Conversation: Are Historians Hedgehogs or Foxes?

tags: history

Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University and Contributing Editor of HNN. For a list of his recent books and online publications, click hereRick Shenkman is the editor of HNN and the author of Political Animals:  How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016). You can follow him on Twitter. He blogs at stoneagebrain.

Rick Shenkman So after many years of putting it off I finally got around to reading Isaiah Berlin’s most famous essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” I suppose if Vassar, where I went to college, had had a Western Civ requirement I would have read it earlier, but it was the seventies and requirements were out. So here we are.  It was very stimulating, and raised two questions I would like to discuss. One is obvious: Are historians hedgehogs or foxes. The other is driven by the election calendar. Are voters hedgehogs or foxes? The latter question comes up because their judgment this year seems especially flawed. So as we proceed I am afraid I won’t be able to resist drawing parallels with voters.  I’ll be drawing on Philip Tetlock’s fine bookExpert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? The Tetlock book is about the failure of experts who make predictions. The question he asks is whether the hedgehogs or foxes do better.  

Walter Moss To begin with Rick we should probably make clear Berlin’s distinction. Hedgehogs are those “who relate everything to a single central vision . . . a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” Foxes are the opposite: they “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way . . . their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.”

Being primarily a historian of Russia, I am very familiar with hedgehogs, which most Soviet historians were. Throughout most of the Soviet period, the Communist party insisted that historians profess the Marxian viewpoint that they make it their “single, universal, organizing principle.” In the West, on the other hand, many historians would think that they fall more into the fox’s camp. They would contend that they approach historical events with an open mind and try to “tell it as it was,” without attempting to make them fit into any “central vision,” any “single, universal, organizing principle.”  

Rick Shenkman You’re right, I think, that most historians in the West today think of themselves as foxes. But it wasn’t always this way. Hedgehogs formerly were dominant.  When historians were writing grand narratives everything fit together nicely.  American history had a theme. Usually, the theme was progress today, progress tomorrow, progress forever!  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist using George Wallace’s notorious line; call it an ironic touch.)  This was the view of the consensus historians, right?  Louis Hartz and those boys. 

And I do mean boys. There weren’t many women writing history back in the forties and fifties.  This was a boy’s club perspective.  And a white boy’s club perspective at that.  Then America discovered black people and poor people and soon historians did too. Things began to change with alacrity when women and people of color got into the profession.

I wouldn’t want to think I’m in the same camp as Soviet historians, but I do miss the hedgehog perspective. And I think I’m not alone. Big History is one expression of hedgehog thinking.  So is the work by Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humanity). 

Walter Moss Your mention of “women and people of color” getting into the history profession raises an interesting question. To the extent that they are concerned with indicating historical contributions of women and minorities—and, of course, this is not the main focus of all such historians—are they more inclined to the hedgehog’s “single central vision?”

I took most of my history courses at two Catholic universities in the 1950s and 1960s, Xavier (Ohio) and Georgetown. In some of my courses, for example, on the Reformation, I certainly encountered historians who favored a “Catholic perspective” on historical events. The mother of one of my main Russian history professors at Georgetown was killed by Lenin’s Bolsheviks, and as might be expected, he was not very sympathetic to Russian communism.

Even if we strive to be objective like foxes, we cannot help but being influenced by our backgrounds and values. I am proud that one reader of my book, A History of Russia, observed that “the other noticeable trait of this author is his unbiased style of writing. He rarely gives his opinion on certain people or situations unless it calls for it, and even then he makes logical conclusions based on the evidence available.” But in writing An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces, I included chapters on matters that I care passionately about—e.g., war and other violence; capitalism, socialism, and communism; freedom and human rights; the environment; and values and virtues.

Rick Shenkman No surprise to hear that some of your Catholic professors shared a Catholic perspective. That’s to be expected.  It raises an interesting question.  Is there a similar Protestant perspective?  I’d guess not.  The point of Protestantism after all was freedom from Catholic orthodoxy.  And the Protestants savored freedom enough that each of their groups went their own distinct way.  There’s a Mennonite perspective and a Quaker perspective and a Lutheran perspective, I suppose, but not a Protestant perspective.

Which brings me to the book I mentioned at the start of this conversation, Philip Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? What value is there in having a hedgehog perspective?  The hedgehog would say, I think, that it helps you find the signal in the noise, to borrow the term of the moment from the social science statistics nerds.  Lacking an overarching idea of the way the world works you can be overwhelmed by discrete events to such an extent that nothing really makes sense.  But when Tetlock examined the predictions hedgehogs made about the future over 20 years by more than 200 experts, he found that the foxes almost always proved to be more prescient than the hedgehogs.  Now historians aren’t in the prediction business.  As I like to joke when people ask me to make a prediction I always say, hell, I’m a historian, and we historians cannot even agree on the past, let alone the future.  But surely Tetlock’s finding has meaning for us historians, too, no?

Walter Moss Yes, Rick, I agree that Tetlock’s findings are relevant for us historians. I especially appreciate the correlation he finds between Berlin’s distinctions and different cognitive styles: “High need-for-closure, integratively simple individuals are like Berlin’s hedgehogs: they dislike ambiguity and dissonance in their personal and professional lives, place a premium on parsimony, and prefer speedy resolutions of uncertainty that keep prior opinions intact. Low need-for-closure, integratively complex individuals are like Berlin’s foxes: they are tolerant of ambiguity and dissonance, curious about other points of view, and open to the possibility they are wrong.” 

Of course, looking at hedgehogs and foxes this way historians need to emulate foxes more than hedgehogs. Who can argue against historians being tolerant, curious, open-minded and willing to admit they are wrong versus being more close-minded like hedgehogs?

But if we go back to Berlin’s contention that hedgehogs have “a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance,” as opposed to foxes who lack such a principle and whose “thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,” then we should pause and rethink the matter.

In our lives and in our historical writings, do we wish to be without a single organizing principle? Personally, I do not. As I have indicated elsewhere, mine is very simple: I try to have my life and writings reflect wisdom, and wisdom involves applying various values and using our intelligence to seek the common good. Perhaps historians need not approach the hedgehog/fox distinction as an either-or proposition, but adopt a method that combines the best qualities of both. 

Rick Shenkman That’s great advice Walt.  The trick, of course, is figuring out where the magical middle course lies.  It’s here that I’m at a loss, torn between my love as a historian for facts and nuance and my recent affinity for generalizations produced by the best minds in the social sciences.  Take biases.  I’m convinced that the human mind works in certain predictable ways under similar situations.  Daniel Kahneman’s work is persuasive to me.  Thus, when I am trying to assess the motivations of people I look for hidden biases like loss aversion that may be driving their behavior.  I think this puts me in the hedgehog camp, and yet Tetlock’s social science research has convinced me that hedgehogs are more likely to be wrong than right.  This is what I would call the Hedgehog Paradox. 

Before we wrap up I would like us to take a moment to discuss the other question I posed at the beginning:  The question of the orientation of ordinary voters.  Are they hedgehogs or foxes?  It won’t surprise you to learn that I think they’re hedgehogs. This is by necessity. They have to go with the big picture rather than facts because they lack a lot of facts.  Most voters know little about public policy issues.  In a famous case pollsters asked voters their opinion of Panetta-Burns.  Twenty-five percent readily volunteered their opinion.  The only problem was that there’s no such thing as Panetta-Burns.  It was a fake plan made-up by pollsters to see if voters are just guessing when they are asked their opinion about matters of substance.  The clear answer is that many are. 

But there’s a wrinkle in the disconcerting picture I’ve created of the Low Information Voter.  Studies undertaken by Marcia Johnson at Stony Brook suggest that voters may know more than they seem to know.  When subjects afflicted with Korsakoff’s syndrome — a memory disorder associated with heavy drinking —were told about two people, one who came across as a good guy and the other as a bad guy, they quickly forgot the details.  But when they were subsequently asked who was the good guy and the bad guy fully 75 percent were able to pick out the good guy.  This is far better than chance.  While they forgot the details, they remembered the emotional feeling they had felt when learning about the hero and the villain and that decisively influenced their choice.

Good news, right?  It is except that voters so often go with their instincts — instincts shaped by a variety of prewired biases — that it’s hard to have much confidence they get things right most of the time, even if they remember the emotions they felt when they first absorbed critical information. To put the matter plainly:  They appear to be easily manipulated by clever politicians.  After all, they got the basis facts wrong about 9-11, the most important event of our time.  On the eve of the Iraq War a majority thought that Saddam Hussein was behind 9-11.  They offered up that “fact” as the reason for their support for the invasion of Iraq.  The Bush administration never explicitly blamed Saddam for 9-11, but officials dropped enough hints that voters, putting their natural pattern-finding abilities to work, put two and two together and got the answer the administration hoped they’d get.

Walter Moss I completely agree Rick that most voters do not take the foxlike approach, which implies the desire to be objective and rational, to approach reality with something akin to the “scientific method.” And this applies not just to U.S. voters, but also to those in other countries, such as Russia, where Putin’s approval ratings are so high.

In Al Gore’s The Assault of Reason (2007) he asked: “Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?” And he added, “The persistent and sustained reliance on falsehoods as the basis of policy, even in the face of massive and well-understood evidence to the contrary, seems to many Americans to have reached levels that were previously unimaginable.”

Whether U.S. voters are less rational and objective today than previously may be debatable, but that most of us do not approach voting with anything like scientific objectivity can hardly be doubted. Besides the fact that most people do not even aspire to cast off all biases before voting, there is the difficulty of making the best informed choice between candidates. To decide most rationally, for example, in the Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, a voter would have to research and then consider all sorts of facts and factors about who would be most qualified to be president. Who takes the time to do this?

Since we started our discussion referring to Berlin’s essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which is primarily about Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy of history, it seems appropriate to end it with a few words from another British intellectual historian, Quentin Skinner. In his Visions of Politics: Vol. 1, Regarding Method (2002), he warns us historians from presuming that we are more rational than we are and suggests that we need healthy doses of humility and empathy. Like other humans beings, we have our biases and our failings and are prone to error. In examining peoples in earlier times and places—or voters today—our judgments often need to be broader and more holistic than they are. They require empathy and contextual understanding. A sample of Skinner’s warning is as follows:

"We need to begin by recreating as sympathetically as possible a sense of what was held to connect with what, and what was held to count as a reason for what, among the people we are studying as historians. Otherwise we are sure to commit the characteristic sin of ‘whig’ intellectual history: that of imputing incoherence or irrationality where we have merely failed to identify some local canon of rational acceptability."

I’m afraid, Rick, that we have just begun to explore the hedgehog/fox question as it relates to historians and voters. Hopefully, our readers’ comments can further enlighten us.  

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