Foxy Hedgehogness: Hybridity & Academia

If it’s Monday, this must be Bill Hutchison from The Philosophical Animal I am delighted to be back once again at Maphmatically Yours.

I have a curious animal, half kitten, half lamb. It is a legacy from my father.

Since my post last week in which I talked about following my nose from philosophy to literature, I have been thinking a lot of the intersection of the two and why it is they are so interesting to me. More than interesting, but interdependent. I cannot imagine philosophy without literature, nor literature without philosophy. This leads me to want to talk a bit about hybridity, and why I believe academic hybridity—interdisciplinarity—is so crucial, but also so fraught.

But it only developed in my time; formerly it was far more lamb than kitten. Now it is both in about equal parts. From the cat it takes its head and claws, from the lamb its size and shape; from both its eyes, which are wild and flickering, its hair, which is soft, lying close to its body, its movements, which partake both of skipping and slinking. Lying on the window sill in the sun it curls up in a ball and purrs; out in the meadow it rushes about like mad and is scarcely to be caught. It flees from cats and makes to attack lambs. On moonlight nights its favorite promenade is along the eaves. It cannot mew and it loathes rats. Beside the hen coop it can lie for hours in ambush, but it has never yet seized an opportunity for murder.

I believe the academy has two responsibilities. Many more, yes, of course, but two that I want to call out the names of. One is the responsibility of discourse; that is, not only the responsibility to remain in conversation—relevant conversation—with one another, but also with other discourses. Rare is the student who, when given an adequate preparation in the liberal arts, does not realize that those fields in which we might “major” as undergraduates are arbitrary as colors. In the spectrum from red to blue, at what point does red become blue? So it is with literature, philosophy, sociology, history, mathematics, the sciences, and so on, and so on. They have been talking amongst themselves and to one another for eons.

I feed it on milk; that seems to suit it best. In long draughts it sucks the milk in through its fanglike teeth. Naturally it is a great source of entertainment for children. Sunday morning is the visiting hour. I sit with the little beast on my knees, and the children of the whole neighborhood stand around me.

Then the strangest questions are asked, which no human being could answer: Why there is only one such animal, why I rather than anybody else should own it, whether there was ever an animal like it before and what would happen if it died, whether it feels lonely, why it has no children, what it is called, etc.

But for many reasons, the conversations among discourses seem to be dryer than they once were. As the university has become more defined, more efficient, discourses have transformed into disciplines, in all the senses of the work. One must indeed train to be a philosopher, to read literature well, to ply numbers correctly and with an appropriate sense of invention, but conversations in the disciplines lead all too often into fields of split hairs. It is for this reason, among others, that is has become increasingly easy to say the humanities are under attack. Indeed, they are. This is, in part, because they seem inefficient for the contemporary world—how does one start a hedge fund with a poem?—but it is also because we forget that the discourses emerged from the world, and should feed and be fed by the world in which they live.

Thinking, in any discourse or discipline, finds its home in the minds of those who live right now, today, in this world of television and torture, of starvation and salvation, of ideas and iPhones. We must remember that. We cannot burrow into the soft earth of academia and imagine that we can be left alone to think our Big Thoughts.

I never trouble to answer, but confine myself without further explanation to exhibiting my possession. Sometimes the children bring cats with them; once they actually brought two lambs. But against all their hopes there was no scene of recognition. The animals gazed calmly at each other with their animal eyes, and obviously accepted their reciprocal existence as a divine fact.

Sitting on my knees, the beast knows neither fear nor lust of pursuit. Pressed against me it is happiest. It remains faithful to the family that brought it up. In that there is certainly no extraordinary mark of fidelity, but merely the true instinct of an animal which, though it has countless step-relations in the world, has perhaps not a single blood relation, and to which consequently the protection it has found with us is sacred.

Crucial to staying in conversation—real conversation—within disciplines, we must remember to talk to one another. The brilliance of the polymath is our example here. Neither breadth nor depth are acceptable singly. Without the other, they are meaningless. Breadth without depth washes away, cannot find purchase. Depth without breadth is never noticed as birds fly overhead. We need philosophers and physicists, modernists and mathematicians. But we need them to be speaking to one another, exploding like a supernova, not collapsing into themselves with the crushing gravity of a black hole.

The teachers who have been most meaningful to me are those who understand many things beyond their chosen field. Who are wise in what they are know, but are also wise about that which they know themselves to be foolish. We know Archilochus’ famous fragment: πόλλ’ οἶδ’ ἀλώπηξ, ἀλλ’ ἐχῖνος ἓν μέγα. “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Isaiah Berlin took this idea up in his famous essay that contended that hedgehog thinkers saw the world through a single lens that defined that world for them. Fox thinkers found the world impossible to see through just one idea, instead exploding into the world through a variety of experiences. I would posit that we must find a way to be both creatures. We must be a hybrid of fox and hedgehog.

Sometimes I cannot help laughing when it sniffs around me and winds itself between my legs and simply will not be parted from me. Not content with being a lamb and a cat, it almost insists on being a dog as well. Once when, as may happen to anyone, I could see no way out of my business problems and all that they involved, and was ready to let everything go, and in this mood was lying in my rocking chair in my room, the beast on my knees, I happened to glance down and saw tears dropping from its huge whiskers. Were they mine, or were they the animal’s? Had this cat, along with the soul of a lamb, the ambitions of a human being? I did not inherit much from my father, but this legacy is quite remarkable.

It has the restlessness of both beasts, that of the cat and that of the lamb, diverse as they are. For that reason its skin feels too tight for it. Sometimes it jumps up on the armchair beside me, plants its front legs on my shoulder, and puts its muzzle to my ear. It is as if it were saying something to me, and as a matter of fact it turns its head afterwards and gazes in my face to see the impression its communication has made. And to oblige it I behave as if I had understood, and nod. Then it jumps to the floor and dances about with joy.

We are odd creatures. We are born for more than we can ever accomplish in a lifetime. I read Heidegger against H.G. Wells and Kant against Coetzee because we have the power to cause worlds to collide with each other, and the result is never destruction. It is creation of the most magnificent sort. It is precisely what the inexhaustibility of interpretation, both of life and of texts, does for us. It is how we not only make this world, but how we make sense of it. We must speak to each other and into the world because we can, and if we can, then we do a great disservice to our abilities, our vocations—in the sense of having been called by a voice—if we do not. Let us talk numbers to the people of the word, let us talk shapes and colors to the people of data and lines of code. We will never understand this world, these texts, even one another, but hybridity, interdisciplinarity, fox-hedgehogness—they are the ways of doing what we must: to always and already chase after impossible possibilities.

Perhaps the knife of the butcher would be a release for this animal; but as it is a legacy I must deny it that. So it must wait until the breath voluntarily leaves its body, even though it sometimes gazes at me with a look of human understanding, challenging me to do the right thing of which both of us are thinking. —Franz Kafka, “A Crossbreed (A Sport)”

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