Foxes and Hedgehogs in Mormon Historiography

By February 2, 2012

Isaiah Berlin, one of the most influential historians of the twentieth century, once wrote that there were two types of historians: the hedgehog and the fox. Taking the phrase from a throw-away statement of Greek poet Archilochus—“the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”—Berlin creatively expanded the sentiment to explore two different approaches to the historical craft. On the one hand, foxes were those “who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle.” Hedgehogs, on the other, were those “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.” Berlin then attempted to organize all great historians, writers, and philosophers into these two camps: Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzche, Ibsen, and Proust are examples of hedgehogs, while Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, and Goethe are foxes.”[1] You get the picture.

Despite its more playful tone and approach, this became one Berlin’s most popular works–ironic, given the breadth, depth, and sophistication of a long and prolific scholarly career. He would later admit, “I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously.” But he also added this important point: “every classification throws light on something.”[2] Indeed.

As Berlin took license in expanding Archilochus’s statement, it is fun to expand Berlin’s categorizational schemes of great writers and use it on much more mundane historians. Speaking of American history, with which I am most familiar, you can see most historians break down into these types of divisions. Gordon Wood, who always writes on the cultural and intellectual shifts surrounding the revolutionary period, is a classic hedgehog, and very willingly admits as much.[3] Other historians, on the other hand, bounce around to different topics in order to explore various themes of the American experience. For instance, my advisor has written on several diverse topics: while focusing on southern history, he has explored the categorization of the “South” in American historiography, Southern belles in antebellum America, southern thought and culture through the Civil War, and has recently even broadened his focus to write excellent materials on the John Adams family, twentieth century public historians, and now a history of American intellectual life since the seventeenth century. Some other historians make the process more tricky. At first glance, someone like Sean Wilentz—who has written on democratic practice in early New York, the religious figure Matthias in antebellum America, the history of democracy from Revolution to Civil War, US politics since Watergate, and now Bob Dylan—may seem classic fox, but his underlying interest in how democracy interacts with public and religious life make a consistent theme through all his works, making him more like a hedgehog.

Indeed, it seems like in today’s historical world, there has been a blending of the fox and hedgehog approach. The first thing most graduate students learn when they arrive in their PhD programs is to learn what “questions” interest them the most, and then allow those questions to drive your research. This can allow you to even jump different chronological periods because you are just exploring how your “pet” tension plays out in different contexts. Recently, David Farber, professor at University of Temple and well-respected historian of twentieth century America, visited Cambridge and nailed this principle into our heads. It is through fastening onto an organizational theme, he argued, that will make you connect with other department faculty members (thus getting a job and tenure) and reach a broader audience (thus making your work more relevant). It is also through this type of approach that you can reach larger conclusions and address the bigger picture. This approach allows someone like me, who focuses on the first few decades after the American Revolution, to discuss my work with someone like Farber, who focuses on the late twentieth-century, because we are both interested in how “the people” and “democracy” clash together on the popular level.

So what about Mormon history? I think it’s safe to say that we have prime examples of both approaches. However, when I thought about it more I realized that we have more of one than the other, and that this difference “throws light” on the practice, as Berlin would put it.

On the one hand, we do have some hedgehog-like elements found in those who trace a narrow topic or theme. There are historians like B. Carmen Hardy on polygamy, Alex Baugh on Missouri Mormonism, and others I’m sure I’m overlooking who have specific research parameters. But I think we have lots and lots of foxes. It is not rare to see a historian jump from polygamy to the Word of Wisdom, or from twentieth century conservatism back to the western migration of 1846. Most of these movements in topics or periods have little in common other than they include Mormonism. Perhaps this is due to the largue influence of amateur history, for a general person interested in Mormonism, especially if they are Mormons, don’t feel bound to stick with one topic too long. Or perhaps this is also due to the fact that most people who examine LDS history are from that tradition themselves, and thus all aspects of their church’s past seem equally fascinating and important. Or third, perhaps this is due to a presentist perspective of the LDS past that still lingers within Mormon studies, in which it doesn’t seem odd to believe it easy to jump from 1840s Illinois to 1980s Utah, because it is all part of the same tradition and therefore isn’t much different. It is likely a combination of all of these, in varying degrees.

But I think there is another reason this is the case, and perhaps even more dominant. This struck me a couple years ago while reading through Reid Neilson‘s helpful edited collection Global Mormonism in the Twenty-First Century. While I was thrilled to see more treatment of the international church, I was somewhat surprised at the presumed audience Neilson was speaking to in his introduction titled “A Recommisioning of Latter-day Saint Historians.”[4] While I agree that the field of Mormon history needs “to refocus their scholarly gaze from Palmyra, Kirtland, Nauvoo, and Salt Lake City to Tokyo, Santiago, Warsaw, Johannesburg, and Nairobi,” I find it interesting that we expect historians who do “American” Mormon history to change their geographic field of study merely because it shares the “Mormon” subject; the hypothetical group of historians that Neilson is attempting to “recommission” are people willing and prepared to move through historic time and space, with the only anchor being the Mormon religion. I need to emphasize, though, that there is nothing wrong with this approach in itself; a lot of work done by people who cover vastly different geographies, chronologies, or topics do so in exceptional ways, Neilson among them.

But I think this points to—the “every classification throws light on something” part of this post—the fact that most historians who do work on Mormonism remain, well, “Mormon historians” who look at American history, religious studies, international issues, or gender tensions, as opposed to “American historians,” “religious studies scholars,” “international experts,” or “gender studies specialists” who work on Mormonism. We have lots of “foxes” in Mormon history because when looking for a new project, most historians look for a hole that is present within the LDS tradition, no matter the time and place, and seek to fill it.

It seems the next step in Mormon history (the “Post-New Mormon History,” the “New-New Mormon History,” etc.) is to include more “hedgehog” work that explores central tensions and issues not just in Mormonism, but outside fields. So, besides merely asking what needs more study within the Mormon tradition (which will always remain important and worthwhile), we will also need to ask what “single, universal, organizing principle[s]” the outside academic community is looking for, and address them with the Mormon tradition.

So, I guess I’m trying to say is we need more general hedgehogs to go along with our parochial foxes.


[1] Isaiah Berlin, The Hedge and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1953), 1-2.

[2] Quoted in Ramin Jahanbegloo, Conversations with Isaiah Berlin: Recollections of an Historian of Ideas (London: Phoenix Press, 2000), 188.

[3] Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (New York: The Penguin Press, 2011), 1-3. It should be noted that it was reading Idea of America this morning that inspired this post.

[4] Reid L. Neilson, “Introduction: A Recommisioning of Latter-day Saint Historians,” in Neilson, ed., Global Mormonism in the Twenty-First Century (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University, 2008), found here.

Article filed under Historiography Methodology, Academic Issues


  1. Fun essay, Ben, I likes. Stephen Gould (biologist, historian of science) made use of Berlin’s hedgehog/fox distinction in a different fashion. He applies the metaphor to the sciences and the humanities, the hedgehog representing the former and the fox the latter. Gould says the metaphor can be employed to describe psychological styles applied for practical goals (flexibility v. rigidity, etc.) and it can also be employed for intellectual practice styles (interdisciplinary v. single field). So Gould?s overarching metaphor identifies this single-minded and dedicated approach (that of methodological naturalism) as the ?hedgehog,? whereas the humanities, with their myriad approaches and concerns are likened unto a ?fox.? He suggests, and I’m oversimplifying, that we need more hedgehog-fox hybrids rather than favoring one over the other.

    What’s funny is that due to Gould’s different way of framing things I came to the conclusion that we need some more foxes to mix along with our hedgehog historians, who I viewed to be the sort of older school rigid, “objective” and sometimes boring folks!

    As for Reid, I don’t think he’d necessarily have academic historians who currently do their bread and butter in the states to just switch to other countries, I think he’d just as soon hope that even younger folk, the just-getting-started, to not constrict their views to the US. (I think we still need people who will do that, of course, since every generation has new things to say about things, but we need more international trained historians/scholars too, as you note.)

    Comment by BHodges — February 2, 2012 @ 10:06 am

  2. ps- you guys should add a handy checkbox that lets me make the site email me when people reply

    Comment by BHodges — February 2, 2012 @ 10:07 am

  3. Really, really fun. I would venture to say that Mormons gravitate towards hedgehogs, actually — don’t you think Rough Stone Rolling is a hedgehog book? Sam’s new book, too? Aren’t biographical histories (all the rage in Mormon history these days) hedgehogs?

    Comment by Steve Evans — February 2, 2012 @ 11:32 am

  4. Blair: thanks for pointing me to your post, and Gould’s book. I don’t know how I missed it last fall. It’s fun to see how this metaphor can be taken in different avenues.

    Steve: great point and questions. I agree that all biographies can be hedgehogs with their narrow focus. I would counter, though, that most biographies are done by people who will then go on to do either another biography of someone from a different period, or just a completely different work altogether under the broad umbrella of Mormon history. Thus, while the individual works are hedgehogs (especially biographies), the authors have more of a “fox” career in that their other work pops up all over the place. (Like, I’ll look at Joseph Smith. Then James Talmage. And then Ezra Taft Benson. I.e., nothing in common through these works besides being Mormon biographies.) Does that make any sense?

    And I agree that books like Sam’s has hedgehog elements, but it is also pointing more toward the hybrid that academia is taking since it speaks to a lot of broader issues as well. Especially since it addresses a lot of the same important questions historians in other fields and periods similarly address. ‘Tis the future of Mormon studies.

    Comment by Ben P — February 2, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

  5. Great post. I think some do work on the borders of both. (Think of Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness – had some big theories for polygamy but was largely just brief histories of the wives without focusing on the big pictures)

    Comment by Clark — February 2, 2012 @ 1:49 pm

  6. Having one “thang” that you do is key to tenure and grants in biomedicine, which I presume is the hedgehog model, but there is a breed of “clinical investigators” who are forced to be foxes by fundamental outlook (often as generalists not drawn to the wet bench) and by the exigencies of the types of experiments of nature that need to be reconfigured to learn more about the body in health and disease. Interesting thoughts.

    Comment by smb — February 2, 2012 @ 6:20 pm

  7. Nice work, Ben. Preaching!

    Comment by WVS — February 2, 2012 @ 11:12 pm

  8. Good points, Ben.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 3, 2012 @ 11:18 am

  9. This is really interesting, Ben. Now I’m trying to figure out which I am.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 3, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  10. Very interesting.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — February 3, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

  11. SC: With you’re beard, I’d say you’re a gorilla.

    Comment by Ben P — February 4, 2012 @ 9:27 am

  12. Can we please play the “what am I” game? I’ve been waiting for this thread to go that direction, but it hasn’t done so yet. I think I am a fox — My ideas for projects other than my current dissertation, which is squarely within Mormon history, are a history of British and American whaling centered on the Pacific Islands themselves, a history of the Whitman mission, and coming back to Mormon history, a history of early twentieth-century Mormon feminism.

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 4, 2012 @ 11:41 am

  13. Amanda: I’m very similar to you, though I think I have a “hedgehog” quality that runs through many different chronologies and areas. I’m very interested in identity formation and cultural influences, but I have several very different projects that I hope to do within those tensions: local-based nationalism in early America, a family biography of the Otis family (James Sr., James, Ruth, Mercy, etc.) to examine issues of families around the Revolution, and a Devil in the White City-style book on the construction of the Forest Dale Chapel Ward building in early twentieth century Utah.

    Comment by Ben P — February 4, 2012 @ 3:28 pm

  14. I guess going back to 200 AD to tie everything to Mormonism makes me a hedgehog. So far I’ve tied my various non-Mormon projects to Mormonism so I may do so with future projects (I want to work on the history of and suppression of female charisma 1200-1800, but that could bleed over into a Mormon project).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 4, 2012 @ 3:57 pm

  15. Steve: only you would have a project that spans from 1200-1800 and admit it will likely bleed over into Mormonism.

    Here’s another fun question for discussion (if there are still people reading this thread): who are your favorite fox and/or hedge historians in Mormon history?

    Comment by Ben P — February 4, 2012 @ 4:13 pm

  16. a Devil in the White City-style book on the construction of the Forest Dale Chapel Ward building in early twentieth century Utah.

    Back it up! What’s the story here?

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 4, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

  17. I’m with Taysom… what’s the story? Who died and who used lye to eat away their skin so that they could sell the skeletons to science?

    Comment by Amanda HK — February 4, 2012 @ 10:08 pm

  18. Steve and Amanda: an overview of the building of the chapel is here. Basically, here are the interconnected themes: the area was originally part of Brigham Young family property, but with the growth of the modern city and the decline of the Young “empire,” it was then settled by other families and made into a new ward. (It was also a refuge for post-manifesto-polygamy.) As part of the so-called Americanization project, and part of a larger architectural move, the Church wanted a modern (in 1900) chapel design and had a contest for architects. Then, the fun turn: the architect who won was then found murdered over financial concerns, starting the most covered murder trial in Utah since John D. Lee. I think a fascinating narrative could be written focusing on the overlapping trial and church building, which would be a fun look at Salt Lake City (and Mormonism’s) entrance into the twentieth century.

    Comment by Ben P — February 5, 2012 @ 5:03 am


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