Who are the hedgehogs and who are foxes in the legal academy? My interest in this question has been peaked by a minor blogospheric eruption, started by Belle Lettre here:
[W]ith respect to my academic career, is it a bad thing to be a dilettantish fox? I was formerly a CRT'er, keep my finger in the con law pie (mostly anti-discrimination law), and am writing mostly interdisciplinary scholarship on employment discrimination law. Even whittled down, I'm writing in two areas (even if I read more widely): constitutional law and employment discrimination. Should I just choose one? Am I just too all over the place?
prompting posts by Eric Muller, Dan Filler, a nice comment by Oren Kerr, and another foray by Belle. These posts focus on an interesting question--whether academics are well advised to focus on one doctrinal area, developing a distinct reputation as a "contracts scholar" or an "employment discrimination scholar," or even more narrowly, the "authority on summary judgment." Lots of good discussion on that question in the posts.
But doctrinal specialization is not the idea that should be associated with the "foxes and hedgehogs" metaphor. The metaphor comes from the Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." But we know this aphorism primarily from an essay by Sir Isiah Berlin, who wrote:
There is a line among the fragments of the Greek poet Archilochus which says: 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing'. 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 defense. 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, organizing 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 by no moral or aesthetic 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; and without insisting on a rigid classification, we may, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Molière, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzak, Joyce are foxes.
Sir Isiah Berlin, The Hedgehog & the Fox (1953). Hedgehogs know one thing: they have a "universal organizing principle." Foxes reject such systems; they approach topics from many angles--they adopt multiple and even contradictory perspectives.
How does this apply to the legal academy? It suggests a divide that is orthogonal to (& perhaps even the inverse of) the distinction between doctrinal specialists and generalists. The hedgehogs of the legal academy are those who approach the study of law with one theory (or one unified toolkit, or one comprehensive moral or political perspective) that is supposed or claimed to provide the right answer or the correct point of view. The foxes are those who resist theoretical monism, who insist on a plurality of perspectives, who insist on the priority of the particular.
More concretely, the hedgehogs are found among both generalists and specialists and in the ranks of a variety of interdisciplinary movements. Many law and economics scholars are hedgehogs--they have a unified positive and normative theory in which preferences (or individual utility functions) are the ultimate foundation for a unified account of what effects laws will have and which legal policies are optimal, efficient, or best. Some orginalists are hedgehogs: the right answer to every question of constitutional law can be discovered by answering the question: "What is the original public meaning of the relevant constitutional provision?" Some critical legal scholars were hegehogs: the true understanding of any legal question is revealed through a technique of deconstruction that reveals the fundamental political contradition underlying what seems like a legal dispute. And, of course, old-fashioned doctrinalists were hedgehogs--case crunching, code crunching, or clause crunching (the formalist toolkit) provide the answers to every possible legal question.
Perhaps the ultimate hedgehog of contemporary legal scholarship is Richard Epstein, who moves from topic to topic, deploying (frequently with great brilliance) a toolkit of moves (mostly drawn from nontechnical law and economics, e.g. consideration of "transaction costs") that illuminate issues in a bewildering array of doctrinal fields, from admiralty to roman law and torts to the first amendment. But no one would accuse Richard Epstein of being a narrow doctrinal specialist. Quite the contrary, he is the very model of the modern academic generalist, with "information vegetable, animal, and mineral." Epstein is a hedgehog who wanders far and wide, doing his hedgehog thing in this field and that: Epstein is homeless, the paradigm case of the wandering hedgehog.
Of course, there are hedgehogs who stick close to home, practising their hedgehog ways on "home turf" that they know well. Someone who does tort law from a law and economics perspective or employment discrimination from a critical perspective would be a "stay close to home hedgehog." This last category, homebody hedgehogs, are the true specialists of the legal academy--at their very best, they know one toolkit inside and out and they apply it to a doctrinal field (or even better subfield) that they know "like the back of their hand."
Who then are the foxes of the legal academy? These are the scholars who deploy multiple toolkits, employ multiple theories, and draw on a variety of normative theories. More particularly, these are the scholars who combine doctrinal analysis with a little history, some law and economics, and perhaps even some political theory. They might call themselves "pragmatists." Perhaps they emphasize "incompletely theorized agreements" or the role of "public legal reason." Like hedgehogs, foxes come in two flavors. Wandering foxes do not limit themselves to a particular field--they roam far and wide, applying this tool to that problem and that tool to the next. The best wandering foxes have an uncanny knack for picking the right tool for the right job, or to put it another way, they have the ability to match theories and problems. Homebody foxes share their cousins' foxiness--they too deploy multiple tools and theories, but they stick close to home, attacking a single problem or doctrinal field from multiple angles, working the same issue from this angle and that.
Cass Sunstein may be an example of a wandering fox. In any one doctrinal field or single paper, Cass might look like a hedgehog. For example, you might think that Cass was a behavioral law and economics ("cognitive biases" "Kahneman & Tversky" "heuristics") hedgehog. Or if you focused on some his work in constitutional law, you might have thought he was a baselines hedgehog. But Sunstein's work on Burkean Minimalism and Incompletely Theorized Agreements reveals his true, foxy, colors. And it only takes 30 seconds with Cass's c.v. to confirm that he is not a homebody.
So what should you be? A hedgehog or a fox? Homebody or wanderer? Once we pose the question this way, some things become clear. If you are risk averse, uncomfortable with uncertainty, then becoming a homebody hedgehog would seem like the way to go. Master a single doctrinal field or subfield from a single theoretical perspective! Become an expert on the law and economics of negligence or the deontic morality of murder or the relationship between cognitive biases and consumer credit law. On the other hand, if you are easily bored and enjoy walking on tightropes, you might want to be a wandering fox--moving from field to field, struggling to master a diverse and perhaps ever-changing toolkit.
But I am not sure that this is a matter of choice. Or not entirely. It is possible, I think, to choose to be a homebody hedgehog--deliberately specializing in a particular doctrinal field and mastering a particular theoretical orientation. Or to be more accurate, I think it is possible for some of us to make this choice. Perhaps you are a true believer in law and economics or critical race theory or Kantian morality! And perhaps you have a deep interest in torts or the first amendment or securities regulation. Having the temperment of a homebody hedgehog is a great gift, it simplifies life enormously. And it quite naturally leads to stable, longterm relationships with like-minded homebodies and hedgehogs, those who share your theoretical or doctrinal interests. That's good for networking, and it sure comes in handy when its time to get letters for tenure or an endowed chair.
But for other scholars, I think, the hedgehog life is simply not an option. There are those who are disposed (perhaps even deeply) to feel ill at ease with "a single central vision, one system," to use Berlin's words. If you are a fox, then maybe you cannot choose to be a hedgehog. And if you are a hedgehog, then becoming a fox may not look like a live possibility either. It may be that by the time we would like to make this choice--early in an academic career--we are already hedgehog or fox, wandering or homebody.