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Sonic, Tails, and Metacognition

Dan and I have been intrigued by the “Fox or Hedgehog?” concept for some time now.  We’re clearly not alone, judging by the many references to it in business consulting, geopolitical forecasting, and cognitive thinking literature. For any newcomers: the source of the concept is a single line with no context, attributed to the Greek poet Archilochus (circa 650 B.C.) and translated as, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Despite the lack of context – for all we know, Archilochus had an irrational distrust of all woodland creatures and spent his days muttering about their wiles – the line has been ascribed deep meaning and cited as a highly useful principle by the likes of psychology and political science professor Philip Tetlock, data-driven forecaster Nate Silver, and US intelligence professionals who are exploring improved means of anticipating anomalous events. To be fair, many such references do not derive from the original quote, but rather from 20th-century essayist Isaiah Berlin’s take on the concept, which assigned each of the two animals to a style of thinking.  (Then again, what did Berlin know?  His essay title “The Hedgehog and the Fox” got the order of the animals wrong from the original line.)

Given how often we collectively view the “correct” answer as being a balance between two extremes, it is surprising that most of these references take a strong “good versus bad” stance, which changes depending upon the application (e.g., leadership styles or the pursuit of economic prosperity). For every blog post that explains how the hedgehog is a one-trick pony that cannot adapt to the problems of an increasingly complex world, there is an article warning of the inevitable, catastrophic business failures awaiting any would-be foxes. Particularly comical are the heavy-handed pieces implying that the Greek poet who lived over 2600 years ago clearly intended for one animal to be the model for emulation and the other to be the star in a cautionary tale.

You’ll note that I’ve gotten this far without actually explaining what each animal stands for – which I’ve done intentionally, so that our subsequent posts on this topic can explore the various interpretations according to their intended applications. Until then, just pick the one you like more based on how it would look as a football helmet logo.

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