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Sunday, July 08, 2012

On the hedgehog

In a famous essay, the Fox and the Hedgehog, Isaiah Berlin creates a taxonomy of thinkers based on a line from Archilochus:  ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ The thinkers who know one thing are, in Berlin’s view, systematic thinkers. All thought tends to the center, among them, the one big thing that explains the world. The Foxes are anti-systematic. They are essayists, explorers of the intersections of thought and experience, from the scope of which they take it no principle can absorb experience without something stubborn and unabsorbed remaining from that experience – what Thomas Nagel calls the quality of “what it is to be like”…

Now evidently, Berlin is using the hedgehog image as a way into talking about the mindset of certain writers, and in particular, of Tolstoy. Tolstoy has to an extreme degree the fox’s virtue, which is to understand the difference made by experience, by what it is to be like – and he has to an extreme degree the hedgehog’s vice, which is a thirst for the god’s eye view that will not rest until everything has been settled according to some central principle.

However, what gets a little lost here is why Archilochus chose the hedgehog, of all creatures, to represent the systematic viewpoint – if Berlin’s interpretation is right.

There is, perhaps, another way of looking at the hedgehog’s emblematic meaning. In Schlegel’s Fragments – which is, among other thing, a defense of the Fragment as a genre of philosophical knowledge -  the hedgehog, Igel in German, reappears – perhaps in some reference to Archilochus’s line:

“A fragment must be like a tiny artwork, wholly sundered from the surrounding world and complete in itself like a hedgehog.”

What Schlegel’s image proposes is not that the one great thing the hedgehog knows absorbs the world – rather, it separates a tiny, particular experience from the world and completes it. The paradoxical stress, here, is between the fragment and perfect or complete closure [in sich selbst vollendet sein]. While Berlin’s does not begin his essay by asking about what it is, in the hedgehog, that leads to the “one big thing’ he knows, Schlegel – whether consciously referencing Archilochus or not – returns to the ethological, or  perhaps I should say ethnological, base of the comparison. [After I wrote this,  I discovered that Anthony Grafton had been here before me – noticing this echo, too, in an essay on fragments in the classical tradition]

Stephen Gould, writing about Archilochus’s image, quotes Erasmus’s latin translation, which preserved the image in the humanist curicculum:  multa novit vulpes, verum echinus unum magnum. Gould also, rightly, goes to Pliny for some sense of what the hedgehog meant to the ancients. However, Pliny deserves to be quoted at length, for it is in Pliny that we get a sense of the hedgehog figuring in a certain kind of game or work – that of hunting. This aspect is neglected in Gould’s essay.

“When they perceive one hunting of them, they draw their mouths & feet close togither, with all their belly part, where the skin hath a thin down: & no pricks at all to do harme, and so roll themselves as round as a foot-ball, that neither dog nor man can come by any thing but their sharpe-pointed prickles. So soon as they see themselves past all hope to escape, they let their water go and pisse upon themselves. Now this urine of theirs hath a poisonous qualitie to rot their skin and prickles, for which they know well enough that they be chased and taken. And therefore it is a secret and a special pollicie, not to hunt them before they have let their urine go; and then their skin is verie good, for which chiefly they are hunted: otherwise it is naught ever after and so rotten, that it will not hang togither, but fall in peeces: all the pricks shed off, as being putrified, yea although they should escape away from the dogs and live still: and this is the cause that they never bepisse and drench themselves with this pestilent excrement, but in extremitie and utter despaire: for they cannot abide themselves their own urine, of so venimous a qualitie it is, and so hurtfull to their owne bodie; and doe what they can to spare themselves, attending the utmost time of extremitie, insomuch as they are ready to be taken before they do it.”

This habit of the hedgehog – or at least this trait attributed to the hedgehog – puts us closer to the particular knowledge possessed by the hedgehog, in Archilochus’s verse. It is knowledge in a field – the field of hunting – and the hedgehog, far from being the systematic master, is the victim, the object of the chase.  The domain of hunting seems to be behind the fables that Archilochus uses as his references – fables now obscure to us, although we still know the stock of them labeled with the name of their supposed author, Aesop.

One of the reasons Berlin poses the question of Tolstoy’s philosophy of history and how seriously we are to take it is that he is concerned, as one of the premier Cold War intellectuals, with Marx’s philosophy of history. What he wants to know is whether it is possible to get the hedgehog’s view of history outside of the reification of history – that is, outside of an explanation of causes (attributed to “history’’) that is merely an affirmation of effects. The nineteenth century in which he places Tolstoy was hypnotized by the verb, ‘determine’. That x ‘determines’ y seemed to say something more profound about y’s connection to x than to say x causes y. Determine – in German, Bestimmung – announces a power relationship that quickly slides into myth – the myth of the relation between creator, who shapes, and the creature, who lives within the creator’s lines, the creator’s survey plat.

“History alone – the sum of empirically discoverable data – held the key to the mystery of why
what happened happened as it did and not otherwise; and only history, consequently, could throw light on the fundamental ethical problems which obsessed him as they did every Russian thinker in the nineteenth century.What is to be done? How should one live? Why are we here?What must we be and do? The study of historical connections and the demand for empirical answers to these proklyatye voprosy1 became fused into one in Tolstoy’s mind, as his early diaries and letters show very vividly.”

Berlin is moving his pieces forward in the essay in broad, easy gestures, which has the advantage of making his essay accessible and interesting, and the disadvantage that comes from refusing to nitpick: that is, gliding over certain philosophically important issues. In particular, the junction of empirical and positivist does a lot of work for Berlin in the essay, even as one has to question its self-evidence. Positivism was not simply about the empirical – it was about progress. It was about a pattern in history that is above the empirical, the scatter of facts. Similarly,  the romantic protest against  the great anti-metaphysical writers of the eighteenth century was not, as Berlin actually knew, simply a rejection of science. Schlegel was not rejecting science so much as questioning its universal application – the fragment, in Schlegel’s view, presents a sort of monadic block to the statistical method of science. It doesn’t transcend the empirical – far from it. It dwells in the empirical, it weighs down experience with all its force, it presents its ‘bristles’ to the world like a hedgehog. And it does so in the consciousness that it is being hunted. For science, here, is no neutral social mechanism – it is used with definite aims.

One of those aims, as Berlin sees, is to prop up egotism. Tolstoy is a great deflator of egotism, and in this is the heir of the moralistes – of, especially, Pascal. But Pascal does retain the ego, the hateable “I” – and Tolstoy has his doubts. Perhaps in fact egotism precedes the ego: we have a theory of the I that precedes the I. Schlegel’s fragment and Tolstoy’s rage against the illusions on which are propped further illusions – egotism propping the ego – keep company with each other, in as much as the fragment is about its opposite – a perfect self-enclosure, a perfect completion – and the critique of egotism is about the nourishment of this thing that does not exist, the ego. And yet, and yet … something, something is stuffed into that great dark bag that is Ivan Ivanovich’s last terrifying experience on earth…

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