Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Larry Solum on Wandering/Homebody Foxes/Hedgehogs

I never thought my silly question would spark such a "blogospheric eruption," but it has!

I apologize for mis-conceptualizing the hedgehog/fox distinction, and thank Larry Solum and William McGeveran for setting me straight (in a nice way, to boot).

But Larry's absolutely brilliant post (a chorus of voices agree, with thumps on table and huzzahs for emphasis) is worth quoting at length:

[D]octrinal specialization is not the idea that should be associated with the "foxes and hedgehogs" metaphor.

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.

(Go to Larry's post for the taxonomy of hedgehogs and foxes into
wandering/homebody categories.)

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 mentirely. 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 make this choice--early in an academic career--we are already hedgehog or fox, wandering or homebody.

I wonder, does it make sense to agree with Orin Kerr that it's too early to tell, while also having a sneaking suspicion that I'm already whatever it is I am and cannot choose. In other words, I have a sneaking suspicion that I am indeed a fox. My toolkit is a melange of things, and I am highly skeptical about "universal organizating principles."

Incredibly interesting discussions sparked by a bit of fluff and misconception. Thank you, all!