For most sociologists, the wisdom of Isaiah Berlin is unknown. If one knows anything about him, it is probably the title of his famous essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The title comes from a fragment written by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus:
The fox knows many things,
But the hedgehog knows one big thing
For autobiographical reasons, one of my favorite Berlin essays is “Political Judgment.” My appreciation of Berlin came late in life, more as a confirmation of lessons learned than as new revelations. In 1967, I dropped out of the University of Minnesota and spent the next six years as itinerant movement activist. As an aspiring hedgehog, I wanted to know one big thing. The Sixties abruptly expired in 1973. I began a long, and often painful, apprenticeship as a grassroots organizer. I started to master my craft only after confronting the implications of what Max Weber called “inconvenient facts.” In spite of myself, I was becoming a fox.
“What is it to have good judgment in politics?” With that simple question, Berlin proceeds to elucidate the practices of a fox in public life. In addition, his analysis goes a long way toward explaining why the academic left is so ineffectual outside the ivory tower:
To seize a situation in this sense one needs to see, to be given a kind of direct, almost sensuous contact with the relevant data . . . Above all this is an acute sense of . . . what the result is likely to be in a concrete situation of the interplay of human beings and impersonal forces.