Friday, February 14, 2014

philosophical habits of mind

A grad school professor of ours used to compare himself to an extraordinarily widely published friend of his, by way of Isaiah Berlin's distinction of intellectual foxes and hedgehogs. "Joe's a fox," he would tell us, "and I'm a hedgehog." The fox had a quick wit, and always seemed to grasp intuitively and immediately the scope and significance of any philosophical discussion. He responded brilliantly to questions. The hedgehog was plodding and specialist in a small area of philosophy to which he devoted years of study, ultimately to formulate one or two nearly dogmatic assertions.

I always thought our professor implied that the more properly philosophical approach was his -- the hedgehog's. What he told me about philosophical study over the years perpetually returned to the theme of focused study on one area, or at most three great philosophers. About these, the hedgehog admonished us to read practically everything published. He was a model of constancy and determination.

But I admired the fox and had a natural affinity for him. (The fox had charm that the hedgehog lacked, and was also nicer.) He seemed to be aware of every trend in academic philosophy, as well as being in the vanguard of a few. He entered any debate with goodwill and heart, and apparently without a shibboleth he felt the need to protect. I have a vague memory of him at an academic conference, mid-debate with an adamant, opposed interlocutor, suddenly shrugging and saying, "oh, yes, you're right, and I'm completely wrong about that."

In fact, I thought that the fox was more truly philosophical. The hedgehog was a scholar, practically a monk. He seemed not only to think more slowly, less broadly, but less freely. This could also make the hedgehog appear less intelligent, certainly less bright.

I know, therefore, that my bias regarding the necessity of philosophical intelligence is that it model the fox's quickness and brightness, rather than the hedgehog's diligence and tenacity.

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