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On Foxes and Hedgehogs
A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.
This single fragment of ancient Greek poetry received new life in 1953 thanks to an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Berlin wrote that writers and thinkers could be divided into two categories: hedgehogs, who saw the world through the prism of a single unifying idea, and foxes, who drew on a variety of experiences and traditions and believed that the world was too complicated to be boiled down to a single idea.
Berlin didn't weigh in on whether it was better to be a fox or a hedgehog (neither, of course, did Archilochus), but modern discussion tends to be fairly dismissive of hedgehogs and favorable to foxes. Data journalism website FiveThirtyEight adopted the fox as its logo and attributed its early successes to the fact that they were committed generalists. Researcher Phil Tetlock, who has dedicated his career to studying why some predictions succeed and others fail, argues that foxes are more accurate projectors.
I've certainly not been shy about taking shots at hedgehogs in the past.
Anything that explains everything explains nothing.— Adam Harstad (@AdamHarstad) August 23, 2016
Nor have many other quotable writers and thinkers.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.
This concept is generally called "Maslow's Hammer", though it is sometimes known as the Law of the Instrument based on an earlier quote by Abraham Kaplan ("I call it the law of the instrument, and it may be formulated as follows: Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.") It serves as a warning of anyone with only a single tool in their belt.
Hominem unius libri timeo (I fear the man of a single book)
Usually this quote is dusted off to warn against people who are only partially educated (cf. "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing"), but you'll sometimes see it deployed against people who have read one compelling book or heard one compelling argument and now believe that this explains everything. (Vocabulary word of the day: monocausotaxophilia-- "the tendency to explain everything as based on a single cause".)
That's actually a misinterpretation of the original quote, though. Aquinas, unlike Maslow and Kaplan, was not suggesting that being a hedgehog is a liability. On the contrary, his fear was of debating against someone who had devoted his life to the study of a single topic. Aquinas was writing in praise of hedgehogs and their single-minded dedication to the pursuit of a specific truth.
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