line approaching, my heart began to beat faster and faster—my mouth watered at the prospect of completing this iconic tome: a book big enough to brag about until the day I die. And then, fifty pages from the end, I reached “Part Two.” The curtain had just closed on the action of the novel; I had said my final goodbye to the characters I watched grow and mature and struggle for 1300 pages. What did Tolstoy have in store for me now? What I got—what all who struggle to the end of War and Peace get—is an essay on Tolstoy’s philosophy of history. A perplexing, pointless, pugnacious piece of writing that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the grand story you have just completed. It makes about as much sense as if Tolstoy appended his grocery list to the back of the book. I remember finally reaching the end of it and thinking, “Man, Tolstoy wasn’t that smart, was he?” It is perhaps the greatest anti-climax in all of literature. So when I heard that Isaiah Berlin had written a famous book-length essay on the topic, I was intrigued. And when I came across a copy in a book store for only 35 cents, I picked it up and dug in. Turns out, Tolstoy was not as dumb as I had supposed. As Berlin explains, Tolstoy’s view of history is actually a sophisticated perspective—if a bit fatalistic. So, for any who, like me, were completely put off by Part Two of Tolstoy’s great novel, give this essay a read. It’s short enough to complete on a lazy afternoon, and goes a long way toward explaining that strange piece of writing. Tolstoy aside, the hedgehog vs. fox distinction is one that I will probably remember until I can't go to the bathroom by myself. It’s a brilliantly simple classification—one that I had been struggling to formulate for a long while before I’d heard of it. For example, when I was in Kenya learning about human evolution, I was told that there were two species of paleo-anthropologists: lumpers and splitters. Lumpers like to group skeletal remains under the same species-name; splitters like to create a new species for every bone they find. This tendency towards unity or plurality is one that seems to cut deep in intellectual life. William James discusses it at length in his book Pragmatism, using “pluralists” for foxes and “monists” for hedgehogs. But aside from that classification (which actually is a relatively minor part of this book), Berlin is worth reading for the writing alone. His prose is excellent—erudite, engaging, and eloquent. In fact, if there’s any flaw with his writing, it is that Berlin sometimes gets too enamored of his own silver-tongue. He will spin out long sentences, endlessly repeating and rewording the same idea, filling up whole pages with pleasant but redundant words. Luckily for him, he is almost as good a writer as he thinks he is.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jim

    This is a deeply profound book, which, presumably about Tolstoy's philosophy of history in War and Peace, is actually about the nature of observable reality. In a mere 81 pages, Isaiah Berlin has gone far toward upsetting my apple cart -- for good and all. We all make assumptions about which we are comfortable, and these assumptions impact on our religious practices, political and social behavior, and in fact the whole nexus of our interrelationships with others:Tolstoy himself, too, knows that This is a deeply profound book, which, presumably about Tolstoy's philosophy of history in War and Peace, is actually about the nature of observable reality. In a mere 81 pages, Isaiah Berlin has gone far toward upsetting my apple cart -- for good and all. We all make assumptions about which we are comfortable, and these assumptions impact on our religious practices, political and social behavior, and in fact the whole nexus of our interrelationships with others:Tolstoy himself, too, knows that the truth is there, and not 'here' -- not in the regions susceptible to observation, discrimination, constructive imagination, not in the power of microscopic perception and analysis of which he is so much the greatest master of our time; but he has not, himself, seen it face to face; for he has not, do what he might, a vision of the whole; he is not, he is remote from being, a hedgehog; and what he sees is not the one, but always, with an ever growing minuteness, in all its teeming individuality, with an obsessive, inescapable, incorruptible, all-penetrating lucidity which maddens him, the many. This jawbreaker of a sentence packs a very large punch. We pretend we know what life is all about, but like a dishonest butcher, our fingers are resting on the scale. And we can't help it! Our beliefs are vitiated by desire, the complexity of our experience, the incompleteness of our experience, a wrong selection of point of view -- any of a near infinite number of things. This book has set a number of resolutions in motion. For one thing, I will read War and Peace a third time, and then I will venture into his later nonfiction works such as What I Believe. Then, I'll probably have to re-read this great essay by Berlin.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events… Tolstoy was not by nature a visionary; he saw the manifold objects and situations on earth in their full multiplicity…his genius lay in the perception of specific properties, the almost inexpressible individual quality in virtue of which the given object is uniquely different from all others. Nevertheless he longed for a univ This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events… Tolstoy was not by nature a visionary; he saw the manifold objects and situations on earth in their full multiplicity…his genius lay in the perception of specific properties, the almost inexpressible individual quality in virtue of which the given object is uniquely different from all others. Nevertheless he longed for a universal explanatory principle; that is the perception of resemblances or common origins, or single purpose, or unity in the apparent variety of the mutually exclusive bits and pieces which composed the furniture of the world…he continued to kill his rivals’ rickety constructions with cold contempt…the irritated awareness at the back of his mind that no final solution was ever, in principle, to be found… Having just finished reading War and Peace, turning to Isaiah Berlin’s study of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history seemed appropriate. Any reflection on a theory of history is timely, it seems, as the world looks back 100 years to the beginning of WWI hostilities, and watches the conflagrations erupting in very old hot spots. On finishing War and Peace I was left with the sense that many critics have, that Tolstoy had a bee in his bonnet that marred the power of his novel with his incessant essays on the myth of the ‘great man’ and the deterministic theory of history: any ‘event’ is the result of an infinite number of other events beyond the ability of individual to capture and comprehend. He comes very close to saying there is no free will, but fears that to take that step would make life unlivable, according to Berlin. Yet, palpable on every page, is evidence that individuals—Pierre, Natasha, Andrei, Kutasov, Dolokhov-- do make conscious political, moral and practical decisions every day. Berlin calls this ‘the superior value of personal experience, the ‘thoughts, knowledge, poetry, music, love, friendship, hates, passions’ of which real life is compounded’. Berlin says that Tolstoy was a genius, and that there must be a way to reconcile these two aspects of the novel. He finds it in Archilochus’s line about the fox and the hedgehog: The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Dante and Dostoyevsky, says Berlin, are examples of hedgehog writers, while Joyce and Shakespeare are examples of foxes. But Tolstoy, continues Berlin, was a fox who desperately wanted to be a hedgehog. Tolstoy rejected Hegel and others because they could not develop scientific ‘laws’ of history that could predict future events. Why select some ‘causes’ and reject others? Or theorize as if you knew all the potential causes? He believed that it is not the external, political events that are the most important, but the inner, everyday and spiritual events which are fundamental to shaping the context in which we perceive and act. Thus the battle is really won by the spirit of the army, or the Russian people, not the orders of a general. Ultimately Berlin links Tolstoy and Joseph de Maistre, asserting that Tolstoy absorbed the core of Maistre’s skepticism about the ability of kings and generals to affect history, but not his rigid insistence on a return to quasi-medieval allegiance to Church and king. Both men’s power lay in their devastating ability to destroy grand theories of human development and political science. Tolstoy’s agony, Berlin claims, resulted from his inability to build as strong a case for a grand unifying theory that he could believe in. Berlin begins his essay with a beautifully concise and crystal clear explication of Tolstoy’s theory of history as set forth in War and Peace; if nothing else this book can be used as a crib for that examination question. He then proceeds to describe Tolstoy’s influences, (Rousseau, Stendhal, etc.) and the degree to which he drew on, or reacted to, them for his own approach. The book ends with Berlin attributing to Tolstoy a view that the wisdom that General Kutasov and Pierre embody is to become aware of, and move in concert with, the context and flow of our world that superficial facts and actions ‘reside’ in. This is not a mystical belief, Berlin asserts, but a state of mind that he sensed existed but could not himself attain. One is left to ponder whether the lasting appeal of War and Peace results not only from Tolstoy’s penetrating character studies enmeshed in the panorama of family and national conflicts, but also from the conflict between the two aspects of Tolstoy’s own character: his powerful grasp of facts and his awareness of a wisdom he could suspect existed, but could not feel himself. I had not read any Berlin before. I will read more. He is brilliant at walking the reader through an argument with clear, elegant prose and thoughtful, well-researched insights.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Aasem Bakhshi

    If you don't believe that a hundred page essay bordering on literary criticism, history and philosophy can prove to be an unputdownable jaw-dropper, you have to read this essay by Berlin who knew literature and specifically Russian literature like the back of his hand. Even if you are familiar with historical determinism in Tolstoy's War and Peace, you would be forced to revisit the complete tome once again and it is certainly worthwhile. And this is the least. It may happen that this little essa If you don't believe that a hundred page essay bordering on literary criticism, history and philosophy can prove to be an unputdownable jaw-dropper, you have to read this essay by Berlin who knew literature and specifically Russian literature like the back of his hand. Even if you are familiar with historical determinism in Tolstoy's War and Peace, you would be forced to revisit the complete tome once again and it is certainly worthwhile. And this is the least. It may happen that this little essay of Berlin would force you revisit your complete world-view with regards to observable and unobservable realities.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Ida Wry

    You have to read at least the first few pages. Then you will think about hedgehogs and foxes for the rest of your life.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Lily

    Interesting discussion of the nature and utility of history. Berlin provides an insightful analysis of Tolstoy, his inner torment and contradictory nature. I hope to read more of Berlin's works, he had an impressive intellect.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Durrant

    Any great novel deserves to be followed by reading what someone else has written about that novel or novelist. After finishing Anna Karenina, I turned to Isaiah Berlin's famous essay in which he establishes a contrast between those writers and philosophers who are absorbed in multiplicity and distinctions (foxes) and those who know "one big thing," which then becomes the basis for a grand, unified vision (hedgehogs). Tolstoy, he argues, is caught, ultimately tragically so, between these two type Any great novel deserves to be followed by reading what someone else has written about that novel or novelist. After finishing Anna Karenina, I turned to Isaiah Berlin's famous essay in which he establishes a contrast between those writers and philosophers who are absorbed in multiplicity and distinctions (foxes) and those who know "one big thing," which then becomes the basis for a grand, unified vision (hedgehogs). Tolstoy, he argues, is caught, ultimately tragically so, between these two types--he is a fox who wishes to be a hedgehog. Levin, in Anna Karenina is a fox who toward the end of the novel becomes a "happy" hedgehog, a sort of projection of Tolstoy's own frustrated desire. Whatever one thinks of this paradigm, which Berlin himself acknowledges as a bit overly simplistic, it makes for provocative reading. And, let's face it, they just don't make many critics these days who can write as beautifully and clearly as Berlin.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Richard Levine

    Once I'd taken two months or so to work my way through the entirety of Tolstoy's War and Peace, it didn't seem like much of an additional commitment to spend a few more hours on this (merely) 82-page essay by Sir Isaiah Berlin about Tolstoy's view of history (primarily as articulated in W&P, although with a few references to Anna Karenina and other Tolstoy works). And I'm glad I did, although I admit that at times Berlin is just so damn brilliant that it made my head hurt. The title of the essay Once I'd taken two months or so to work my way through the entirety of Tolstoy's War and Peace, it didn't seem like much of an additional commitment to spend a few more hours on this (merely) 82-page essay by Sir Isaiah Berlin about Tolstoy's view of history (primarily as articulated in W&P, although with a few references to Anna Karenina and other Tolstoy works). And I'm glad I did, although I admit that at times Berlin is just so damn brilliant that it made my head hurt. The title of the essay, and the premise, is fully explained in just the first few pages. Berlin begins with a fragment from the Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." From this he posits that writers and thinkers, indeed all humans, can be divided between hedgehogs and foxes; hedgehogs being those who see and relate everything to a single unifying vision or principal, and foxes being those who see the multiplicity of things without needing to fit them into a single vision. And by the end of his first paragraph Berlin has tossed off a brilliant list of examples: hedgehogs include Dante, Plato, Nietzsche, Proust; foxes include Shakespeare, Aristotle, Montaigne, Goethe, Joyce. But Tolstoy, Berlin suggests, is a puzzling case -- not clearly one or the other -- and the reason for this, Berlin hypothesizes, is that Tolstoy was a fox by nature, but that he believed in being a hedgehog. That's the easy part -- to understand and to summarize. After that, well, all I can say is that I was totally swept up by Berlin’s beautiful, long, complex sentences and paragraphs, but I often had to stop after a particularly stunning sentence or paragraph and reread it once or twice, because while I felt I had understood it while I was reading it, I wasn’t able, having completed it, to summarize for myself the point that Berlin was making. Berlin is undeniably a brilliant scholar, and he uses his vast learning and his love and sympathy for Tolstoy to dig into and try to explain the perversity of Tolstoy’s theory of history; I found his explanation quite convincing -- and, ultimately, quite moving -- but I’m not able to briefly explain why. I will say this: I’d previously been thinking that I’d like to read a full biography of Tolstoy to understand this extraordinary artist better; but Berlin’s essay gave me such a brilliant explanation of the man, concluding with this devastating thumbnail of his tortured final days, that I was left wondering what more I could possibly want to know. * * * “Tolstoy began with a view of human life and history which contradicted all his knowledge, all his gifts, all his inclinations, and which, in consequence, he could scarcely be said to have embraced in the sense of practicing it, either as a writer or as a man. From this, in his old age, he passed into a form of life in which he tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe, by behaving, in the end, as if factual questions of this kind were not the fundamental issues at all, only the trivial preoccupations of an idle, ill-conducted life, while the real questions were quite different. But it was of no use . . . . his appalling, destructive sense of what was false frustrated this final effort at self-deception as it did all the earlier ones; and he died in agony, oppressed by the burden of his intellectual infallibility and his sense of perpetual moral error, the greatest of those who can neither reconcile, nor leave unreconciled, the conflict of what there is with what there ought to be. Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilized world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.”

  13. 4 out of 5

    Rick

    The Russian born, British philosopher and critic, wrote this famous book-length essay about Tolstoy’s philosophy of history (as presented and explained in War and Peace) in 1953. Not quite 80 pages in length, it is a masterful analysis of Tolstoy’s ideas, commencing by using a fragment from Archilochus, an ancient Greek poet, who observed “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He applies this observation to artistic approaches and briefly plays the game of placing wri The Russian born, British philosopher and critic, wrote this famous book-length essay about Tolstoy’s philosophy of history (as presented and explained in War and Peace) in 1953. Not quite 80 pages in length, it is a masterful analysis of Tolstoy’s ideas, commencing by using a fragment from Archilochus, an ancient Greek poet, who observed “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He applies this observation to artistic approaches and briefly plays the game of placing writers into the two types: Joyce, fox; Dostoyevsky, hedgehog; Shakespeare, fox; Proust, hedgehog. Foxes present a world that is rich, elusive, a complex potpourri of interests, rules, theories, impulses, perspectives, and approaches. The world is ineffably beautiful or ugly or both. Hedgehogs have a unifying vision or theme. It all comes down to one thing, psychology, religion, economics, a specific aesthetic. Tolstoy it seems was both, a fox in his fiction and a hedgehog in his nonfiction. In War and Peace, which concludes with a long essay on history, he was both. Writing this epic, multi-character novel, Tolstoy wrote with an insight and diversity of perspective that actually challenges his summative essay’s theoretical assertion about the impossibility of capturing any true accounting of any event and the idea that great individuals have any kind of impact on the flow of history. History is not logical or reason-driven but random and driven as much by passion, spirituality, and a myriad of shifting actions of self-interest that defy prediction and control. Berlin points out how characters in the novel contradict this, both minor and major characters. It does not diminish the genius of Tolstoy’s fiction or much undermine the argument he makes in his essay. Essentially Berlin is a moderator in a great debate not between two brilliant minds but within ideas housed in one incredibly fecund and searching mind.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Yana

    Is there anyone else in the world besides yourself and me who does not think that Tolstoy’s long epilogues and philosophical excursuses are tedious interruptions of the story? Typical Russian amateur home-made bits of eccentric philosophy? - Isaiah Berlin to his publisher Lincoln Schuster Most readers would agree with the above. I remember the time when I finished War and peace - the last 100 pages or so surely took me by surprise. I kept thinking that Tolstoy would eventually return to the story Is there anyone else in the world besides yourself and me who does not think that Tolstoy’s long epilogues and philosophical excursuses are tedious interruptions of the story? Typical Russian amateur home-made bits of eccentric philosophy? - Isaiah Berlin to his publisher Lincoln Schuster Most readers would agree with the above. I remember the time when I finished War and peace - the last 100 pages or so surely took me by surprise. I kept thinking that Tolstoy would eventually return to the story and tell us more about our favorite personages. Was I wrong... As everyone knows, the ending of one of the most brilliant pieces of literature introduces Tolstoy's view of history. And I can understand why most people find it terribly annoying - they were not in it for the philosophical analysis so it was major turn off for them. At the time I read the epilogue, I didn't think much of it. But surprisingly enough this strange ending kept coming back in my thoughts. So I was genuinely interested when I randomly discovered Isaiah Berlin's essay. It took me long enough to read the 122 pages - more than one year since I started, a year that included change of a job, and maybe 35 books in between. But that's typical of me, since I can't always concentrate in one thing. One of the aforementioned 35 books was Tolstoy's Confession. It actually helped me get the most out of this essay, since it provides a deeper look into his most personal thoughts. And in my opinion it also coincides with I. Berlin's conclusions. Berlin builds up his work around the Greek poet Archilochus' line that says "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"* He goes on by dividing some of the greatest writers and philosophers into two categories (yes, you guessed it) - foxes and hedgehogs. The foxes draw on a wide variety of experiences and for them the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (Shakespeare, Goethe, Aristotle). The hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (Plato, Pascal, Dostoevsky, Henry James)** His conclusion about Tolstoy is that he is a fox, who believes in being a hedgehog. And that is his great tragedy: Tolstoy began with a view of human life and history which contradicted all his knowledge, all his gifts, all his inclinations, and which, in consequence, he could scarcely be said to have embraced in the sense of practising it, either as a writer or as a man. From this, in his old age, he passed into a form of life in which he tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe, by behaving, in the end, as if factual questions of this kind were not the fundamental issues at all, only the trivial preoccupations of an idle, ill-conducted life, while the real questions were quite different. But it was of no use: the Muse cannot be cheated. Tolstoy was the least superficial of men: he could not swim with the tide without being drawn irresistibly beneath the surface to investigate the darker depths below; and he could not avoid seeing what he saw and doubting even that; he could close his eyes but not forget that he was doing so; his appalling, destructive sense of what was false frustrated this final effort at self-deception as it did all the earlier ones; and he died in agony, oppressed by the burden of his intellectual infallibility and his sense of perpetual moral error, the greatest of those who can neither reconcile, nor leave unreconciled, the conflict of what there is with what there ought to be. Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilised world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering selfblinded at Colonus. This section speaks for itself - you see that in addition to some very interesting ideas, Berlin is also capable of beautiful writing. So I strongly recommend this essay to anyone with interest in literature, philosophy, and obviously - Tolstoy. * In this edition's notes it becomes clear that there are (of course) more than one possible transcription of this line. ** Used a little help from Wikipedia here, since I tend to go into complicated explanations of ideas, which are otherwise beautifully simple.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Henry Cooksley

    I came for the philosophy and the intuition pumps, I left with a slightly better idea of what literary critics think of Tolstoy. I really wanted this to live up to expectations, and it certainly fluctuates between great and less great throughout the essay. But the whole thing just reeks of scientific illiteracy, even though that's partly what the essay and, I suppose, Tolstoy himself, is getting at. The essay touches on free will, rationalism vs. empiricism, causation, and related philosophical I came for the philosophy and the intuition pumps, I left with a slightly better idea of what literary critics think of Tolstoy. I really wanted this to live up to expectations, and it certainly fluctuates between great and less great throughout the essay. But the whole thing just reeks of scientific illiteracy, even though that's partly what the essay and, I suppose, Tolstoy himself, is getting at. The essay touches on free will, rationalism vs. empiricism, causation, and related philosophical topics, but there's never any serious discussion. Instead, the essay is really a (naive) English literature essay, and it's frustrating to read knowing how much better it could be with a bit of expansion. As Berlin seemed to not take this essay particularly seriously himself, according to a Wikipedia source, it's a shame that this essay is as famous and oft-quoted as it is. I see it everywhere in academic philosophy. “Opposed as Tolstoy and Maistre were – one the apostle of the gospel that all men are brothers, the other the cold defender of the claims of violence, blind sacrifice, and eternal suffering – they were united by inability to escape from the same tragic paradox: they were both by nature sharp-eyed foxes, inescapably aware of sheer, de facto differences which divide and forces which disrupt the human world, observers utterly incapable of being deceived by the many subtle devices, the unifying systems and faiths and sciences, by which the superficial or the desperate sought to conceal the chaos from themselves and from one another. Both looked for a harmonious universe, but everywhere found war and disorder, which no attempt to cheat, however heavily disguised, could even begin to hide; and so, in a condition of final despair, offered to throw away the terrible weapons of criticism, with which both, but particularly Tolstoy, were over-generously endowed, in favour of the single great vision, something too indivisibly simple and remote from normal intellectual processes to be assailable by the instruments of reason, and therefore, perhaps, offering a path to peace and salvation. Maistre began as a moderate liberal and ended by pulverising the new nineteenth-century world from the solitary citadel of his own variety of ultramontane Catholicism. Tolstoy began with a view of human life and history which contradicted all his knowledge, all his gifts, all his inclinations, and which, in consequence, he could scarcely be said to have embraced in the sense of practising it, either as a writer or as a man. From this, in his old age, he passed into a form of life in which he tried to resolve the glaring contradiction between what he believed about men and events, and what he thought he believed, or ought to believe, by behaving, in the end, as if factual questions of this kind were not the fundamental issues at all, only the trivial preoccupations of an idle, ill-conducted life, while the real questions were quite different. But it was of no use: the Muse cannot be cheated. Tolstoy was the least superficial of men: he could not swim with the tide without being drawn irresistibly beneath the surface to investigate the darker depths below; and he could not avoid seeing what he saw and doubting even that; he could close his eyes but not forget that he was doing so; his appalling, destructive sense of what was false frustrated this final effort at self-deception as it did all the earlier ones; and he died in agony, oppressed by the burden of his intellectual infallibility and his sense of perpetual moral error, the greatest of those who can neither reconcile, nor leave unreconciled, the conflict of what there is with what there ought to be. Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. At once insanely proud and filled with self-hatred, omniscient and doubting everything, cold and violently passionate, contemptuous and self-abasing, tormented and detached, surrounded by an adoring family, by devoted followers, by the admiration of the entire civilised world, and yet almost wholly isolated, he is the most tragic of the great writers, a desperate old man, beyond human aid, wandering self-blinded at Colonus.” Maybe the whole thing was written out of spite, to make up for the huge amount of time lost wading through the entirety of War and Peace.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Otto Lehto

    Come for the famous animal analogy but stay for the fascinating biography of Tolstoy. A fox is someone who knows many small things with incredible acumen but doesn't see the forest for the trees whereas a hedgehog only knows the One Big Thing to which everything relates but is oblivious to the world of particulars. This fascinating distinction between hedgehogs and foxes has become part of common philosophical parlance ever since the publication of this essay. However, Berlin uses the distinctio Come for the famous animal analogy but stay for the fascinating biography of Tolstoy. A fox is someone who knows many small things with incredible acumen but doesn't see the forest for the trees whereas a hedgehog only knows the One Big Thing to which everything relates but is oblivious to the world of particulars. This fascinating distinction between hedgehogs and foxes has become part of common philosophical parlance ever since the publication of this essay. However, Berlin uses the distinction as nothing but a pragmatic framing device. He mostly abandons it after the introduction like a pretty but distracting diamond, without any qualms. This is because the book is not about that distinction at all. Actually, it is about a rather DIFFERENT dichotomy. The intellectual dichotomy that the book wants to explore, and which only minimally overlaps with the Fox/Hedgehog distinction, is that between two "rival types of knowledge": 1) On the one hand, the scientistic, rationalistic type of knowledge which attempts to make sense of the totality of the facts and laws of the universe by the means of "methodical inquiry"; 2) On the other hand, the type of "non-scientific knowledge" that attempts to distill deeper human "wisdom" from a recognition of our irrational, fallible human nature in the face of the unknowable cosmos. The latter type, Berlin argues, is what Tolstoy aspired to portray in his literary works and to personally reach. Berlin's terminology brilliantly encapsulates Tolstoy's painstakingly empirical yet nihilistic description of war and Napoleonism, but also of the peacetime follies of Russian high society and the educated elite, as mere instances of the hubris of humanity unaware of its own limits. And it also fits into Tolstoy's latter year hermitage as a champion of the simple peasant who is IN tune with the rhythms of the soul and OUT of tune with the modern world. These two archetypes are presented as eternal figures that have existed in human society since the dawn of man. In the context of Tolstoy's 19th century society, type 1 is represented by optimistic scientific planners, Utopian social reformers, and warriors like Napoleon, while type 2 is, in divergent ways, represented by existentialists, mystics, religious reactionaries, skeptics, and nihilists. By way of a perverse but illuminating comparison, the arch reactionary Joseph de Maistre is introduced as a parallel figure, as another sharp and critical mind who knew how to tear down the "masters of the universe". They both wanted to expose the unintended consequences and social catastrophes that, in their minds, resulted from excessive faith in the powers of human reason. The story is told in a way that only Berlin can. Although its factual substance can be debated in the particulars, the analysis is clear, learned, and full of novel associations that continue to inspire. The prose is scintillating, joyful, rich, evocative, and constantly gushing with vitality. It occasionally veers into strange metaphors, dreamy invocations, and excessively baroque rhetorical flourishes, but it has to be admired as one of the most melodious products of English prose. No wonder that Berlin's style continues to be an inspiration to many second rate scribblers and imitators. Although it is somewhat misleadingly titled, occasionally florid in its metaphors, and full of underdeveloped ideas, The Hedgehog and the Fox is classic Isaiah Berlin. It introduces and successfully exploits several novel distinctions that have vast potential as analytical tools beyond their original locus of application. They are often left undeveloped in the purely systematic way. Berlin uses them pragmatically and abandons them when they are no longer useful to him. But this is alright, since Berlin is a dynamic producer of evocative insights, striking metaphors, and useful concepts - NOT a system builder. He is neither a fox nor a hedgehog (although more of the former). Perhaps he should be classified as a worker bee, hardworking and exploratory, whose mellifluous prose is like philosophical nectar collected from the rich tapestry of life.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Christina

    So, first things first. If I’m going to include books I read for class, I’m going to update my reading challenge for this year to exclude them, because I don’t think that’s fair, considering just how much reading I might do throughout any given semester. Second, I have to resist the urge to update my reading challenge goal too much, even though I’m reading a ton. I clearly thought I could only read 20 books for pleasure the start of the year, and feel like it would also be unfair to change my ch So, first things first. If I’m going to include books I read for class, I’m going to update my reading challenge for this year to exclude them, because I don’t think that’s fair, considering just how much reading I might do throughout any given semester. Second, I have to resist the urge to update my reading challenge goal too much, even though I’m reading a ton. I clearly thought I could only read 20 books for pleasure the start of the year, and feel like it would also be unfair to change my challenge halfway through the year. Thoughts? Now onto Berlin’s animal-themed philosophy. This book deserves five stars. It really does. Though it’s not a pleasure read and I didn’t expect it to be “fun,” it was a fascinating intellectual exercise. I can’t consciously actually give it five stars though, mostly because it was a bit too dense at times. I think this was because the majority of the book was about Tolstoy and War and Peace, which I have never actually read and know little to nothing about. If I’d known more about this great book at its author, I undoubtedly would have been able to see the insights in this book more easily. Once I got to the final sections where Berlin discusses Maistre and the intellectual currents of the time, I felt much more within my depth. The book (or rather, long essay) is essentially about the phrase “the fox knows many things, but the Hedgehog knows one big thing“ from the Greek poet writings. The idea behind the entire essay is that all people can be categorized as either Foxes, who know many things, and Hedgehogs, who know only one big thing. If you need more information on these categories, I highly suggest reading the foreword and first couple sections of the essay. Berlin then tries to fit Tolstoy into one of these two categories using his theory of history. (view spoiler)[He concludes that Tolstoy was a fox who wanted to be a hedgehog. (hide spoiler)] Berlin’s revelations in this book are fascinating - though for me, not so much for the usefulness of the division of individuals into ‘Foxes’ or ‘Hedgehogs’. While I understand he purpose of such a division, I believe, as Berlin himself admits later, that the world is not so black and white that we can cleanly divide all people into two categories. So, while the categorization of great minds, and indeed, intellectual individuals is an interesting philosophical process, it does not seem to be the most important revelation in this book. Rather, the most significant idea presented in this book is its explanation of competing theories of history. Berlin describes that Tolstoy, while believing that there are too many factors affecting each historical event for humans to determine its ‘cause’, also believed history must occur according to some order. This idea that history must occur according to some empirical order is akin to that of Marx, for example - but Tolstoy derides all such existing theories without presenting one of his own. However Tolstoy’s skepticism of the study of history presents us historians with an important question: can we ever hope to determine the ‘cause’ of some event? How much influence do the ‘great men of history’ (and by this I mean both those who partake in it and those who write it) truly have over its direction? Do we study these great influencers or the nameless masses, of whom we can hope to know only very little? These are the questions Berlin’s essay begged for me, and though I will undoubtedly begin categorizing my family and friends into Foxes and Hedgehogs as soon as I am able, I will also be thinking about how I approach my research, my writing, and even the questions I ask of history.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Sunny

    Classy book again offering angles on a topic that you think you may know and understand really well. Berlin discusses what he believed to be Tolstoy’s understanding of history with a particular focus on “war and peace” as the book through which Tolstoy is able to embellish some of his more intricate points. I guess the key tenet of the book is that history, in Tolstoy’s opinion, is much more than the crescendo of seemingly unrelated events that unfold one after another. The real history worth un Classy book again offering angles on a topic that you think you may know and understand really well. Berlin discusses what he believed to be Tolstoy’s understanding of history with a particular focus on “war and peace” as the book through which Tolstoy is able to embellish some of his more intricate points. I guess the key tenet of the book is that history, in Tolstoy’s opinion, is much more than the crescendo of seemingly unrelated events that unfold one after another. The real history worth understanding comprises the lives, the loves, the hates, the emotions in an essence and the inner meaning of history as supposed to the outer layer which is more than not written by the winners. Some of the best bits in the book were: • “Virginia Woolf half a century later levelled against the public prophets of her own generation – Shaw and Wells and Arnold bennet – blind materialists who did not begin to understand what it is that life truly consists of, who mistook its outer accidents, the unimportant aspects which lie outside the individual soul - the co called social, economic, political realities – for that which alone is genuine, the individual experience, the specific relation of individuals to one another, the colours, smells, tastes, sounds and movements, the jealousies, loves, hatreds, passions, the rare flashes of insight, the transforming moments, the ordinary day-to-day succession of private data which constitutes all there is". • "Maistre conceived of life as a savage battler at all levels between plants and animals no less than individuals and nations, a battle from which no gain was expected but what originated in some primal mysterious sanguinary self immolatory craving implanted by God. This instinct was far more powerful than the feeble efforts of rational man who tried to achieve peace and happiness by planning the life of society without reckoning with the violent forces which sooner or later would inevitably cause their puny structures to collapse like so many houses of cards. Maistre regarded the battlefield as typical of and like in all its aspects and derided the generals who thought that they were in fact controlling the movements of their troops and directing the course of the battle. He declared that no one in the actual heat of battle can begin to tell what is going on."

  19. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    This slim volume is really an essay, a literary reflection on the nineteenth century by one of the great thinkers of the twentieth. Berlin’s thesis is deceptively simple, and based on a stray bit of Greek poetry that says that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin applies this concept to thinkers, suggesting that someone like Marx, who sees the whole world through the lens of a single clear paradigm would be a hedgehog, while generalists who never come up with This slim volume is really an essay, a literary reflection on the nineteenth century by one of the great thinkers of the twentieth. Berlin’s thesis is deceptively simple, and based on a stray bit of Greek poetry that says that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin applies this concept to thinkers, suggesting that someone like Marx, who sees the whole world through the lens of a single clear paradigm would be a hedgehog, while generalists who never come up with a grand unifying theory are by nature foxes. Turning to Tolstoy, he finds a fox who aspired to be a hedgehog, and he runs with that to provide remarkable insight into War and Peace, speaking of influences, critical responses, and specific developments within the novel. It’s a fine mental exercise, and even if you’re not that interested in the subject, it’s a pleasure to watch Berlin as he works through it.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Travis Timmons

    Magisterial! Just wonderfully conceived, written, organized, transitioned, articulated, expanded upon, etc etc. I don't normally learn this much from philosophical writing (e.g. my favorite, Charles Taylor, turns me into an editor at every corner!). Berlin is my philosophical text gold standard now as a model piece of writing. However, the subject matter is just as important. The essay's significance derives from its focused clarity in applying the implications of Archilochus' fox/hedgehog fragm Magisterial! Just wonderfully conceived, written, organized, transitioned, articulated, expanded upon, etc etc. I don't normally learn this much from philosophical writing (e.g. my favorite, Charles Taylor, turns me into an editor at every corner!). Berlin is my philosophical text gold standard now as a model piece of writing. However, the subject matter is just as important. The essay's significance derives from its focused clarity in applying the implications of Archilochus' fox/hedgehog fragment. Berlin squeezes every drop of possible meaning from the fragment in his readings (and yoking!) of Tolstoy and Joseph de Maistre. Surely, this is the most important reading of War and Peace, and teasing out of Tolstoy's ultimately tragic project and self-deception.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Kuhlman

    4.5 out of 5. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." perhaps not as well known as the saying 'Jack of all trades, master of none', but similar. The latter refers to individual skills, while the former, unintentionally made famous by Berlin, refers to the understanding of ideas and concepts. First published in 1953, Isaiah Berlin’s renowned work is the "philosophy of history contained in War and Peace,” or put simply, Berlin offers his opinion on how Tolstoy perceives 4.5 out of 5. "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." perhaps not as well known as the saying 'Jack of all trades, master of none', but similar. The latter refers to individual skills, while the former, unintentionally made famous by Berlin, refers to the understanding of ideas and concepts. First published in 1953, Isaiah Berlin’s renowned work is the "philosophy of history contained in War and Peace,” or put simply, Berlin offers his opinion on how Tolstoy perceives life. He chose to focus on Tolstoy’s War and Peace because Tolstoy was and remains one of the most celebrated authors in history. Berlin posits that Tolstoy criticizes historians because they often select single aspects or events, usually political or economic, and represent it as the primary cause of social change, while spiritual – ‘inner’ – events are largely forgotten even though they are the most real and immediate experience of human beings. As Berlin summarizes more bluntly: the routine political historians are talking shallow nonsense and do not reveal the true causes of events. An interesting perspective that, on the surface, has a lot merit, after thoughtful consideration. According to Berlin, Tolstoy favors the benefit of looking within oneself for answers (thoughts, emotions, etc.) and not seeking answers outside you. Tolstoy tries to expose what he believes is the "great illusion:" that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events, and those that believe so turn out to be dreadfully mistaken. Tolstoy adds, "Man suffers much because he seeks too much, is foolishly ambitious and grotesquely overestimates his capacities.” Tolstoy believes that knowing that there are limits in everything and what those limits are, thereby understanding and accepting ones place in the world, is how one finds truth and peace - for the individual as well as collective. I found that Berlin’s essay on Tolstoy offers an interesting take and opportunity to reflect how to view events, whether in the past or in the present. Everyone has their own predilections, and it is important understand how others view an event, or how to assess from other perspectives. This essay also reinforced my desire to one-day tackle War and Peace. Are you a fox, or a hedgehog?

  22. 5 out of 5

    Richard Seltzer

    Read for the second time.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Jeff Rollins

    Just some initial thoughts. I'm no English major, so this will probably be incoherent. This book was fascinating, even given the fact that I have not read War and Peace, although I have read Anna Karenina. Obviously, dividing all people into one of two camps is imprecise at best, but for the purpose of explaining Leo Tolstoy's work, it provides an interesting context in which to analyze Tolstoy's writing. Briefly, Berlin divides people into either hedgehogs or foxes. Hedgehogs, Berlin states, see Just some initial thoughts. I'm no English major, so this will probably be incoherent. This book was fascinating, even given the fact that I have not read War and Peace, although I have read Anna Karenina. Obviously, dividing all people into one of two camps is imprecise at best, but for the purpose of explaining Leo Tolstoy's work, it provides an interesting context in which to analyze Tolstoy's writing. Briefly, Berlin divides people into either hedgehogs or foxes. Hedgehogs, Berlin states, see the world as having an overarching purpose. There is nothing coincidental, and in fact every event, no matter how small, has meaning. While this can easily be seen as a traditional religious view, no particular spiritual perspective is required. Berlin identifies a number of famous hedgehogs (from Plato to George Washington), noting that many hedgehogs are the kinds of people that are often recognized as great leaders and heroes. On the other hand, foxes don't believe that the world has any particular goal. Events do not have any meaning beyond the ones assigned to them by people, and even those meanings are probably wrong. People simply cannot understand enough to assign the correct meaning to an event, and they cannot understand enough to truly change the course of history. Significant events happen for essentially unknowable reasons, and the people we recognize as the instigators of such events are mostly just products of circumstance. It is this mystery of why things happen the way they do that is the most important idea in this book. Berlin starts with the claim that people just cannot ever know enough about every actor in a historical event to truly understand its significance. Logically, then, historical understanding is just a function of historical knowledge: if one could study an event for a long enough period of time, with unlimited access to the facts, then one could claim an understanding. While this is obviously impossible, it still supports the traditional study of history, where the more careful the study, the closer one can come to the truth. Eventually, though, Berlin reveals that Tolstoy had an even stronger belief: that no actor inside of history can ever understand why things happen the way they do, no matter the depth of his study. This is a reason to despair for the study of history. Tolstoy says that the factors required for understanding myriad, and a large number of them defy explanation at all. Perhaps an omniscient being could assign meaning to history, but everyone else stuck in the system has no chance. This idea shares some sort of kinship with Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, at least superficially. Shortly, no formal logical system can prove anything more than trivial statements about itself; similarly, nobody who experiences an event can come to a correct understanding about the true nature of what transpired. Tolstoy's expression of this view is fairly oblique, and related mostly through the happenings of his novels. The characters of his books are mostly left to speculate as to why events unfold in the manner they do. There is never a moment of clarity that allows everything to be resolved neatly, although Tolstoy himself wishes that could be true.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jean Tessier

    'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.' page 1 From the blurb at the back of the book, I thought it would be a discussions of generalists versus specialists, with Tolstoy as an example. That was not quite it. First, Berlin admits right off the bat that the metaphor may be a bit of a stretch. Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. page 2 What started as a parlor trick: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.' page 1 From the blurb at the back of the book, I thought it would be a discussions of generalists versus specialists, with Tolstoy as an example. That was not quite it. First, Berlin admits right off the bat that the metaphor may be a bit of a stretch. Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. page 2 What started as a parlor trick: find an arbitrary criteria and use it to partition a group of people, is a mere pretext to introduce a lengthy discussion of Tolstoy and how his philosophy is expressed in War and Peace. The metaphor can still be useful when it provides a new dimension with which to explore a topic. But in Berlin's case, it has become he's best-known contribution. It felt like Frankenstein and his monster, where the creation takes over the life of its creator. I haven't read War and Peace, but I did see the 2016 BBC production, so at least I was able to follow somewhat what Berlin was talking about. Tolstoy had a view of history similar to calculus: the force driving history is the integral of an infinite number of insignificant events. Any attempt to reduce it to specific actors or events is futile. Tolstoy showed great genius at destroying such attempts at reduction, but he was never able to resolve the integral to reveal what drives history. It got me thinking of chaos theory and strange attractors. It also got me thinking of the movement of electrons in a conductive material, where they bounce around between atoms somewhat at random but overall slowly drift in the direction of the electric current. Berlin contends that Joseph de Maistre was a big influence on Tolstoy. He had the same contempt for highfalutin intellectuals and also believed in a higher power. Only, his was the Catholic Church. They both agreed that warfare is an intrinsically unpredictable. This quote by Maistre: Vaincre, c'est avancer. Mais quel est celui qui avance? c'est celui dont la conscience et la contenance font reculer l'autre. page 60 Indicates that the winner is the one whose determination is stronger than the others and puts them on the defensive. Much like in kendo. The appendix confirms my impressions that Berlin can be a little long-winded. Like when he uses the word circumambient. (Incidentally, it's the title of a song by Grimes) I received this book as part of a White Elephant book exchange at work. I'm glad that I learned a lot while reading it, but I'm still a little disappointed that my early expectations of a discussion of generalists versus specialists weren't met.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Phrodrick

    This is an extended essay, 95 pages in this copy. Sir Isaiah Berlin applies the conceit that human thinkers are either: `hedgehogs" - focused on single topics / world views, or philosophies or "foxes" interested in conflicting philosophies and multiple areas of interest - to Leo Tolstoy. Sir Berlin tightens his case by limiting the essay to War and Peace. This essay is a classic and far better minds than mine have ruled it to be a masterpiece. I echo this acclaim and urge it as a worthy read both This is an extended essay, 95 pages in this copy. Sir Isaiah Berlin applies the conceit that human thinkers are either: `hedgehogs" - focused on single topics / world views, or philosophies or "foxes" interested in conflicting philosophies and multiple areas of interest - to Leo Tolstoy. Sir Berlin tightens his case by limiting the essay to War and Peace. This essay is a classic and far better minds than mine have ruled it to be a masterpiece. I echo this acclaim and urge it as a worthy read both as an example of readable language in the service of a tightly and exhaustively written logical argument and as an insightful analysis of War and Peace. That it also has important things to say about Leo Tolstoy elevates it to greater heights. I am not sure that the Hedgehog and Fox conceit fits Leo Tolstoy. The fact that Sir Berlin limited his essay to War and Peace speaks to the polymath mind that is reflected in the breath of Tolstoy's interests and writings. Alternately, Tolstoy's biography makes a strong case for the master's desire to isolate a consistent singular philosophy. Does this make him a `polymathic' hedgehog or a fox ultimately focused on a single den? Or does the typology break down by implying only exclusive categories? My read of this essay is that Sir Berlin knows that Tolstoy does not fit into either category. The impression is that IB maintains the conceit as a useful introduction to his essay. There are several places where IB makes clear that he is struggling to maintain the fox/hedgehog distinction and knew it fails to type Tolstoy. IB could have explicitly stated that Tolstoy cannot be placed in either classification, that the fox/hedgehog categories are useful but not exhaustive. Once freed from the limits of this insightful if ancient division, the rest of his essay remains intact as a masterpiece.

  26. 4 out of 5

    David Ranney

    This, for both Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, is the central tragedy of human life; if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world; above all, what presumptuous nonsense it is to claim to perceive an order merely on the strength of believing desperately that an order must exist, when all one actually perceives is meaningless chaos -- a chaos of wh This, for both Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, is the central tragedy of human life; if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world; above all, what presumptuous nonsense it is to claim to perceive an order merely on the strength of believing desperately that an order must exist, when all one actually perceives is meaningless chaos -- a chaos of which the heightened form, the microcosm in which the disorder of human life is reflected in an intense degree, is war. A delightfully cogent breakdown of Tolstoy's antipathetic view of history. Ever the empiricist, Tolstoy believed that life is a complex web of variables and moving parts, and that any attempt to craft an historical narrative is reductive absurdity. He's distrustful of historians who credit 'great men' and 'national forces' as the determiners of our past, and this skepticism illuminates his affection for the plebeians, those simple folk who by nature and circumstance are most likely to ride with the current of life, and not rage against the intellectual illusions we create for ourselves. I expect this essay to resonate with me for some time.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Will

    OK, so a publication which is ostensibly an 80 page examination of a Russian author's ruminations on the workings of history might not send most people leaping from their seats and scurrying to the bookshop but this book - like all great works - is is far more profound and widely applicable than its subtitle might suggest. Berlin - a fantastically readable essayist - summarises the historical themes of War & Peace before embarking on an erudite discussion about the existence (or lack thereof) of OK, so a publication which is ostensibly an 80 page examination of a Russian author's ruminations on the workings of history might not send most people leaping from their seats and scurrying to the bookshop but this book - like all great works - is is far more profound and widely applicable than its subtitle might suggest. Berlin - a fantastically readable essayist - summarises the historical themes of War & Peace before embarking on an erudite discussion about the existence (or lack thereof) of rules and processes governing the evolution of human society. Set very much in the context of the debates which framed late 19th Century thinking Berlin teases apart the contributions of the period's cognoscenti to provide some serious fodder for thought. Given the short length of this book, it packs a serious cerebral punch. For this reason I want to give it five stars but I can't help feeling that the fifth should belong to Tolstoy himself, in whose mind much of the thinking originated.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    A deeply profound book presumably about Tolstoy's philosophy of history in War and Peace and the author's perception of observable reality. The antique truth, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing," first put forward by Greek poet Archilochus, is a concept that Leo struggles with as he lapses between plot and philosophical discussion in W and P (the applications of this concept far exceed his masterpiece). Berlin argues that economists were early adapters of the hedgefo A deeply profound book presumably about Tolstoy's philosophy of history in War and Peace and the author's perception of observable reality. The antique truth, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing," first put forward by Greek poet Archilochus, is a concept that Leo struggles with as he lapses between plot and philosophical discussion in W and P (the applications of this concept far exceed his masterpiece). Berlin argues that economists were early adapters of the hedgefox dilemma, burrowing at the same time into minds across several disciplines (Shakespeare was a fox and Nietzsche a hedgehog, allegedly). He argues in a short but incredible read that Leo Tolstoy was a fox who his entire life sought unsuccessfully to be a hedgehog. What makes this book a classic is the applicability of its central concept - read it even if you've never heard the names Anna Pavlovna or Andrei Bolkonsky.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin

    The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. This division of thinkers based on this quip was made famous by Isaiah Berlin in the early fifties in the wake of the ideological paroxysms of the first half of the twentieth century. Quite a few eggs were broken then to make some hedgehog's ideological omelet. Berlin's essay was well in keeping with intellectual currents of the time and one cannot understand the grip one big idea can have on some without understanding the temptati The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. This division of thinkers based on this quip was made famous by Isaiah Berlin in the early fifties in the wake of the ideological paroxysms of the first half of the twentieth century. Quite a few eggs were broken then to make some hedgehog's ideological omelet. Berlin's essay was well in keeping with intellectual currents of the time and one cannot understand the grip one big idea can have on some without understanding the temptation of unifying everything with one big truth and having the final synthesis. No matter the smashed eggs.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Qianye

    “...to conceive of men as ‘free’ is to think of them as capable of having, at some past juncture, acted in some fashion other than that in which they did act; it is to think of what consequences would have come of such unfulfilled possibilities, and in what respects the world would have been different, as a result, from the world as it now is.”

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