Jonathan Sumption

Design for living

The first thing to be said about this remarkable book is that it has nothing to do with animal rights.

The first thing to be said about this remarkable book is that it has nothing to do with animal rights. The title is borrowed from the archaic Greek poet Archilochus, who is known mainly for a single aphorism: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ Isaiah Berlin borrowed this gnomic utterance for the title of his essay on Tolstoy, using it to illustrate his idea that great thinkers can be divided into two categories, the more focussed spirits who bring insights to a single great idea and the versatile universal men who skate over the whole surface of human knowledge.

Ronald Dworkin is a self-proclaimed hedgehog. He is an American academic lawyer and philosopher who is well known for his elegant and opinionated contributions to American legal and constitutional controversies, although much of his professional life has in fact been passed in England, where he held chairs in jurisprudence at Oxford and London for some 40 years.

For much of this time he has taken pleasure in throwing rocks into the placid ponds of academic discourse; to such an extent that the life-cycle of a Dworkinian argument is by now quite well-known. It starts with a brutal forensic demolition of some conventional truth, accompanied by a radical alternative theory. Critics then gather round with their objections. Some of them hit the mark with distressing accuracy. Dworkin responds by reducing the size of the target. He jettisons the more striking and vulnerable parts of the argument one after the other, in order to preserve the persuasive force of the rest, rather like the crew of an early steamer cutting timber out of the superstructure to feed the boilers. Gradually, the theory becomes more acceptable but less radical, until the point is reached when Dworkin is no longer saying anything remarkable after all.

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