A line amongst fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus says ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing‘. This was the inspiration for Isaiah Berlin’s famous essay on the hedgehog and the fox. Berlin takes these words figuratively to illustrate a divide between two styles of thinker:
For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organising 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
He admits himself it is an “over-simple classification” which could become “artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd” if taken too far. But it captures something real, if only a fragment of a more complex reality. One way to flesh out its meaning might be to look for examples of each, identifying the fox’s way of being in the world. How are these traits embodied in actual lives, manifested in actual people making their way through the world? On loc 591 of their Envisioning Sociology, John Scott and Ray Bromley describes Patrick Geddes in these terms:
Geddes was himself chaotic and disorganized. He produced a constant stream of ideas, but had neither the inclination nor the discipline to work them out systematically or in detail. A man of enthusiasms, he flitted from one to another and worked on each only so long as he felt that he was contributing some shaping or directive insight. He was invariably interested in the next project rather than the current one, his mind racing ahead to future endeavors, and he left his disciples to undertake the systematic and detailed work that he eschewed for himself. Some of these disciples, as a result, became closely associated with his ideas and innovations, claiming that all they wrote had been derived from or inspired by Geddes.
Another example which immediately comes to mind was Leibniz, described in the The Courtier and the Heretic as “the Great Gatsby of his time, always believing in the green light in the distance, the ever receding destination of all our efforts” (pg 301). This is how the author describes him on pg 91:
The number of projects that Leibniz managed simultaneously was almost always an order of magnitude greater than eight. When an idea flared in his kinetic mind, he would grab it like a torch and run until the next bright light caught his eye, and then he would add that one to the bundle in his arms, too, dropping a few others in his haste and so leaving behind a trail of smoldering visions. In the 120 volumes’ worth of material in the Leibniz archives, there are without doubt hundreds of sparkling inventions that have yet to be catalogue, let alone realized. He wrote about everything, to everybody, all the time.
Could anyone offer other examples? I’d like to collect biographical portraits of foxes and hedgehogs.