The Hedgehog’s Dilemma
Schopenhauer and Freud on the pains of human intimacy.
Posted Mar 28, 2020
The Hedgehog's Dilemma has been popularized by Sigmund Freud, and more recently, by Neon Genesis Evangelion, as a metaphor for the dilemma humans are faced with in their intimate relationships with others. Its origin, however, is a parable about porcupines (animals with much sharper and more dangerous spikes than hedgehogs) by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. In his last major book before his death, Parerga and Paralipomena (1851), he collected his thoughts on a number of philosophical topics.
In one of his essays, he lays out the parable:
A number of porcupines huddled together for warmth on a cold day in winter, but, as they began to prick one another with their quills, they were obliged to disperse. However, the cold drove them together again, when just the same thing happened. At last, after many turns of huddling and dispersing, they discovered that they would be best off by remaining at a little distance from one another. In the same way, the need of society drives the human porcupines together, only to be mutually repelled by the many prickly and disagreeable qualities of their nature. The moderate distance which they at last discover to be the only tolerable condition of intercourse is the code of politeness and fine manners, and those who transgress it are roughly told—in the English phrase—to keep their distance. By this arrangement, the mutual need of warmth is only very moderately satisfied, but then people do not get pricked. A man who has some heat in himself prefers to remain outside, where he will neither prick other people nor get pricked himself. —Arthur Schopenhauer (2014, p. 99)
What is Schopenhauer trying to convey here?
When he speaks of the mutual human need for warmth, he is speaking of human connection, intimacy, and affection. Yet, both social rules and human nature keep us from truly closing in on others. Usually, the Hedgehog's Dilemma is seen as a metaphor for the human inability to break down all of one's inner walls towards others. As it is expressed in the acclaimed anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion: "The closer we become, the more deeply we hurt each other."
Yet, Schopenhauer utters an additional criticism concerning etiquette. He thinks that our societal rules keep us from connecting with others. We may also interpret this criticism as an explanation for the very nature and origin of the rules of etiquette: They are the cultural end-result of a long and painful process of humans trying to find the ideal distance at which they can both experience the warmth and pleasure of human intimacy.
Freud was very interested in this dilemma. Why is it that we pull back from our loved ones? Why are we so afraid of being hurt? Why is it so hard for those suffering from anxiety and depression to seek out the help of others? We can see this dilemma between parents and children, friends, siblings, and lovers. Indeed, it is studied in contemporary psychological research (Maner et al. 2007).
Schopenhauer and Freud may have been pessimists on this point; the former, after all, is known for his melancholic and pessimist philosophy. Is it a must that we cannot achieve human intimacy without being hurt? In modern times, regardless of whether we are quarantined or not, it is often said that our relationships are feeble, weak, and not as secure as they once were. Depression and anxiety are skyrocketing.
I am not as fatalistic on this point. Did we really change that much, or is it merely more acceptable to talk about one's own mental states? Many of us wish to have stronger relationships and discard all of our cautious behavior, yet we are too afraid to be hurt.
This is the Hedgehog's Dilemma.
Maner, J.K., DeWall, C.N., Baumeister, R.F., & Schaller, M. (2007). Does social exclusion motivate interpersonal reconnection? Resolving the 'porcupine problem.' Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 42–55.