Hedgehog or Fox?

Back in the mid-1980s, when I was about a decade into my academic career, a senior colleague and close friend of mine gave me some advice as I was preparing my “file” for promotion: “Sam, you’re studying too many different subjects. Try to focus on one and be an expert in that. Academia today wants specialists, not generalists.”

One of the ironies in this vignette is that my friend is British – the same country where one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century worked: Prof. Isaiah Berlin. Among other things, Berlin is famous for his essay book “The Hedgehog and the Fox”. Taking his cue from the Greek philosopher Archilochus, Berlin divided thinkers into two categories: hedgehogs, who see the world through the perspective of one single, defining idea; and foxes whose standpoint is a wide variety of life experiences and areas of knowledge. As Berlin explained, the former digs deep into one subject area, gaining great expertise in that field; the latter brings together ideas from several sources, even if the fox’s knowledge base is more superficial than the hedgehog’s.

In our world, both are useful and even necessary. We accumulate detailed knowledge incrementally through many hedgehogs – and then a few foxes try and “connect the dots” between ostensibly disparate fields. Most big paradigmatic advances in modern times have been contributed by foxes, but they could not have done it without the groundwork laid by the hedgehogs.

So why the friendly “warning” of my friend and colleague? Because the world of academic research has come to reward – almost exclusively – hedgehog work. The main reason for that is the “measurability” of their contribution, especially the number of articles they publish in prestigious journals. Foxy work, on the other hand, is far harder to evaluate, especially because almost all of it appears in books and not articles – and producing a book is far more painstaking than putting out articles. Thus, the fox’s “output” tends to be far smaller than that of the scholarly hedgehog.

I knew that my friend was correct, functionally. But I basically ignored his advice and to a certain extent “suffered” academically from that decision. Why ignore something that I understood as being correct, at least from a “career” perspective?

Two reasons. First, by nature I am a tried-and-true fox – deeply interested in several areas of life, and having the ability to contribute something in each by combining a few (I try not to use this platform for self-aggrandizement, but just this once: back in 1981 I published the first-ever scholarly article on the legal ramifications of artificial intelligence, still being cited today in the latest research literature. End of my “promo”).

However, the second reason is far more important, and I already hinted at it above: although few and far between, it is the fox who has the chance to make some major breakthrough, or at least to shed new light on social phenomena, bringing to bear knowledge that seems to be far removed from the issue at hand.

By now you are probably saying to yourself: OK, interesting, but what does this have to do with “real life”? Here we come to the crux of the matter: everything in our world is connected somehow to virtually everything else! The challenge is how to perceive and act on those connections. This problem is especially acute in politics and policymaking. Government agencies and ministries tend to be intellectual silos – hedgehogs burying (and buried) deep within their own field. But this invariably leads to bad policy.

I will offer just one policymaking example: trivial and critical at one and the same time. High school educators are steeped in the ins and outs of pedagogy but are oblivious to the discipline of chronobiology. You’re surely saying: chrono-what? Chronobiology is the science of our body’s internal clock, and it turns out that teenagers simply cannot get up early in the morning. So why do high schools still start classes at 8:30 or 9:00AM??? It is completely counterproductive pedagogically!

And just because you aren’t part of public policymaking, you shouldn’t think this doesn’t affect you as well. We all have to make serious decisions in our personal life. Here too is but one example: thinking of buying a house? Always wanted to have a view of the sea? Well, think again. The only real estate in the U.S. that over the past decade has gone DOWN in price is housing within half a mile of the shore. The reason: global warming leads to sea level increase, that brings on increased flooding in storms and in general. Not to mention that it’s worth considering whether to live in a wood frame or stone/concrete home; the latter is the way to go in order to keep cool during increasingly hot weather! Who would have thought that real estate and climatology are linked?

I bring these examples to show that the “interaction” between fields of knowledge is not necessarily within the same general scientific area, i.e. not within the social sciences exclusively, ditto the natural sciences, or the same for the humanities – but rather between them. Of course, this is a huge problem because when they were in college those same governmental policymakers studied almost exclusively within one general scientific field (e.g. psychology, economics and political science, without any history and literature, or biology and physics). I was lucky enough to have done so (ergo my article combining Law and Computer Science), and thus equipped to tackle some “foxy” issues.

I am not suggesting that everyone become a fox. Again, the world needs all the hedgehogs it can muster in order to gain discrete knowledge. However, it is important to break out of one’s own intellectual ghetto – and certainly in the public sphere to find ways to have a real dialogue, if not institutional arrangements, between very disparate fields of endeavor.

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