Two Concepts of Liberty


After seeing Philip Tetlock's reference in Expert Political Judgment to Sir Isaiah Berlin's essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox" I borrowed a copy from the library. The last time I remember reading Berlin was 40 years ago, for a freshman class at the University of Texas. This time around, alas, "The Hedgehog and the Fox" felt over-rated: off-the-scale clever, but unconvincing as an explanation of history. Now, I can't hold a candle to Berlin in terms of understanding Tolstoy. If literature is his focus I dare not complain. And I do agree with what I think is the bottom line. Berlin springboards off a quote from the Greek poet Archilochus, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." In his opening sentences Berlin explains:

... Scholars have differed about the correct interpretation of these dark words, which may mean no more than that the fox, for all his cunning, is defeated by the hedgehog's one defence. But, taken figuratively, the words can be made to yield a sense in which they mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general. For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system, less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel — a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance — and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related to no moral or æsthetic principle. These last lead lives, perform acts and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal; 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. The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes ...

Lots of commas and dense prose there, but also a crucial idea: some people dig deep, others reach wide. Both kinds are valuable. But in political life, those hedgehogs who demand obedience to a single Big Concept are quite dangerous, as another essay by Berlin, "Two Concepts of Liberty", explains in articulate detail. Near the end of part V Berlin characterizes four basic assumptions of the "It's For Your Own Good" school of dictatorship:

  • Rational self-direction is the one true purpose of life
  • Some people can see the big harmonious picture better than others
  • Clashes between reason and the irrational are avoidable
  • When all have been made rational, all will obey

Thus, the philosopher-kings must repress those who disagree. In contrast, a foxy free society protects an individual's right to do even irrational or stupid things. Sadness happens, yes, especially when multiple goals come in conflict and when people make mistakes. But better things will also happen, and totalitarian catastrophes won't. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously said, in a 2003-04-11 press conference, "... freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here." Berlin would agree.

(cf. IsaiahBerlin (2005-11-24), Contemporary Introduction to Free Will (2008-06-15), Systematic Overestimate (2009-01-30), Expert Political Judgment (2010-05-16), ...) - ^z - 2010-06-27