A total devotion to hedgehoggism

Richard Powers in conversation with Jeffrey Williams, Cultural Logic, spring 1999:

RP: I was the kind of kid who really didn’t make great distinctions between different fields and who took huge amounts of pleasure in being able to solve problems in very different intellectual disciplines. If anything, I would say my problem-solving abilities in math and science were always a good deal stronger than my verbal skills. I always thought that I would end up becoming one kind of scientist or another. It wasn’t always physics. For a while it was oceanography. For a while it was paleontology.

JW: Unusual for a novelist . . .

RP: Well, I’m not sure what the usual novelist trajectory is! But my orientation was definitely empirical, a real bias toward the “non-subjective” disciplines. I guess the difficulty for me growing up was this constant sensation that every decision to commit myself more deeply to any of these fields meant closing several doors. Specializing involved almost perpetual leave-taking from other pursuits that I loved and that gave me great pleasure. I really resisted the process, as long as I could. I just wanted to arrive somewhere where I could be the last generalist and do that in good faith. I thought for a long time that physics might be that place.

We have this notion of physics—especially cosmology, I guess—as representing a fundamental kind of knowledge, and that it’s a great field to be in if you want the aerial view of how things work. In fact, in some ways, almost the opposite may be true. The enormous success of the reductionist program depends upon absolute applications of Occam’s razor on every level. You have to make yourself expert in a field that’s too small even to be called a specialization. The whole overwhelming success of physics as a discipline depends upon dividing and conquering, on separating fields of research into ever smaller domains. And so it became clear to me pretty quickly, to use Isaiah Berlin’s hedgehog and fox distinction, that rather than becoming a fox, I had in fact landed in a place that demanded of me a total devotion to hedgehoggism. I got pretty claustrophobic pretty quickly, and it made me look for other fields where I could preserve that sense of multiplicity, of generalism.

JW: So that induced your turn to literature?

RP: That’s right. Initially, I thought that in the study of literature, I’d really found that aerial view again.

JW: So you thought that you’d be a literary critic and a professor?

RP: Right, or at least that that’s how I would make my living. Since literature seemed to be about everything that there is—about the human condition—I figured that a good literary critic would have to make himself expert at that big picture. It didn’t take me long to realize that the professionalization of literary criticism has taken reductionism as its model, and that it too can lead to learning more and more about less and less until you’re in danger of knowing everything there is to know about nothing.