Sunday, March 06, 2005

Review of Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox

I have been lately having a discussion about the nature of history. E. H. Carr has a famous view that there are no historical facts. He seems to be making an ontological point, though I think that reading charitably, he may want to be making a methodological point about history or at worst an epistemological point.

One sees an epistemological version of this point in Isaiah Berlin's view of Tolstoy's view of history. In his now classic The Hedgehog and the Fox: an essay on Tolstoy's view of history Berlin analyzes the view that Tolstoy takes, both from the clues he gives up on War and Peace and also in other writings, of history.

A few salient points. First, Tolstoy rejected the Marxist view of history, and also almost every other view that breaks down history is to some manageable set of laws. Tolstoy claims that this cannot really be done because of the numerous things that go in to making up history. He also rejected the notion that it is the great figures who make (shape) history. The lives of ordinary people are important, significant, and relevant, but cannot, even when put all together, explain all of history.

The problem Tolstoy seems to have is epistemological. We cannot assimilate (integrate) everything that happened, and we cannot easily make a coherent picture of it.

The book also gives us a good picture of Tolstoy's intellectual debts, especially those to Maistre.

If you care about Tolstoy or philosophical questions about history this is a worthwhile book.


Josie said...

Good timing, I just finished reading it last week. I'm not a Tolstoy fan....I always have the sense when I'm reading him that this preachy old man is trying to fill me with his agenda (which is likely the case with Tolstoy). I also don't like that his characters don't seem to be characters, but symbols of something else which I tend to find really boring. It's typically me that although the book is about Tolstoy's view of history, the things that touched me and I took away from it had nothing to do with Berlin's thesis. However impotent these attempts are to break the world down into categories, I always admire the effort and I thought the hedgehog/fox breakdown was really interesting. People who like to daydream should definitely read this book. People who like to hit hard with analysis and go through the world with a fine tooth comb would probably find it really lacking. It's a bit like Plato. I love Plato, and I sometimes like to think of the world in terms of this vision even though the rational part of my brain tells me it's a lot of beautiful ideas with not a lot to sink my teeth into. Although Bertrand Russell was influenced by Plato and sometimes in the middle of his wonderful atheism these platonic terms crop up and pepper his language. Which I love about Bertrand, it makes him beautiful.

30 something said...

Ahh... a fellow Platonist.