Squares & Sharps, Suckers & Sharks: The Science, Psychology & Philosophy of Gambling

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The Fox and the Hedgehog

In 1953, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote a popular and rather light-hearted composition entitled The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which he discussed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s interpretation of history. The title is a reference to a passage attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In his analysis Berlin divided scholars, authors and philosophers into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining (big) idea (for example, Plato, Marx and Nietzsche), and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world is represented by a plethora of competing (little) ideas (for example, Aristotle and Shakespeare). Isaiah Berlin contended that, whilst Tolstoy aspired to be a hedgehog with singular conviction of thought, he was by nature a fox unable to reject the view that history, as propounded in his book War and Peace, is shaped by forces and events that are numerous and fundamentally unknowable.

How one views the evolution of history is inextricably connected to how one understands the business of forecasting the way it is made. Essentially, these contrasting views of how history is made, and by extension how the future is predicted, are defined by their treatment of causality and uncertainty. It turns out that those who think more probabilistically (the foxes) are generally better at prediction than those who think more deterministically (the hedgehogs).