Oh, The Hedgehogs You’ll See!

Maybe I was too mean to hedgehogs when I first talked about hedgehogs and foxes and what types of thinking they represent, and then when I described how I’d been only a pupa as a hedgehog, but blossomed out of the chrysalis into a fox.

(Mixed animal metaphors are the crocoducks of writing)

Anyway, while I stand by what I said in that piece, I do want to give a more nuanced account of the roles of hedgehogish and foxish thinking, and how important they both are to the history of thought and to all of our quests to understand our complex world.

Here’s the lineup:

  1. Low level hedgehogs
  2. Low level foxes
  3. High level hedgehogs
  4. High level foxes

1. Low level hedgehogs

Now I’m beating up on the hedgehogs again. But if you’re going to have a Big Governing Principle, it seems like it would be worthwhile to know it well, and to be able to defend it. Any hedgehog who defends their Big Idea badly is a low-level hedgehog. This kind of thinking leads to: totalizing political ideologies which cannot respond effectively to criticism, simplistic religious views which nonetheless encompass someone’s entire worldview, inconsistent ideological approaches which fail to examine their own lack of coherence, and so on and so forth.

A brilliant argument. I’m always thrilled when this gets brought up.

These are the kind of people we tend to call stubborn and closed-minded. While they may provoke some thought in others, it is not the kind of high level inspiration we would hope productive disagreement would create. I am reminded of the sneering, uncharitable, unnuanced Republicans I knew in high school, who I made it my business to prove wrong at every possible turn. I learned a great deal in the process, but I was given none of the understanding of thoughtful and high level conservatism that I gained in college.

2. Low level foxes

These foxes can be thought of analogously to low-level hedgehogs; they attempt to balance many facts and ideologies, and do so clumsily or inconsistently. For one reason or another, they fail to effectively negotiate the complexities of the issues they are engaging with. But in contrast to the low level hedgehogs, they have at least decided that a sole guiding principle is not enough.

Simplistic understandings of progressivism and feminism have always fit in here for me. The focus on choice and everyone being supported in what they want is a valiant attempt to balance the competing desires of moral people (as opposed to the hedgehog, who would generally classify those people more strictly as moral and immoral, based precisely on those desires). When critiqued by hedgehogs, high or low level, they tend to shy away from the attack and claim that their worldview already encompasses the desired elements.

When kink critical feminists criticize liberal feminists on the basis of say, the glorification of violence against women, the low level foxes tend to say only that BDSM is about consent and if everyone is happy, it’s fine. That’s great, and I think it’s true, but it is an ineffective and inadequate response to the critique. Similarly, so-called “choice feminists” tend to ask, “Isn’t feminism about choice?” and expect that their choices always be respected. But as has been pointed out many a time, this is a self-defeating and unhelpful approach.

A beautiful sentiment, but is this really enough of an argument?

Low-level foxes are also frequently overwhelmed by the complexities of the world around them. Many intelligent people I have known have been like this, and I was as well (and often still am); it results in trying to take into account a great number of things, but never coming out the other side with clearer thinking. For instance, such a fox might look at the fact that buying sweatshop goods ensures that sweatshop labor will continue but that not buying them will harm all of the people who work for sweatshops and be flummoxed. Which is fair, it’s a totally flummoxing thing. But that approach means that more information can lead to indecision and frustration rather than clearer understanding, which is what we’d hope more and better data would do.

3.     High level hedgehogs

Now, high level hedgehogs are where things get interesting, They are brilliant thinkers, far more nuanced than their low-level brethren, but still adhere to a single guiding principle to explain the world. And it’s for that reason that their ideas change the world. Marx changed the world by injecting totally new strains of thought into dominant conceptions of society and economics, and he did it because he was a hedgehog, because he fought on the basis of the unique all-encompassingness of his ideas. I cannot imagine he would have had the same effect if he had said, “Well, I have this new idea, but I’m sure it can be accommodated into the existing capitalist framework.” No, the point was that he was a revolutionary thinker, and not just because he wanted a revolution. His clarion and focused demands forced everyone to think differently, especially the foxes, who depend in large part on hedgehogs to give them the raw material that they combine into their complex and nuanced worldviews. He made everyone update what they thought was true and tinker with their understanding of the world to accommodate him.

He definitely looks like a hedgehog

This is the glory and birthright of the high level hedgehogs, even if, in being hedgehogs, they are almost certainly wrong (at least about something ). Plato, Cornel West, Robert Nozick, Yeshayahu Liebowitz , Robert George – I cannot help but find their worldviews totally compelling, because they seem so sure, and because they force me to think differently. I have had to grapple and engage with their writings, because they left me no way out, no comforting caveats or seductive shortcuts. They said, this is the truth, and you’d better figure out why you don’t agree with it.

4.     High level foxes

Then why do I place high level foxes at the top? They certainly aren’t always right; I imagine Obama’s political ideology to be fairly foxish, but not entirely correct. But based on my previous argument, if someone were to be correct, it would almost certainly be a high level fox. These are the people I trust to amass huge amounts of knowledge and then carefully assess the data, ideas and ideologies they’ve found, take out the best parts of each, and assemble them into a novel, consistent whole. People like Nate Silver, Eliezer Yudkowsky and Luke Muelhauser, while perhaps not always exactly right, certainly are right more than they ought to be because they have that capacity. I have a friend who I’ve described as someone who, when asked what his political position on a topic is, will go to Google Scholar and tell you in ten minutes. He has that kind of openness to evidence, that kind of ability to sift through the data to find what’s important, and that kind of clarity of thought.

And a crucial part of doing this intellectual work is examining the thinking of high level hedgehogs, assimilating what is brilliant and true, and discarding what is overreach and folly. If we are not only to seek foxishness, but excellence in foxishness, then we must cultivate a healthy respect for high-level hedgehogs and the novel ideas they have forced us all to reckon with. Dismissing Marx because he was empirically wrong or because Stalin was a mass-murderer might prevent gaining a deeper understanding of honest and incisive critiques of capitalism. Ignoring Robert George because he’s an anti-marriage equality Catholic leaves no opportunity for coming to a clearer opinion on what marriage really is and what it’s for. (And of course, understanding high level thinkers you don’t agree with is an excellent way to have better arguments). Hedgehogish ideas must be among those that foxes should make it their solemn duty to seek out and respond to, so that everyone can learn from these thinkers. If we want to be the best foxes we can be, hedgehogs are too important to ignore.

He’s happy that he’s important


A Personal Journey to Rationalism

(Reading my last post on hedgehogs and foxes is useful, but not at all required, to understand this post)

When I was younger, I used to be obsessed with the phrase “logically consistent worldview.” I really, really wanted one. It seemed like the kind of thing that good intellectuals needed to have if they were going to properly navigate the world. How could you even begin to respond to an event if you didn’t have a fully integrated ethics, metaphysics and epistemology? Sounds silly, I know, but the wikipedia article on Weltanschauung (worldview) became very important to me. I constantly made lists of what I believed at any given time, and what I was still working out. I even began trying to fill out this set of required building blocks for a worldview:

    1. An explanation of the world
    2. A futurology, answering the question “Where are we heading?”
    3. Values, answers to ethical questions: “What should we do?”
    4. A praxeology, or methodology, or theory of action: “How should we attain our goals?”
    5. An epistemology, or theory of knowledge: “What is true and false?”
    6. An etiology. A constructed world-view should contain an account of its own “building blocks,” its origins and construction.

I actually tried to have an answer for every single one of these. And what I figured out quickly was that it was incredibly hard. I would literally be kept up nights worrying about how I was going to reconcile environmentalism and a progress-appreciative attitude towards human society and civilization, or how I as a feminist was supposed to feel about breast augmentation surgery. “The environment matters!” I would say to myself. “But we can’t take a conservationist attitude,” I would also say.” It’s inherently conservative and stops us from making bigger and more technologically advanced cities! And maybe technology would make things more environmentally-friendly, if given the chance!” And then choice! Feminism is about choice! So women (/transmen, but I wasn’t that sophisticated then) should be able to do what they want with their bodies! But feminism can’t accept all choices, or what would be the point? Shouldn’t stop women from objectifying themselves? How can I support a cosmetic surgery that just makes women more sexually available to men? But also shouldn’t they be able to do that if they want?


It was an all-consuming, constant intellectual project. I would apply my model to new things, and it would work, and then work, and then every so often, not work, and I would watch it crash and burn. Then I would be uncomfortable and agitated until I came upon an epiphany wherein I could bring all of the parts together and once again have a unified model.

What was my problem? I was trying to be a hedgehogTrying very, very hard, in fact. I wanted a perfect, consistent model to explain and respond to the world. I wanted to understand it.

But in being beholden to a fundamental idea like “feminism is about choice”, I was either stuck when I hit things I would really rather not call feminist, or I had to somehow incorporate more than one fundamental idea together, which almost always causes problems.

(For people who know ring theory: It’s like trying to have a principal ideal with two generators. Doesn’t make sense)

If feminism is about choice, it partitions the world into two categories, feminist and not feminist. And if feminism is fundamentally about some other thing as well, we have another partition, which generally doesn’t map perfectly onto the first one (or there would be no point in having two). So now we have things that aren’t feminist in either sense and things that are feminist in both senses. Easy enough. But what about the things that are feminist in one sense but not in another? Either you have to start creating complicated rules about how the rules interact with each other, or you give up the crystalline, rule-based way of looking at things. Then you get to say that, according to your values, this kind of approach is X amount important, and this policy, according to the facts, helps women Y amount, and so on, and then form reasoned opinions about what will work out best, instead of what fits the model best.


What should the venn diagram look like?

And that’s my concern with all hedgehogish systems. Now, maybe I just didn’t alight upon the perfect model, or I didn’t work hard enough. But hedgehogs seem to want dichotomies and trichotomies, things that are in the set or not, ideas and facts that play off each other in rigid, predictable ways. And while I’d love those things too, they haven’t presented themselves to me.

The world, instead, seems to be far better modeled by spectrums, where things are mostly different in degree and not in kind, where ideas can be balanced against each other, where multiple seemingly contradictory facts can be true, if they’re carefully defined and discussed. Instead of irreducible descriptors like “liberal”, “just”, “feminist” and “environmentalist”, switches that are either on or off, I have knobs and sliders, continuous things that can be sort of true, or mostly right, and I am so much more comfortable with that. New things I didn’t know before make me update my position, shifting knobs bit by bit, sliding along continuous functions until I’m just where I want to be, with the full knowledge that I’ll have to move again. Say what you will about it, it’s much more comforting than the worry that one new idea could bring my entire palace crashing down around me as I plummet into the chasm between discrete points.

The right color is somewhere in here….

I’m reminded of something a friend said to me once:

“If Osama bin Laden and I met each other, we would have nothing to say to each other.”

That is, hedgehog systems, totalizing systems that have something to say about everything, can’t interact with each other. They agree on some things, disagree on others, but there aren’t really ways to combine them fruitfully. The best you can hope for is non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA), where each system just stays within its own sphere and no one unbuckles their seatbelts and starts poking their sister.

(If people want to hear my model theory analogy for this, they’ll have to ask for it 🙂 ).

Plug in whatever appropriate for “religion” or “science”

That’s not enough for me. I want all the facts and values to get together and party. I want to knock down the jenga towers of ideology, and make every building block of every belief pay rent. I want to see which ones are true, or better yet, how true each one is.

I guess this is really all to say that I have become much happier and more comfortable in my beliefs since I became a rationalist and a utilitarian. I am now beholden to no specific thought structure or approach. Anything that gets the right answer goes. (Ideally speaking, of course. In reality, I am as flawed in my thinking as anyone else). And that means I’m so much more comfortable changing my mind, since I’ve linked my identity, not to a position, but to the pursuit of the right answer.

What’s especially great is that I don’t feel that I’ve lost anything. All the beliefs I had before, I can have now. Mostly, I have to ensure that they are suitably translated into empirical statements, so that each part of each belief can be examined separately. But their content remains the same. And as it happens, I don’t have any obligation to translate them that way. If the hedgehog form of atheism works for me, if I like it, if it gives me true and correct beliefs about the world, great. It’s mine for the keeping. Hell, I spend a lot of time immersed in religious thinking, and it works for me. But there’s nothing I’ve had to give up in my quest for foxishness, except what was untrue to begin with. And of course:

Some might say that rationalism and utilitarianism might themselves be the kind of Big Idea I claim to be trying to avoid. But I don’t see them that way. They are lenses through which we see things, certainly, but as I’ve just said, they don’t prevent us from seeing things in other ways. For instance, I find that utilitarianism allows me to still acknowledge that I care about fairness, beauty, and other fuzzy values in a way that other moral systems don’t. Furthermore, they don’t bind us to the narrative-based way of looking at things that has struck me as so problematic throughout this and the last post. Accuracy of belief depends on relying on more strategic, more empirical approaches, and that’s what matters to me.

I want the right answers to all the questions about the world: small ones, big ones, ethical ones. And for those, it seems, we follow the fox.

I mean, he seems to know what he’s doing.