The past and future of hedgehogs and foxes

Tetlock (see earlier post) spurred me to track down a copy of Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers so I could zap a copy of “The Fox and The Hedgehog”.

The bulk of the essay examines Tolstoy’s particular philosophy of history, explains why it is self-contradictory and shows how that peculiar dilemma plays out in War and Peace. The definitions of the fox and the hedgehog are dealt with swiftly in the first page.

Berlin asserts that Tolstoy (at least while he was writing War and Peace) saw history as a fox, but wanted desperately to have a hedgehog’s explanation for history. Before postmodernism caught on, Tolstoy allegedly recognised that historians’ accounts of history were severely lacking because they privileged political interpretations of events and attributed success and failure to the actions of “great men” — politicians, generals etc — or to abstract ideas like “power” and zeitgeist. He saw that history, constructed out of the actions of all individuals, was unfathomably diverse. Berlin observes that the best parts of War and Peace consist of Tolstoy’s depictions of his individual characters. However, this did not stop Tolstoy from seeking some kind of unifying concept that would explain all of history, mostly by tearing down all the other grand pseudo-scientific theories of history e.g. historical dialectism.

Somewhat romantically in my opinion, Berlin sees this as some kind of deep inner struggle for truth. But Tolstoy never managed to articulate a coherent positive theory of his own it seems. Perhaps there isn’t one. The closest you might get is when:

something is perceived; there is a vision, or at least a glimpse, a moment of revelation which in some sense explains and reconciles, a theodicy, a justification of what exists and happens, as well as its elucidation.

—–

What made the hedgehog/fox concept last? I thought the essay was almost a century old, but I was mistaken. Berlin wrote “The Hedgehog and the Fox” only recently in 1953. So is it just the momentum of academics and management gurus? Or is there something innately universal or timeless about that concept?

To what extent is the longevity of an idea tied to its media? Ideas need media (video formats, image files, books etc) to propagate. If ideas are viruses, media are the vectors. How do you preserve ideas?

Libraries and museums, though culturally significant now, don’t seem to work well in the very long term. For example, they’re susceptible to fire and, by virtue of the fact that they are in cities, vulnerable to sacking and destruction (e.g. the fabled Library of Alexandria, the National Museum of Iraq in more recent times). That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have them. These institutions inspire new works, new expressions of ideas. But that still leaves us with the problem of how to store cultural artifacts.

Most preservation appears to be serendipitous, like how you can only see footage of old Singapore in commercial work: Saint Jack (see earlier post), Ring of Fury, SBC drama serials etc. There was no deliberate decision to preserve. In a similar vein, I recall researchers discussing how porn distribution might hold important lessons for preserving digital art. Not so surprising when you consider that large numbers of items that that we now consider “historically significant” were uncovered from rubbish dumps like those at Oxyrhynchus. Makes you wonder what archaeologists hundreds of years from now will conclude from our cultural detritus.

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