Herbert Simon – a Hedgehog and a Fox

The seventeenth in a series of excerpts from Minds, Models and Milieux: Commemorating the Centennial of the Birth of Herbert Simon.

Roger Frantz and Leslie Marsh

A Quality of Mind

If as Archilochus’ famous fragment goes “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing” then Herbert Simon is, at face value, a star example of a fox. Popularized by Isaiah Berlin (1978), the fox-hedgehog distinction has been interpreted (overly simplistically as Berlin acknowledged) as mutually exclusive or ideal types. Hedgehog-type intelligences are motivated by an overarching grand idea or scheme that they then apply to- or through which filter- all else. By contrast, fox-type intelligences are highly adaptive and come up new ideas more suited to a specific situation or context. We are of the view that the supposed hedgehog-fox dichotomy is way too trite and onedimensional an assessment of Simon. Without any fear of paradox Herbert Simon, we contend, was both a hedgehog and a fox.

Ascriptions of “polymath” and “Renaissance man” to Simon are legion and, while not without merit, they gloss over the distinctive quality of such a mind. The late Carl Djerassi was concerned that these days polymaths are viewed synonymously with “dabblers,” the implication being one of dilettantism (Barth, 2011, p. 96). In an age of hyper-specialization, a tacit resentment in some academic circles can be detected, a resentment that has substantive form (ideological and/or methodological) or plain old professional sour grapes infused by misguided protectionist intent.

Hayek, whose mind perhaps comes closest to Simon’s in both substance and style and whom Simon held in the highest regard understood that: . . . exclusive concentration on a speciality has a peculiarly baneful effect: it will not merely prevent us from being attractive company or good citizens but may impair our competence in our proper field . . . (Hayek, 1967, pp. 123; 127) This was echoed by G. L. S. Shackle who suggested that:

To be a complete economist, a man need only be a mathematician, a philosopher, a psychologist, an anthropologist, a historian, a geographer, and a student of politics; a master of prose exposition; a man of the world with the experience of practical business and finance, an understanding of the problems of administration, and a good knowledge of four or five languages. All this in addition, of course, to familiarity with the economics literature itself (Shackle, 2010, p. 241).

Simon embodied these virtues in spades. Curiously much criticism that followed his award of the Nobel Prize in 1978 was because he wasn’t an “economist”! There can be no doubt that Simon’s polymathic motivations were driven by genuine curiosity, a curiosity inextricably linked to intellectual honesty not withstanding of course endowed with natural ability and life opportunities. As we well know, Simon made significant contributions to political science, epistemology, sociology, cognitive science, philosophy, public administration, organization theory and complexity studies, diverse disciplines that were not conventionally discontinuous for Simon but merely different lenses through which Simon approached his central lifelong concern – the theorizing of human behavior, or rationality, or decision-making in complex social environments. The hedgehog-fox distinction dissolves for as Herb Simon’s daughter Kathie, citing Edward Feigenbaum, has already indicated in the Foreword to this collection:

… in awe of his enormous knowledge and the range of his contributions, I once asked him to explain his mastery of so many fields. His unforgettable answer was, ‘I am a monomaniac. What I am a monomaniac about is decision-making.’

This is borne out by Simon again:

. . . the “Renaissance Mind is not broader than other intelligent minds but happens to cover a narrow swathe across the multi-dimensional space of knowledge that happens to cut across many disciplines which have divided up the space in other ways. My own narrow swathe happens to be the process of human problem solving and decision making, and almost everything I have done lies in that quite narrow band (cited in Subrata, 2003, p. 686).

We are in full accord with Subrata’s contention that a multidisciplinary creative mind such as Simon’s is neither a “flitterer” nor merely a modal patchwork of ideas but an emergent distinctive “cognitive style” the likes of which is mitigated in the prevailing culture of hyper-specialization. A good teacher should insist that his or her students should not merely seek to have their intellectual prejudices validated but that they should approach a given thinker for their quality of mind – and Simon would be a perfect instantiation.