A Few of Our Biographies:
"Very likely the most sparkling man of the 20th century," writes historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. of Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997), philosopher, historian, conversationalist, and close observer of humanity.
One of Berlin's many scholarly articles is "The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History" (1953). Berlin takes his title from a line by the Greek poet Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
Berlin writes, "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....mark one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general."
The bulk of the essay is an examination of Leo Tolstoy. The piece also includes a list of 20 writers and thinkers who belong to one animal species or the other "in varying degrees." Berlin gives no elaboration on this list. Here (below), offered by this writer, is brief explication of Berlin's list, along with discussion of a few additional names, including John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Berlin makes no huge claims for the hedgehog/fox model. He calls it a "starting-point for genuine investigation"; it has the added benefit of being an "enjoyable intellectual game."
According to Berlin, hedgehog-like writers and thinkers focus on one all-embracing idea or formula for understanding life. They possess a "....central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel – a single, universal, organizing principle...."
Fox-like thinkers, on the other hand, disdain single systems as the pathway for making sense of life. They pursue many ends, often unrelated, "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....unitary inner vision."
The hedgehog is of a single substance, a monist; the fox is composed of heterogeneous elements, a pluralist. Monism "is at the root of every extremism," Berlin writes. Hitler and Stalin are monists (which is not to say, of course, that monism is invariably evil, as Berlin's list shows).
The hedgehog's great strength is focus, and main weaknesses are fixation, rigidity, and self-absorption. The fox's primary strengths are flexibility and openness to experience, and fundamental weakness is a tendency toward the scattershot approach to life and thought. Journalist Nicholas D. Kristof presents further refinement of the schema: "Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance." Kristof notes that the hedgehog/fox distinction is used by the scholar Philip Tetlock in his book "Expert Political Judgment" (2005). Tetlock studies thousands of political, economic, and technological predictions by 284 commentators. He says, "Hedgehogs don't notice and don't care when they're wrong; that's why they're so compelling. Foxes learn." He writes:
When we score the accuracy of thousands of predictions from hundreds of experts across dozens of countries over twenty years, we find the best forecasters tend to be modest about their forecasting skills, eclectic in their ideological and theoretical tastes, and self-critical in their analytical styles....(They are) experts who know many things and are not finicky about where they get good ideas....(while hedgehogs are) experts who know one big thing from which likely future trends can be more or less directly deduced. The big thing might be any of a variety of theories: Marxist faith in the class struggle as the driver of history or libertarian faith in the self-correcting power of free markets or a realist faith in balance-of-power politics or an institutionalist faith in the capacity of the international community to make world politics less ruthlessly anarchic, or an eco-doomster faith in the impending apocalypse or a techno-boomster faith in our ability to make cost-effective substitutes for pretty much anything we might run out of....How experts think is a surprisingly consistent predictor. Relative to foxes who are less encumbered by loyalties to an all-encompassing worldview, hedgehogs offer bolder forecasts and, although they hit occasional grand slams, they strike out a lot and wind up with decidedly poorer batting averages. (From Tetlock's essay "Reading Tarot on K Street," The National Interest, September/October 2009. More from Tetlock can be found here.)
Business writer Jim Collins uses the hedgehog/fox conception in his 2001 advice book "Good to Great":
Princeton professor Marvin Bressler pointed out the power of the hedgehog during one of our long conversations: "You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They're hedgehogs." Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and division of labor - they were all hedgehogs. They took a complex world and simplified it....Those who built the good-to-great companies (in our study) were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what we came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies. Those who led the comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead scattered, diffused, and inconsistent.
The comments of Bressler and Collins are debatable. Consider, for example, Bressler's "biggest impact" observation. The cultural/intellectual impact of Berlin's foxes as listed below (Herodotus, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, etc.) is clearly equal to, and probably exceeds, that of his hedgehogs. And, in business, isn't it the case that a splendidly receptive, passionately curious, wide-ranging mentality - the mentality and culture of, say, the 3M Company - is just as likely (indeed, rather more likely) to hit upon and develop a good idea, or string of good ideas, as a set-in-stone approach? Is Collins justified in giving the back of his hand so casually to foxes? As he researched his book, did he systematically seek leaders of "comparison companies" who, in common with Aristotle and Goethe, show a fox-hood that's evolved, mature, and wise - that's gotten past being "scattered, diffused, and inconsistent"? If Collins couldn't find such people he wasn't looking hard enough. (One example from history: the foxy Thomas Edison, the most creative individual in the annals of American business. Incidentally, Edison loved the fox Shakespeare, feeling refreshed and recharged by reading him.)
Isaiah Berlin may have embraced both mindsets. Some commentators say that, while originally a fox, Berlin became a hedgehog with one big idea: that there is no such thing as one big idea; that pluralism, heterogeneity, is the most valuable, true, compassionate, embracing, tolerant idea of all. Maybe Berlin, like Darwin and Freud, was that exceedingly rare bird who could be both first-rate hedgehog and fox in one lifetime. (And there's enough zoological metaphor in that sentence to last for two lifetimes.)
The essays of Isaiah Berlin, including "The Hedgehog and the Fox," are collected in "The Proper Study of Mankind: An Anthology of Essays" edited by Henry Hardy with an introduction by Roger Hausheer (2000). See also "Isaiah Berlin: A Life" by Michael Ignatieff (1998). See here for information about Berlin's service as founding president of Oxford's Wolfson College. See here for an example of his striking perceptiveness about power and the powerful.
Isaiah Berlin’s Hedgehogs
Plato has only moderate interest in the real world, the world of experience, the world of ordinary stuff. Knowledge of the real world is not true knowledge, he says. True knowledge is embedded in the sublime "Ideas" (or "Forms") that reside in the world above us. These Ideas are the crux of Plato's thought and analysis. "In that world above us," writes scholar William Turner of Plato’s thinking, "there exist the Ideas of greatness, goodness, beauty, wisdom, etc. and not only these, but also the Ideas of concrete material objects such as the Idea of man, the Idea of horse, the Idea of trees, etc....The world of Ideas is a counterpart of the world of our experience, or rather, the latter is a feeble imitation of the former. The Ideas are the prototypes...." Plato sees as his task the leading of humanity to the Ideas, to a sense of the highest possible good - to heaven or the Garden of Eden if you will. (See Aristotle, below, for a fox-like philosophical outlook.)
Lucretius' philosophical inquiry De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of Things") is based on the ideas of Epicurus and Epicureanism. Lucretius regards Epicureanism as a cure-all for human ills, proclaiming its teachings with religious fervor. Epicurus (341-270 BC), a Greek philosopher, wants to use philosophy to create a happy and tranquil life. He thinks carefully about pleasure and pain; he defines pleasure as mental and emotional serenity, to be pursued thoughtfully and rationally. He prescribes a strict code of moral conduct. (He does not see pleasure as casual indulgence.) He welcomed slaves and women into his philosophy school, a radical act in ancient Greece. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1819, "I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us." Over the centuries, of course, the word "epicurean" has lost its original meaning and has come to describe the pursuit of luxurious, perhaps self-centered gratification.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), Italian poet
"The Divine Comedy" has fox-like tendencies; Dante pours into it a lifetime of learning about many topics. Still, residing at the center of the work is his zeal for reform through faith. With Roman Catholicism as his sword, Dante wants to renew the world (including the church) and transform society from corruption to righteousness.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French scientist, philosopher, and mystic
As a boy, Pascal learned Euclidean geometry on his own by drawing shapes on the floor of his playroom. At age 16 he wrote a paper on the mathematics of the cone that impressed Descartes. Then, in his 20s, after making important contributions to physics and launching the modern science of probability, he converted to Jansenism, a movement of the Roman Catholic Church. This belief became the center of his life on the night of November 23, 1654, his "night of fire." He wrote, "From about half-past ten in the evening until about half past midnight FIRE. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals. Certitude....peace....tears of joy." Pascal abandoned most worldly learning in favor of asceticism, which included, in his case, the wearing of a belt of nails which he tightened at the slightest vain thought. He did much important religious writing. Mystical faith, in his view, is the key to life.
"He....(attempted to) create a single system of thought that would comprehend all knowledge," says "West's Encyclopedia of American Law." At the core of Hegel's thought we find triadic development (Entwicklung). This is a dynamic, unfolding, step-by-step process; its steps can be summarized as thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Hegel, writes scholar William Turner, seeks to "organize under the single formula of triadic development every department of knowledge, from abstract logic up to the philosophy of history." A possible second sense in which Hegel is a hedgehog: he aspires to make philosophy touch every domain of society, to have it be a repository of truth accessible to all. He feels that a proper system of knowledge (i.e., his) will ensure progress and carry humanity through its troubles to freedom.
Feodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), Russian writer
Imprisoned in Siberia for political subversion, Dostoyevsky abandoned his faith in revolutionary, liberal, Western European-style politics (exemplified for him by the French Revolution) and embraced the Russian Orthodox Church, convincing himself that Orthodox Russia would become the spiritual center of the world, meanwhile cultivating a virulent anti-Westernism (and anti-Semitism). His religious thinking shapes many of his books including "The Brothers Karamazov" (1880). He belongs to a long and fascinating tradition in Russia - "the artist as preacher," to borrow a phrase from scholar Aileen Kelly. (Another writer in this lineage is Alexander Solzhenitsyn.) Norman Podhoretz, writer and editor, thinks Dostoyevsky should be re-classified to become one of Berlin's foxes (as should Proust, says Podhoretz): "All great novelists, no matter what convictions they may hold or how single-mindedly they hold them, must necessarily be foxes....Anyone who lacks the qualities of the fox cannot possibly succeed as a novelist; conversely, very few other kinds of writers can match the foxiness of the novelist." An observaton of author Iris Murdoch comes to mind: "A great novelist is essentially tolerant, that is, displays a real apprehension of persons other than the author as having a right to exist and to have a separate mode of being which is important and interesting to themselves." Well, Dostoyevsky is nothing if not complicated.
The centerpoint of Nietzsche’s thought is the relative health, energy, and power of people and cultures - the idea of "life-affirmation," which, notes the "Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy," involves "an honest questioning of all doctrines that drain life's expansive energies, however socially prevalent those views might be." The morality of an action, Nietzsche says, depends on the vigor and power of the person or nation involved – traditional rules, such as those in the Bible, don’t apply. His "superman" bursts with heroic life-force and passionate creativity, is "beyond good and evil," and is part of a new aristocracy that can, he claims, light a path for humanity from mediocrity to greatness. A people (Volk) is essentially a system for the production of a few great figures - an idea in line with the thinking of Bismarck and perhaps Hamilton. (But quite contrary to, for instance, Jefferson and Lincoln, both of whom place great store in the wisdom of the broad public so long as leaders lay out the facts clearly and accurately. Lincoln built his political career on this proposition. See here for a collection of Lincoln articles at this Website.) Historian Barbara W. Tuchman notes in her book "The Proud Tower" that Nietzsche's ideas, and vulgarizations/over-simplifications of them, were passionately studied and discussed in Europe in the 1890s and early 1900s, contributing to the pugnacious climate of the period, which culminated in the guns of August, 1914. Nietzsche "bewitched his age," Tuchman says.
(His ideas were) particularly welcomed in France....(Meanwhile) the sap was rising in Germany and Germans responded eagerly to Nietzsche’s theory of the rights of the strong over the weak. In his writings these were hedged about with a vast body of poetic suggestion and exploration, but taken crudely as positive precepts they became to his countrymen both directive and justification. By 1897 the "Nietzsche Cult" was an accepted phrase.
See "Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist" by Walter Kaufmann (1974, fourth edition).
Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Norwegian playwright
Ibsen’s credo is personal liberation – the revolt of the individual conscience against society’s rules and prejudices. He says "Be yourself!" to humanity with as much force and brilliance as any author who has ever lived. Historian Paul Johnson writes, "Perhaps not even Rousseau, and certainly not Marx, has had more influence over the way people, as opposed to governments, actually behave. (Ibsen) and his work form one of the keystones of the arch of modernity." (Paul Johnson, by the way, is a hedgehog about contemporary life, convinced that it's sending us down the drain.)
Proust, "the great philosophical novelist" (Edmund White), focuses on the passage of time in "Remembrance of Things Past," also known as "In Search of Lost Time" (A La Recherche du Temps Perdu [1913-1927]), the finest novel of the 20th century. Critic Georges Lemaitre summarizes: Proust "intended to show the havoc wrought in and 'round us by Time; and he succeeded amazingly not only in suggesting to the reader, but in making him actually feel, the universal decay invincibly creeping over everything and everybody with a kind of epic and horrible power." See here for a blog on the reading of Proust.
Herodotus (c.480-c.430 BC), Greek historian
Endowed with brains, energy, curiosity, and judgment, Herodotus, the father of history writing, savored the diversity of human life as he traveled widely in the Mediterranean world. The historian Peter Green describes him as a "broadminded, witty, and tolerant cosmopolitan, for whom the infinite varieties of human custom offered a source of inexhaustible fascination." Scholar John Gould calls him "an astonishingly unprejudiced observer of humanity in its variety" with "largeness of vision, open-mindedness and comprehensiveness of imagination." Herodotus, like Shakespeare (another of Berlin’s foxes, mentioned below), loves (or is interested in) every aspect of the world even as he acknowledges the tragic nature of things. Among his topics (as listed by scholar A.P. David): "mythology, cultural anthropology, natural history, war narrative, Egyptians, Slavs, Lydians, Babylonians, Dorians and Ionians, Spartans and Athenians, and of course Persians." David adds, "There are whole swaths of ancient history for which he is, apparently, our only source....Whenever it has been possible to corroborate elements of his narrative or description independently, almost always Herodotus has been vindicated."
Aristotle finds the essence of truth in particular things here on Planet Earth, while Plato, his mentor (a Berlin hedgehog, mentioned above), believes the essence of truth exists apart from particular things. Philosopher David Roochnik writes, "The Platonist turns away from 'this' world to concentrate on the purity of the Forms, while the Aristotelian remains faithful to (this world)." This difference in outlook has been much noted over the centuries - perhaps it contributed to Berlin's hedgehog/fox conception. Coleridge comments, "Every man is born an Aristotelian, or a Platonist. I do not think it is possible that any one born an Aristotelian can become a Platonist; and I am sure no Platonist can ever change into an Aristotelian." Among Aristotle's interests: anatomy, astronomy, chemistry, constitutions, drama, geology, nutrition, plants, poetry, politics, psychology, weather, and zoology.
Erasmus (c.1466-1536), Dutch philosopher
Erasmus, a Roman Catholic, had sympathy for both sides in the Protestant Reformation. He emphasizes, writes historian Lawrence Stone, "moral virtue rather than theological bickering." His cardinal virtues are toleration, moderation, and capaciousness, ideas not in conspicuous supply in 16th century Europe.
Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), French essayist
The literary essay, writes author Aldous Huxley, is a device for saying "almost everything about anything." Montaigne is a pioneer and master of the form, using it to examine children, death, drunkenness, pain, presumption, reading well, repentance, scratching ("one of the sweetest gratifications of nature"), sex, thumbs, vanity, and Virgil, among other topics. The author Sven Birkerts notes that Montaigne "liked to see things not only both ways, but all ways...." "Montaigne," writes essayist and reviewer Charles Hill, "....stands with Shakespeare (see next item) at the start of the modern age as one of the two figures most responsible for the way we think about what it means to be human. The modern age, it has often been said, began when the world was 'disenchanted,' when for the first time life could not be understood as a coherent whole with each part - you included - fulfilling its appointed role in a fixed universal scheme of things. For the first time....there appeared something we could recognize as a contingent individual, one able and obligated to develop a consciousness of self and contemplate what to do about it." Montaigne's work is examined in the "The Consolations of Philosophy” by Alain de Botton (2001), which also ponders Epicurus (see Lucretius, above) and Nietzsche (above) as well as Socrates, Seneca, and Schopenhauer.
The Bard, greatest of writers, "had no rigid system of rules, of religion, of conduct, or of morality," writes scholar G.B. Harrison. "He had no particular theories of any kind....He can see the whole picture of humanity and re-create it so that men of every kind, country, creed, and generation understand." Shakespeare's eschewal of systems undoubtedly enhances his ability to see the whole picture. The scholar John Wilders writes of "Antony and Cleopatra": "Shakespeare could identify himself with every kind of ideal....The two principles on which the play is built (Roman and Egyptian) are irreconcilable, and to ask which of them Shakespeare favoured (which is what, essentially, some of the critics are doing) is not a question that should be asked." (Wilders clearly has a point, but his "not a question that should be asked" seems dictatorial.)
Moliere (1622-73), French playwright (Jean Baptiste Poquelin)
Moliere’s work ranges widely over French society, depicting (and skewering) affected intellectualism, cuckolding, hypochondria, miserliness, religious hypocrisy, social climbing, and other juicy targets. In the character of Alceste in "The Misanthrope," Moliere depicts, and pokes fun at, a man of rigid, outraged, and unrealistic idealism - an extreme version of the hedgehog: "Ah, it's too much; mankind has grown so base/I mean to break with the whole human race."
Author James Brabazon writes, "At a time when thinker after thinker was striving to grasp the secrets of the whole of Creation and weld them into a gigantic pattern of thought" (e.g., see Hegel, above, Goethe's contemporary and countryman) "Goethe was humbly studying natural science. Instead of speculating, he was observing. Instead of trying to master nature, he made himself its servant....(He) let speculative thought pass him by and involved himself in every kind of activity" including literature, the building of bridges, economics, law, music, and nature. Goethe was instrumental in the 1770s in the enactment of the Romantic Era, a reaction against the purity and precision demanded by classical esthetics - the Romantics embraced "nature's untamed spontaneity" in the phrase of historian Tim Blanning.
Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837), Russian writer
An "arch-fox," says Berlin, "the greatest in the nineteenth century." Pushkin presents a panorama of Russian society in his work, dipping into history, folklore, and his own crowded life. He famously had 113 great loves. (One might well ask, did his love life create his fox-hood? Or, perhaps, did his fox-hood create his love life? Could a hedgehog have a love life like that and remain a hedgehog?) Pushkin's masterpiece, "Eugene Onegin," a novel in verse, was published in 1833. (An interesting comment on the book can be found here. Vladimir Nabokov issued a notable translation in 1964.) Pushkin launched Russian literary greatness; among the writers he influenced were Turgenev and Tolstoy.
Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), French writer
The phrase "vast tableau" might have been invented to describe "The Human Comedy" (La Comedie Humaine), the collective name given to Balzac’s novels and short stories written from 1829 to 1850. He broadly evokes the French society of his day, many professions, classes, and people – more than 2,000 people all told. Among his best works are "Pere Goriot" and "Cousin Bette." The classic French film "The 400 Blows" (1959) pivots on a use of Balzac's work, and the Chinese-language film "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" (2002) makes use of the author's books.
"By nature a fox," writes Berlin, "but believed in being a hedgehog." Berlin continues, "It is in analysing, identifying sharply, marking differences, isolating concrete examples, piercing to the heart of each individual entity per se, that Tolstoy rises to the full height of his genius" - to the essence of fox-hood. Tolstoy's wife Sofya writes, "He developed enthusiasms for the most diverse things throughout his life: games, music, Greek, schools, Japanese pigs, pedagogy, horses, hunting - too many in fact to count. And that's not including his intellectual and literary interests....He was madly passionate about everything at the height of his enthusiasm...." But Tolstoy was not content with being a novelist/fox, he aspired to be a philosopher/hedgehog, to find the One True Answer. This desire first emerged in his 20s when he "discovered his vocation as a religious proselytizer," writes author Brooke Allen. He decided he had found the path to God and social justice, and over time moved decisively toward what Allen calls his "chosen role as priest." In the process he disappointed plenty of writers. Chekhov writes of Tolstoy, "To hell with the philosophy of the great men of this world! All great wise men are as despotic as generals...." Hemingway writes, "I love 'War and Peace' for the wonderful, penetrating and true descriptions of war and of people but I have never believed in the great Count’s thinking. I wish there could have been someone in his confidence with authority to remove his heaviest and worst thinking and keep him simply inventing truly."
James Joyce (1882-1941), Irish writer
"Ulysses" shows the city of Dublin and its inhabitants on June 16, 1904 (called "Bloomsday" by the book's admirers in honor of the work's protagonist, Leopold Bloom). The novel probes the variety of life as broadly (and deeply) as any work in literature. Critic Edmund Wilson writes, "Joyce has attempted in 'Ulysses' to render as exhaustively, as precisely and as directly as it is possible in words to do, what our participation in life is like – or rather, what it seems to us like as from moment to moment we live." Wilson's use of "our," "us," and "we" is key; Joyce is all-embracing. A useful guide to the greatest novel ever written in English is "Ulysses Annotated" by Don Gifford (1989).
More grist for the Isaiah Berlin mill:
A 20th Century Literary Fox: Arthur Koestler. "From progressive education and Freudian psychoanalysis," writes journalist Anne Applebaum, "through Zionism, communism, and existentialism to psychedelic drugs, parapsychology, and euthanasia, Koestler was fascinated by every philosophical fad, serious and unserious, political and apolitical, of his era." But, in common with many foxes, he was no dilettante; rather, his fox-hood fed his life force, his zest, his strangeness - it helped make him great. His "Darkness at Noon" (1940) is one of the most powerful and important novels of the 20th century.
An 18th Century Literary Fox: Diderot. "Diderot had bright thoughts on everything," writes scholar David Coward, "but he has been accused of spreading himself too thinly, of being too curious, too diffuse, too inconclusive." Coward adds that the Frenchman was "the most original and stimulating of all the philosophes, as well as the most human."
A 16th Century Scientific Fox: Copernicus. Wikipedia offers a descriptive list: "....mathematician, astronomer, jurist with a doctorate in law, physician, quadrilingual polyglot, classics scholar, translator, artist, Catholic cleric, governor, diplomat, and economist." In sum, he was a Renaissance Man, in company with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Bacon. The mindset of these astonishing figures is summed up by the great 15th Century Italian Leon Battista Alberti (architect, author, artist, cartographer, priest, philosopher, etc.) in one of the most radical remarks of history: "A man can do all things if he will."
Two Notable Hedgehogs: Fidel Castro and Margaret Thatcher. "Both are imperious, dogmatic and impervious," notes Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who met and conversed with them (separately, of course) and found them to also be quite compelling.
Malcom X, 1947 to 1963/64 - Hedgehog. Malcolm X, 1963/64 to 1965 - Fox. See here for a profile of the man.
Physicists Who are String Theorists - Hedgehogs. Physicist Freeman Dyson - Fox. String theory aspires to, in the phrase of journalist Nicholas Dawidoff, "represent all forces and matter in one coherent system." It's supported by physicist Brian Greene and many others but is viewed askance by scholar Freeman Dyson. Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, Dyson's mind and consciousness are as fox-like as can be. He has made first-rate contributions to a number of fields (as listed by journalist Kenneth Brower): "....particle physics and astrophysics, biology and exobiology, mathematics, metaphyics, the history of science, religion, disarmament theory, literature, and even medicine...."
John Lennon - Hedgehog. Paul McCartney - Fox. Lennon is happiest, lyrically, when he is staring at his navel, focusing on himself, his mood, his angst, and/or how he is being affected by what's happening around him: "Help!," "In My Life," "She Said She Said," "Tomorrow Never Knows," "I'm So Tired," "Yer Blues," "The Ballad of John and Yoko" (a magnificently self-absorbed travelogue), "Mother," "Instant Karma" (in which he examines his life in the second-person narrative voice, using "you"), "Jealous Guy," "Starting Over."
McCartney delights in expanding his lyrics outward to depict a variety of people and things: "Paperback Writer," "Eleanor Rigby," "She's Leaving Home," "Lady Madonna," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Get Back," "You Never Give Me Your Money," "Another Day," "Junk," "Junior's Farm," "Girls' School."
A precise summary of the difference between the two modes can be found in the double-sided single issued by the Beatles in early 1967: "Strawberry Fields Forever," mostly a Lennon song, and "Penny Lane," mostly McCartney's.
These patterns are not invariably true for the two men - versatility is a key mark of their greatness - but clearly McCartney is more inclined than Lennon to tell a story about any topic that strikes his fancy, while Lennon is more inclined than McCartney to burrow inward, searching for the doorway to transcendence, seeking insights into why the door is so difficult to open. Lennon said in a 1971 interview, "I'm in me own head, I can't be in anybody else's" (a remark that Shakespeare would have found absurd, albeit useable in a play). Both approaches work, needless to say, despite scabrous comments at various times from Lennon (and various reviewers) about McCartney's story-telling gift.
To add a layer of complexity to these classifications, it can reasonably be argued that Lennon's personal life was fox-like, with its careening from one Big Life-Saving Mission to another (rock stardom to marijuana to LSD, to the Maharishi, to Yoko, to political preaching, to the househusband years), while McCartney's personal life has been hedgehog-like, with a focus on stability and family. (Or did Lennon in fact lead a hedgehog-like personal life because of his core belief in the Big Life-Saving Mission?)
See here for an additional HistoryAccess.com piece that prominently mentions the Beatles.