Pondering the polymath: Endangered species, or cultural rebirth?


The term “polymath” might seem largely confined to science-fiction geeks. At least that’s where I first encountered the word – reading John Brunner’s 1974 novel by the same name. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymath_%28novel%29. Yet for those who are unfamiliar, it refers to someone who possesses considerable knowledge and expertise in multiple specialties.

We’re not talking Cliff Claven here – the fictional know-it-all postal carrier of “Cheers” fame. More like Aristotle. Archimedes. da Vinci. Galileo. Ben Franklin. Issac Asimov. Folks who not only knew a lot – they did a lot as well. At least those are some the famous ones. You may personally know a few who are less noted – at least on a historical scale – and odds are you may find a few in places such as Indiana University.

But they may be an endangered species. At least that’s what the The Economist’s Edward Carr argues. And he blames some of it on the increasingly digital age in which we live. The full article is here http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/edward-carr/last-days-polymath, but below are some of the operative passages. Remember, it is The Economist we’re talking about here, so the passage is slightly lengthy and in places, even redundant. Yet eventually, the point is made:


“Today the planet teems with 6.7 billion minds. Never have so many been taught to read and write and think, and then been free to choose what they would do with their lives. The electronic age has broken the shackles of knowledge. Never has it been easier to find something out, or to get someone to explain it to you. Yet as human learning has flowered, the man or woman who does great things in many fields has become a rare species.

“In an age of specialists, does it matter that generalists no longer thrive? The world is hardly short of knowledge. Countless books are written, canvases painted and songs recorded. A torrent of research is pouring out. A new orthodoxy, popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, sees obsessive focus as the key that unlocks genius.

“Just knowing about a lot of things has never been easier. Never before have dabblers been so free to paddle along the shore and dip into the first rock pool that catches the eye. If you have an urge to take off your shoes and test the water, countless specialists are ready to hold your hand.

“And yet you will never get very deep. Depth is for monomaths—which is why experts so often seem to miss what really matters. Specialisation has made the study of English so sterile that students lose much of the joy in reading great literature for its own sake. A generation of mathematically inclined economists neglected many of Keynes’s insights about the Depression because he put them into words. For decades economists sweated over fiendish mathematical equations, only to be brought down to earth by the credit crunch: Keynes’s well-turned phrases had come back to life …

“Polymaths were the product of a particular time, when great learning was a mark of distinction and few people had money and leisure. Their moment has passed, like great houses or the horse-drawn carriage. The world may well be a better place for the specialisation that has come along instead. The pity is that progress has to come at a price. Civilisation has put up fences that people can no longer leap across; a certain type of mind is worth less. The choices modern life imposes are duller, more cramped.

“The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought.”


So is Carr correct? Do modern-day “polymaths” still exist? Did Steve Jobs count as one – a digital age permutation of an old-guard polymath? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jobs. Does Elon Musk? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elon_Musk. What of the late Hedy Lamarr, actor and co-inventor of what became spread-spectrum technology and the basis of certain types of secured military and cell-phone communication? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedy_Lamarr.

Once again, The Economist offers a few for consideration http://moreintelligentlife.com/blog/ed-cumming/hunting-modern-polymaths – but some these names don’t carry quite the panache of the “old masters.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_people_who_have_been_called_%22polymaths%22. Who are some nominees you would put out there for consideration?

If so, what does their future bode in an age of “remix” and “convergence culture?” It is a confusing era. On one hand, “individuals can no longer afford to concentrate on their own silo” [MMW, p. 8] – suggesting they become more diverse [or “polymath-like”] in their knowledge. Yet on the other, the ability to bring “together the work of others in a meaningful and creative way seems not just a valuable, but an increasingly crucial skill” [p. 8] – which seems to fly in the face of the polymath’s individualistic legend.

Does this seemingly innate conflict spell “doom” for polymaths as we have known them? Or are they simply being redefined – as so many other aspects of human thought, culture, industry, and life – by the tools with which they now have the luxury to work?

— Bill W. Hornaday

P.S: As this is our last website posting, some departing tunes:

Don Meredith: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CtGxusvUT3k

Willie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsTAUs_h_uY&feature=related

And the classic “operatic” closing [well, sorta]: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIVfbylUU-M


One Response to “Pondering the polymath: Endangered species, or cultural rebirth?”

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