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The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History
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The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  772 Ratings  ·  69 Reviews
The masterly essay on Tolstoy's view of history, in which Sir Isaiah underlines a fundamental distinction between those people (foxes) who are fascinated by the infinite variety of things and those (hedgehogs) who relate everything to a central, all-embracing system.
Paperback, 96 pages
Published January 1st 1993 by Ivan R. Dee Publisher (first published 1953)
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I've added a quote and a question at the bottom.

This was the first book I read by Isaiah Berlin, and thus came to learn that he was one of the great scholars of the 20th century. After reading it I dragged out my old Modern Library copy of War and Peace (which I had never read) and discovered that following Part One of the book (the novel itself, all 1100 pages of it) comes Part Two, Tolstoy's essay on his view of history (about 35 pages). I immediately read the essay, then put W&P away for
Apr 10, 2014 rated it it was amazing
"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." These are the lines from the Greek poet Archilochus, and a little winding theme from which Berlin draws forth grand thoughts on literature and the philosophy of history.

Berlin is upfront in his definition of his 'intellectual game'. He proposes that a 'hedgehog' is a thinker who relates everything to a central system, and a 'fox' is a thinker who draws upon various subjects and is aware that they do not all fit in one single mol
I cannot tell you how delighted I am that I did not discover this book until just this month. I'll give you an overview of this wonderful essay and then explain my personal satisfaction to those who care to stick around afterwards.

"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."

This is the translation of the fragment of verse of Greek poet Archilochus that this essay is based on. In short, Isaiah Berlin's argument is that there are two kinds of thinkers: foxes and hedgehogs.
Lynne King
Jul 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Thanks to Ted's review I finally read this essay (82 pages in length) yesterday.

I'm definitely not on a philosophical level as such but this work is brilliant. The analysis of Leo Tolstoy and, more particularly, his War and Peace is sublime.

I must confess that there are some "thinkers" mentioned that I had never heard of but then that's life...

Feb 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy
This is a deeply profound book, which, presumably about Tolstoy's philosophy of history in War and Peace, is actually about the nature of observable reality. In a mere 81 pages, Isaiah Berlin has gone far toward upsetting my apple cart -- for good and all. We all make assumptions about which we are comfortable, and these assumptions impact on our religious practices, political and social behavior, and in fact the whole nexus of our interrelationships with others:
Tolstoy himself, too, knows that
This, then, is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events…

Tolstoy was not by nature a visionary; he saw the manifold objects and situations on earth in their full multiplicity…his genius lay in the perception of specific properties, the almost inexpressible individual quality in virtue of which the given object is uniquely different from all others. Nevertheless he longed for a univ
Stephen Durrant
Mar 02, 2016 rated it really liked it
Any great novel deserves to be followed by reading what someone else has written about that novel or novelist. After finishing Anna Karenina, I turned to Isaiah Berlin's famous essay in which he establishes a contrast between those writers and philosophers who are absorbed in multiplicity and distinctions (foxes) and those who know "one big thing," which then becomes the basis for a grand, unified vision (hedgehogs). Tolstoy, he argues, is caught, ultimately tragically so, between these two type ...more
Aasem Bakhshi
If you don't believe that a hundred page essay bordering on literary criticism, history and philosophy can prove to be an unputdownable jaw-dropper, you have to read this essay by Berlin who knew literature and specifically Russian literature like the back of his hand. Even if you are familiar with historical determinism in Tolstoy's War and Peace, you would be forced to revisit the complete tome once again and it is certainly worthwhile.

And this is the least. It may happen that this little essa
Ida Wry
May 07, 2007 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People who like Russian novels
You have to read at least the first few pages. Then you will think about hedgehogs and foxes for the rest of your life.
Yasmine Carlson
I'm going to think about hedgehogs and foxes for the rest of my life.
Read this book!
Classy book again offering angles on a topic that you think you may know and understand really well. Berlin discusses what he believed to be Tolstoy’s understanding of history with a particular focus on “war and peace” as the book through which Tolstoy is able to embellish some of his more intricate points. I guess the key tenet of the book is that history, in Tolstoy’s opinion, is much more than the crescendo of seemingly unrelated events that unfold one after another. The real history worth un ...more
Roy Lotz
May 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
I still remember the day when I finished War and Peace . It was both one of the most triumphant and most perplexing days of my reading life. Imagine me, on a hot summer day, having woken up early to devote the necessary hours to plow through the remaining hundred pages or so of this novel that had so completely dominated the previous month of my life. As I saw the finish-line approaching, my heart began to beat faster and faster—my mouth watered at the prospect of completing this iconic tomb: a ...more
Aug 26, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: essays
The Russian born, British philosopher and critic, wrote this famous book-length essay about Tolstoy’s philosophy of history (as presented and explained in War and Peace) in 1953. Not quite 80 pages in length, it is a masterful analysis of Tolstoy’s ideas, commencing by using a fragment from Archilochus, an ancient Greek poet, who observed “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” He applies this observation to artistic approaches and briefly plays the game of placing wri ...more
David Ranney
Feb 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
This, for both Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, is the central tragedy of human life; if only men would learn how little the cleverest and most gifted among them can control, how little they can know of the multitude of factors the orderly movement of which is the history of the world; above all, what presumptuous nonsense it is to claim to perceive an order merely on the strength of believing desperately that an order must exist, when all one actually perceives is meaningless chaos -- a chaos of whic
Aug 28, 2008 rated it really liked it
OK, so a publication which is ostensibly an 80 page examination of a Russian author's ruminations on the workings of history might not send most people leaping from their seats and scurrying to the bookshop but this book - like all great works - is is far more profound and widely applicable than its subtitle might suggest.

Berlin - a fantastically readable essayist - summarises the historical themes of War & Peace before embarking on an erudite discussion about the existence (or lack thereof)
Aug 02, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A deeply profound book presumably about Tolstoy's philosophy of history in War and Peace and the author's perception of observable reality.

The antique truth, "the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing," first put forward by Greek poet Archilochus, is a concept that Leo struggles with as he lapses between plot and philosophical discussion in W and P (the applications of this concept far exceed his masterpiece).

Berlin argues that economists were early adapters of the hedgefo
Apr 05, 2007 rated it it was amazing
A classic.
May 23, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is an extended essay, 95 pages in this copy. Sir Isaiah Berlin applies the conceit that human thinkers are either: `hedgehogs" - focused on single topics / world views, or philosophies or "foxes" interested in conflicting philosophies and multiple areas of interest - to Leo Tolstoy. Sir Berlin tightens his case by limiting the essay to War and Peace.

This essay is a classic and far better minds than mine have ruled it to be a masterpiece. I echo this acclaim and urge it as a worthy read both
As I read about WAR AND PEACE, this slim book kept coming up in the commentary. Tolstoy's detours from his plot into essays about war and history left me frustrated, confused, and wishing his editor had had a red pen.

This book talks about Tolstoy and his views of history (and Napoleon) in the framework of foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes know a lot about a lot of things...hedgehogs know a lot about one thing...Foxes take various theories and ideas and human behavior and play with them. Shakespeare was
Aug 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Come for the famous "hedgehog and fox" metaphor, stay for Berlin's idea of "the medium": the context of human life in which all other human ideas, rational theories, and conjectures float. To get a sense of "the medium" is, says Berlin, wisdom--the thing that all of Tolstoy's heroes grasp at. Understanding the medium is not achieved by gathering knowledge, but by gathering experience that gives you a sense of the fallibility of your knowledge, an intuitive grasp about who you really are outside ...more
Peter Mcloughlin
The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. This division of thinkers based on this quip was made famous by Isaiah Berlin in the early fifties in the wake of the ideological paroxysms of the first half of the twentieth century. Quite a few eggs were broken then to make some hedgehog's ideological omelet. Berlin's essay was well in keeping with intellectual currents of the time and one cannot understand the grip one big idea can have on some without understanding the temptati ...more
Oct 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
Actually, this is a blog based on the book. I worked for the publisher a few months ago and came up with this:

Defending the Fox

Over the summer I did a brief stint in retail. I worked at Lululemon, a high-end yoga-inspired clothing company. Lululemon is different than most retail companies in many ways, but the most outstanding difference is in the company’s employee training. They give each new employee a series of motivational CDs and a brand new copy of Jim Collins’ bestselling business book,
May 06, 2017 rated it liked it
The main title misled me. He's a great writer and thinker no doubt, but I was hoping to hear more about the division of hedgehogs and foxes. Nice ideas but indeed got a wee bit bombastic toward the end.
Brian Denton
Jul 16, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting essay on Tolstoy's historical/philosophical section of War and Peace. I'll be revisiting again soon for my A Year of War and Peace project. Better review then.
Feb 19, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
There's a fitting definition from The Devil's Dictionary that's also a very good way to begin this review:

Nihilist, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoy. The leader of the school is Tolstoy.

Of course, Tolstoy was no mere nihilist: while he spurned mysticism and superstition he also was an indomitable hunter when it came to the truth, constantly searching for something that might explain life in all its messiness and lift it to a higher plane. Likewise, The Hedgehog and t
Jeff Rollins
May 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jeff by: Ian Nappier
Just some initial thoughts. I'm no English major, so this will probably be incoherent.

This book was fascinating, even given the fact that I have not read War and Peace, although I have read Anna Karenina. Obviously, dividing all people into one of two camps is imprecise at best, but for the purpose of explaining Leo Tolstoy's work, it provides an interesting context in which to analyze Tolstoy's writing.

Briefly, Berlin divides people into either hedgehogs or foxes. Hedgehogs, Berlin states, see
Mar 10, 2010 rated it liked it
"The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." Berlin makes this ancient assertion mean something about fundamental intellectual differences between people. The hedgehog people relate "everything," which I take to mean the world of experience and idea, to a "single central vision, one system." Berlin’s “everything” allows a good deal of latitude in how your apply the distinction, and I thought of ideologues with their political systems based on bumper-sticker ideas. Foxes, I ...more
An Te
Oct 08, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a penetrating essay into the life and character of Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (aka Leo Tolstoy). It discusses Toltoy's approach to history in War and Peace, in Berlin's fluid admixture of ideas, the contextual influences and thought of Tolstoy. The main theses promulgated is captured by a line from a Greek poet Archilochus,'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.' Tolstoy has an enriching eye for detail that places him at the apotheosis of 'realism' literatur ...more
Ross Huggett
Feb 23, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I found this book hard going mainly because of the amount of words I needed to look up and they way it was written. There were some parts I enjoyed though.
Fred Kohn
May 22, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
I suppose this book might be of more interested to those who have not read War and Peace. It started with an interesting use of the metaphor of philosophical Foxes and Hedgehogs, but then for several pages seemed to do little more than restate points of Tolstoy's philosophy that would be obvious to anyone who has already read War and Peace with the least bit of attention. The last half or so of the book certainly contains more interesting facts and observations than the first half, but I was alr ...more
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Sir Isaiah Berlin was a philosopher and historian of ideas, regarded as one of the leading liberal thinkers of the twentieth century. He excelled as an essayist, lecturer and conversationalist; and as a brilliant speaker who delivered, rapidly and spontaneously, richly allusive and coherently structured material, whether for a lecture series at Oxford University or as a broadcaster on the BBC Thir ...more
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“Science cannot destroy the consciousness of freedom, without which there is no morality and no art, but it can refute it.” 16 likes
“Of course, like all over-simple classifications of this type, the dichotomy becomes, if pressed, artificial, scholastic and ultimately absurd. But if it is not an aid to serious criticism, neither should it be rejected as being merely superficial or frivolous: like all distinctions which embody any degree of truth, it offers a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting-point for genuine investigation.” 2 likes
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