Hedgehogs, Ideologues, and the ‘Woke’

Lance Morrow, writing at The Wall Street Journal, referenced a line by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus:  “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  In a 1953 book, philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested that the world is divided between hedgehogs and foxes—between those who believe in One Big Thing (one all-sufficient super-explanation), and those who are content with a more modest, irrational and even incoherent idea of history’s unfolding.

Morrow asserts that “The world’s hedgehog population tends to expand in times of stress and change. Lately it has exploded in the U.S. Hedgehogs are thick on the ground, all of them advancing One Big Thing or another—each peering through the lens of a particular obsession. At the moment, the biggest One Big Thing is race—the key, it seems, to all of America, to the innermost meanings of the country and its history.”  He asserts that Biden has gone full hedgehog: “President Biden, who spent almost 40 years following the ways of an amiable political fox in the Senate—exchanging pleasantries and now and then doing legislative business with Confederate mossbacks like Strom Thurmond and James Eastland —has, in his old age, signed on with the monomaniacs of the left.”  Apologies to the actual foxes for lumping them in with Joe Biden, even Biden of the past, but the point is a good one.

A letter in today’s WSJ suggests that “perhaps more should be said about where the creature (the hedgehog) has made his lair: the social-science and humanities departments of academia.”  The writer continues:  “As a student, I was a hedgehog. If you are curious about revolutions, all you need to do is read my 1966 master’s thesis: “Asceticism as a Form of Revolutionary Behavior.”  But I had to leave the campus and earn a living. I had to abandon the heady “truth” for the crazy quilt of unrelated, changing and sometimes contradictory truths. I became a fox.”

Hedgehog>>>fox is, a think, a common pattern of human development with age and experience.  Biden’s movement in the other direction is an exception.

The original article and the letter reminded me of a few things:

–Writer Andre Maurois asserted that those who are intelligent, but not in any way creative, tend to be eager adopters of intellectual systems created by others and to apply those systems more vigorously (rigorously?) than the creators of those systems would have.  Reasonably intelligent but not creative is, I think, a fair description of many denizens of academia–probably inevitably so, given the vast expansion of the university archipelago over recent decades.

–C S Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, describes a schoolbook whose authors, while representing their book as an English literature text, actually use it to propagate what seems to be a 1940s version of deconstruction.  Lewis notes that “literary criticism is difficult, and what (these authors) actually do is very much easier.”  It’s a valuable insight, I think.  Hedgehog theories spare one a whole lot of work in dealing with the specifics of a subject.  Becoming an acolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else.

For example: if everything is about (let’s say) power relationships–all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics–you don’t need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying “that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors” (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan’s unusual novel True Crime.)  And at the K-12 level, teaching ‘woke’ math to 10th graders is surely easier than teaching them actual algebra, and similarly for other subjects. Laziness–intellectual laziness and just plain laziness–likely plays a significant role here.

–Arthur Koestler, himself a former Communist, described the nature of intellectually closed systems:

A closed system has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of casuistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself. The orthodox Freudian school in its early stages approximated a closed system; if you argued that for such and such reasons you doubted the existence of the so-called castration complex, the Freudian’s prompt answer was that your argument betrayed an unconscious resistance indicating that you ourself have a castration complex; you were caught in a vicious circle. Similarly, if you argued with a Stalinist that to make a pact with Hitler was not a nice thing to do he would explain that your bourgeois class-consciousness made you unable to understand the dialectics of history…In short, the closed system excludes the possibility of objective argument by two related proceedings: (a) facts are deprived of their value as evidence by scholastic processing; (b) objections are invalidated by shifting the argument to the personal motive behind the objection. This procedure is legitimate according to the closed system’s rules of the game which, however absurd they seem to the outsider, have a great coherence and inner consistency.

The atmosphere inside the closed system is highly charged; it is an emotional hothouse…The trained, “closed-minded” theologian, psychoanalyst, or Marxist can at any time make mincemeat of his “open-minded” adversary and thus prove the superiority of his system to the world and to himself.

Hedgehog tend to live in a mental world which is intellectually closed; information that may challenge the axioms on which the hedgehog centers his worldview are an emotional threat, and must be disregarded or ‘proved’ to be invalid.  Hence the ’emotional hothouse’ characteristic, which seems to apply very well to aggregations of the ‘Woke’.

Your thoughts?


31 thoughts on “Hedgehogs, Ideologues, and the ‘Woke’”

  1. I don’t think Archilocus was talking about a belief system.

    He was trying to describe the difference between a common smart person, who has useful knowledge about a lot of different areas, and a person who has deep knowledge of a specialty.

    But also the difference between the ordinary person, who has moral feelings of no great intensity about most everything, and the person with very strong moral convictions about one particular thing.

  2. No political menagerie is complete without Pareto’s lions and foxes, Pareto who pointed out that, “when it is useful to them, men can believe a theory of which they no nothing more than its name.”

    Or Ortega y Gasset: The characteristic note of our time is the dire truth that, the mediocre soul, the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be mediocre, has the gall to assert its right to mediocrity, and goes on to impose itself when it can.

    There was a Marxist character in one of Burgess’s novels whose catchphrase was, “Clear your mind of cant.” Burgess was a hit or miss prophet but a close observer, and almost any conversation I have (outside . . . certain . . . circles hmmhmm) about current events calls the phrase to my mind.

    If the last few years have proved nothing else, they have proven the truth of those professorial observations.

    Cousin Eddie

  3. Seems as if the “Hedgehog” is the guy with the bulldozer and rifle who plans on getting what HE wants. And you are going to pay to make him happy. Usually, he doesn’t really care what IT is, as long as he has the power to make you pay for it and to be responsible when it all fails.

  4. The prototype of the closed intellectual system is, of course, religion. A religion is, by definition, an explanation of the whole universe.

    Material human progress is largely coupled with the discovery that the gods weren’t really that interested in us, thus making religion dispensable. At the same time, personal responsibility and autonomy have been protected in secular society. It’s not an accident that the first thing added to the Constitution (also an all encompassing document) was religious freedom, coming after a few centuries of witch burnings, heretic burnings and decade long religious wars.

  5. “Material human progress is largely coupled with the discovery that the gods weren’t really that interested in us, thus making religion dispensable.”
    No idea what this means. Religion has only been considered “dispensable” in small parts of the planet, for the past generation or two.

  6. IMHO, religion became “dispensable” in the West sometime in the 18th C–dispensable in the sense that the ideological issues of the day were no longer religious. The centuries of war in Europe had drawn the claws and broken the teeth of those passions. The Treaty of Westphalia recognized the legitimacy of religious pluralism within Europe as a whole, setting the wagon of secularism rolling–a wagon that was souped-up, to very great effect, on this continent.

    Other passions–just as deadly– would replace them, of course, but the religious motives and bases for conflict were in that sense outgrown in that part of the globe.

    Cousin Eddie

  7. “The Treaty of Westphalia recognized the legitimacy of religious pluralism within Europe as a whole”…this relates to the concept of liberalism (CLASSICAL liberalism) as a Machine for Preventing Civil War:


    Not obvious to me, though, why religious pluralism necessarily leads to secularism. There have been a lot of fairly small sects that have been quite religious.

  8. David, I think you and Eddie are coming at the same end point from different directions. The Civil War that Classic Liberalism ended was the violent part of the Reformation.

    The only way you can have real religious pluralism is to have social spaces where religion doesn’t go, at least in an official legal way. Otherwise you just have dhimmitude.

  9. I’m not saying that religious pluralism -necessarily- leads to anything, it just seems to have done so in modern times. (My cards are on the table–I’m philosophically and practically an atheist, with right-libertarian political ideals and preferences, and a big fan of secularism;
    by trade and occasional practice I was a librarian-archivist-professor (emeritus now) and history prof (adjunct) at a middling Southern state school. (Those are neither lucrative nor particularly influential jobs in America, in case you’re wondering, or have children.)

    Christopher B puts it pretty well.

    Cousin Eddie

  10. In 1950 how many people anywhere on the planet would have said they weren’t religious, and/or that religion was dispensable? There’s some bizarre revisionism going on here.

  11. It’s interesting to me (since I just severed a rather toxic relationship with one) that the “closed system” outlined above very closely resembles the way a paranoid-schizophrenic views the world. In the particular case of my (now former) friend, he had delusions of importance (formerly referred to a “grandeur”) and delusions of persecution. He was able to relate to me, in tremendous detail, events that had simply never occurred.

    In point of fact he was simply such a loony tune that he couldn’t keep his career, a simple job, a family or a marriage intact, and has now isolated himself in his cocoon of delusions from one of his last friends.

    The ways of thinking that literally everything was aimed at him closely resemble the closed system’s way of short-circuiting anything in reality that doesn’t match their preconceived notions. They will either ignore the data, claim the data is fake, or cast aspersions on the motives of the person/organization supplying the data.

    The philosophies and religions (and many socio-political groups like Marxists, socialists, and far-left Dem-wingers) which which embrace their closed systems thus are doomed to ultimate failure, since the continuous integration of new information, and the often necessary shedding of older notions of how the universe works, are necessary to growth and development.

    The biggest problem is that they can take down a huge number of people with them in their death throes. Western civilization is on the edge of having its fragile web destroyed by these neo-Luddites.

  12. I’m curious how to look at the “hidden hand” idea – one which is a relatively simple generalization that doesn’t just accept but celebrates great diversity and sometimes apparently contradictory facts. Indeed, the whole open market (of ideas, religions, business, etc.) ideal celebrates competing interpretations as long as they are not imposed and accept the arena of argument. (Eiseley’s idea of organization is also not one likely to be taken as dogma.)

  13. Here’s an example that used to be famous: Galileo Galilei dispensed with religion as an explanation for the workings of the planets.

    Here’s another: the US Constitution dispensed with religious tests for public office.

    Secularism–i.e. more and more people worrying less and less about religion, or ‘dispensing’ with it as a guide to public and private life–has been a trend globally for a while now. There are whole books about it, and Youtube has plenty also.

    Nobody said religion has disappeared, and FWIW IMHO it won’t.

    Cousin Eddie

  14. Lesson not quite over. Brian asked how many people in 1950 considered religion dispensable.

    Well, all Communists. Increasing numbers of non-communist Western Europeans, Americans, and others in developed and developing countries, as proven by
    the statistics of church membership, attendance, and self-identification.

    I haven’t checked recently but would bet that the trends are the same. I understand that the Czechs, for instance, have very low levels of piety, even after the removal of the Red yoke,
    and that in post-Sovietia religion has made only modest comebacks generally.

    No revisionism, which is usually a term applied by ignoramuses to assertions they don’t understand.

    Cousin Eddie

  15. Cousin Eddie: I was going to respond, but your final line shows you are a completely unserious person who isn’t interested in the sort of respectful dialogue that we practice here. Have a nice life.

  16. I’ve never read that “fox and hedgehog” quote the way the author of this post does. Maybe I came to it from a different standpoint, but I’ve always taken the view that the difference between the fox and the hedgehog was not that the hedgehog was closed-minded, or that he was stupid. Nor that the fox was necessarily the smart one that “knew it all and better”.

    My original take, which I see no particular reason to revise, is that the hedgehog is the thinker who knows one solid ground truth, and applies that to everything. The fox, on the other hand, knows a lot of different “truths”, and liberally applies all of them to everything, particularly when they’re not applicable.

    In the debate about “de-funding the police”, the hedgehog is the person who knows and instinctively understands that people are bastards, and if you lighten up on the enforcement of social standards and laws, anarchy and chaos ensue. The fox is that set of idiots that manage to “know” a lot of mutually opposing things, like “only cops should carry guns” and “all cops are bastards”. They do this with a facile ease that you cannot penetrate with even an iota of logic or questioning of their basic premises–You point out the things that they say which are mutually opposed, and they breeze right over it all, never having a moment of cognitive dissonance over the contradictions.

    Hedgehogs, however…? They don’t possess the nuance, the sophistication. They know one thing: All people are bastards. Trust no one.

    Which is why the hedgehogs of the world are a lot harder to fool, and the foxes are so easily gulled.

  17. Vis-a-vis the comments made by Cousin Eddie regarding religion, and the way it’s fallen in terms of importance.

    I’ve always found it interesting that there seems to be a basic human need for the irrational in their lives. I’ve got this formerly Mormon acquaintance, who is now proudly atheistic as hell. She has filled her “void of irrationality” with a belief in the healing powers of crystals, and astrology. She also sees no real conflict in any of that.

    Frankly, I think that there’s a void in all of us we have to fill with something that’s fundamentally irrational, and if we don’t, we can’t deal with the sheer existential horror of day-to-day life. Remove religion, and that void gets filled with all sorts of stuff, from healing crystals to Hohlweltlehre.

    As such, through observation? I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d rather live next door to your random “deeply religious” type than your random “woke” dumbass. I’m less likely to have a mob led to my doorstep by the religious nutters, and I can put up with the random proselytization attempts a lot better than I can the mobs come to burn me out because of my skin color.

  18. Kirk,
    The idea of original sin and the weight of experience behind a belief in the problems of pride and coveting seem to me to have permeated much of the thinking of the founders – and insufficiently those of the French Revolution. I think that is close to what you mean by “all men are bastards”, though it might be a bit more comforting to think of it in religious terms (or not). Anyway, that was incredibly important to them and seems lost on progressives who seem to have no understanding of why checks, balances, respect for individuals and the expectation that others show that respect are important. And this as they bully, knock down the elderly and show no respect for ideas or property that is not theirs.

  19. Kirk: “Frankly, I think that there’s a void in all of us we have to fill with something that’s fundamentally irrational …”

    Perhaps the analogy would be to Eucid’s axioms in geometry. In order to build a logical system of geometry, Euclid found it necessary to accept certain things as unprovable self-evident truths — beliefs, if you will.

    Maybe we are stuck with the same problem — we each have to stipulate to some axiomatic beliefs as a foundation for our understanding of the world. Where it breaks down is that most of us are not Euclid — and our axiomatic beliefs can be mutually inconsistent. But something about the human mind makes us reject inputs which would point out incompatibilities in our fundamental beliefs.

  20. @Ginny,

    It may be the way I was first exposed to it, but the concept of Calvinist “original sin” has always ticked me off. The implication of it, as I was taught, was that I had an inherently blameworthy nature, born in imbued sin and that it was all my own damn fault. Which I rejected, utterly–I don’t think you’re inherently sinful, really. It’s more that we’re all born with the capacity for being either right bastards or being decent mensch, and it is up to us to make that choice/distinction in our conduct. That, I’m comfortable with–The idea that I was “sinful” before birth, and inherently so, by virtue of that birth? That always pissed me off, just as much as the idea of being inherently virtuous did.

    I don’t think the fundamental question of man’s existence is necessarily that of whether he’s automatically sinful or virtuous; the real question is, how does he conduct himself in this life? I’m also extremely dubious of a proposition that says you can overcome a lifetime of bastardy with one late-in-the-game confessional death-bed conversion to virtue, without ever living that out during the course of your life.

    So… I’m not sure I’d phrase the way I think about things as being in congruence with the version of “original sin” I was taught, acknowledging that I’ve come to believe that the people who were espousing that to me weren’t quite doing the best job of interpreting or communicating things to me. I’m more along the lines of human potential–You can be a decent human being, but you have to actually work at it. Default status for most of us is “bastard”, though–Mostly because that’s the “easy setting” for the majority. Being a decent human being takes some damn effort, and you have to make the conscious choice to do it. Which, again, most of us don’t make.

    There may be a few “natural saints” out there; I’ve never met one that I was certain of, although there are a couple of Down’s Syndrome kids I’ve met who I’m pretty sure are fairly close to being naturally within God’s grace. The rest of us, I am afraid, have to struggle.

  21. @Gavin,

    We’re saying some of the same things, but the general thrust of what I’m getting at isn’t necessarily that most of us require any of this to be at all thought through. Indeed, if we did stop to think it through, then a lot of it would just look… Silly.

    What I’m trying to get at is the observation that everybody has this need, to some degree or another, to have this thread of irrational belief woven through our lives. Whether that belief is in some abstract system of thought, another human being, or something else entirely, we all seem to need something filling the same void that religion normally fills in traditional culture. If you don’t fill that void somehow, then you’re creating a vacuum in your soul/psyche that absolutely will get filled.

    At least, this is what I observe. I know people who’re “devout atheists”, and the really odd thing about them is how closely they resemble the people they mock, and how thoroughly congruent much of their thinking is. Ask a believer to deny God, and they’re just going to glitch out on you–The same way an atheist will, when you ask them to deny their denial of God. They both believe in something as an article of their faith, whether it’s the presence or absence of divine power.

    Which, to a pragmatic empiricist such as myself, is equally nuts. I don’t doubt the existence of the divine, yet I also do not misdoubt that existence, either–I’ve simply seen no direct evidence, either way. And, I acknowledge fully that what faith in the divine that I have is the result of logical inference based on evidence that I have misinterpreted or lack the understanding of.

    I’ve consciously chosen my irrational belief system. I wonder how many others have made similar choices, and how many of us have just slipped unconsciously into the set we have, without ever reflecting on what we were doing?

    My former Mormon friend with the belief in healing crystals… I do have to wonder, sometimes, how the hell she got from the one to the other, and if she ever really sat down to actually think about it all, and consider it in the cold clear light of day. I’d wager she didn’t, because when you do ask her, she just glitches out the way she probably did when she was on her mission and someone challenged her then-conventionally Mormon beliefs.

    I’ve no idea why we have this feature, but from the prevalence of it that I’ve observed, I think it’s pretty fundamental to the human condition.

  22. KirkL “I’ve consciously chosen my irrational belief system.”

    Don’t sell yourself short. There is nothing irrational about keeping an open mind — show me a Burning Bush, and I will accept the evidence.

    The obvious major irrationality today is the believers in Big Government, aka socialism. History tells us it has failed every time it has been tried. So how could any thinking person today belief in that system? — and yet they do. It is about as indefensible as believing that a country can run massive Trade Deficits and Budget Deficits for ever.

  23. Kirk…”I’ve got this formerly Mormon acquaintance, who is now proudly atheistic as hell. She has filled her “void of irrationality” with a belief in the healing powers of crystals, and astrology. She also sees no real conflict in any of that.”

    I don’t think this is at all uncommon. Most people who have rejected traditional religions have *not* become atheists of the scientific materialist type…they seem to mostly have beliefs in things such as the magical crystals, homeopathic medicines, various Eastern religions, and a conscious Gaia. There is a very interesting book, ‘Strange Rites’ (Tara Isabella Burton), focused on the rise of various alternative faiths. I want to write a review of it, but it’s got so much in it that it’s hard to get one’s arms around it.

  24. Kirk,
    I don’t know enough about it or believe that much in it to discuss theology. I do think that assuming we will all do the right thing and that the pressure of the crowd will bring out the best in us doesn’t make much sense at all. They did share a sense of man’s ability to transcend – be surprisingly good, surprisingly heroic – but we also are pretty fallible. . How about Franklin’s observation when he describes breaking his plan to be a vegetarian: he’s in a boat and a fish is caught and immediately fried with all the wonderful smell and taste of one freshly caught – he eats it. He justifies doing this by noting that the fish had eaten other fish so why shouldn’t he eat the fish? Years later, he observes, it is good that man is such a reasonable creature because then he can find reasons for whatever he wants. This irony seems characteristic of people who feel man has a loving heart and a reasoning mind, but both can be betrayed by, you might not want it to be original sin but it is our tendency to want our way, to want what we want.

  25. Animal proverb for the day: “‘Tis the hit cur that yelps.”

    People who use capacious terms like “Revisionism” ought to be able to demonstrate what’s “revisionistic” about any of the historical assertions made about the decline of religion in modern times. In my world, it’s common practice–and common courtesy–to have something to contribute other than contradiction.

    As for the nature of homo sap., I’m largely onboard with that Frenchie’s line about gazing deep into the soul of a good man, and finding it terrible, terrible.

    Personally I don’t feel any void that faith fills. I have been blessed with a lot of interests and the time and freedom–even encouragement–to pursue them. The occasional online spat is a small price to pay for having such a satisfying life.

    Cousin Eddie

  26. I did not intend to disparage religion so many comments ago though I would be the wrong person to hire to defend it. I’ll bet no one here knows anyone that considers sacrificing a goat or chicken and having an “expert” decipher the entrails before embarking on some venture or trip merely prudent. I live a sheltered life, so may be surprised.

    If you extend that to other pretentious displays of faith, it has steadily declined over the last few centuries most places. The places where it is still prevalent are have not noticeably benefited from them.

  27. @MCS,

    The pride you take in “not being superstitious” is part of what I’m getting at; you may not examine entrails very much these days, but irrational belief is very much with us still. Witness the near-flawless credulity that many invest in Marxism or Socialism, despite copious evidence that both schools of economics are not at all in accordance with human nature.

    I fear that all we’ve really managed is to replace one form of irrational belief with another; one that is easier for today’s rubes to internalize and “believe” in.

    The root of it all is the belief; there are people who are devout atheists who would, I’m certain, stand there denying everything if they were presented with incontrovertible proof that they were wrong, and that God does indeed exist as conceived by the Christian faith. That’s not rational; that’s irrational belief. What you believe is not the flippin’ point; the point is that people believe in these things. In the grand scheme of things, the irrational belief in a religion is generally far less harmful than the belief that some have in the purely secular things like the various “-isms”. I’d rather someone be at my door proselytizing for Christ to save my sorry ass than for them to be coming down the street looking for “wreckers” or “landlords”. We’ve left behind the sort of religion that persecutes Cathars for believing differently, but we still have this predilection for going after others that don’t share our secular beliefs. And, I fear, that’s all a part of this need for irrationality that I’ve pointed out. Today’s thugs and ideologues aren’t going after the Nestorians among us, but they are very similarly going after other unbelievers in their particular brand of idiocy.

    There’s not a whit’s worth of difference between a Catholic going after a Cathar and the Antifa going after whoever they’ve defined as “fascist”.

    And, that’s the point. There’s an essential insanity in the human condition that demands these things, apparently, and it would do us well to recognize that the old insanity of religious differences and persecutions is still with us, merely translated into secular terms. People have an outright need to BELIEVE in something, and if they’re not believers in Christ, going after the heathen, then they’re Democrats demonizing “Trumpsters” for similar transgressions against their belief system.

  28. I wasn’t aware that the Vatican had declared a new Crusade and the Inquisition seems rather absent from everyday concerns and has been for some time. That is my point.

  29. Plenty of people reject Faith In God; those that replace it with Faith In Man can be–very often are–as delusional as the others can be, and as dangerous. Obviously.

    I can only speak for myself, but I concluded that I was not religious by the age of 20, and that I was not spiritual (or political) by the age of 30. And I’m just fine with my neighbor, whether he believes in one god or in twenty.

    Cousin Eddie

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