A Conversation for Polymaths
the fire and the rose are one Started conversation Dec 31, 2002
First of all, does spelling count as a field of knowledge? The word is PRETENSION (not "pretention")--surprised no one caught it in peer review.
A nicely and clearly written piece, although perhaps a bit simplistic in its advice...? (I like the suggestion that if you're thinking about becoming a polymath, it's already too late.) It seems to me that what you've DESCRIBED as polymathy (reading broadly and making connections between various areas of knowledge) is simply higher level critical thinking. I suppose one question to pose would be how much expertise is required--and how many fields of learning? With the exception of Leonardo and PERHAPS Feynman, most of the examples offered so far are proficient, or at least interested, in two or three fields of learning--is that sufficient? Should one be autodidact as well (e.g, the Wright brothers)? I know a lot of about music and history and cultural studies and education and global politics and a fair bit about literature and economics and philosophy and psychology and medicine and technology and a little bit of several varieties of science (biology, geology, astonomy, physics, chemistry). Does that make me a polymath? Are we sure?
The emergence of a different style of learning in the West since the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment--the triumph of analysis as the overriding tool, the bureaucratization of knowledge into disciplines--has made true polymathy antique, perhaps impossible, perhaps undesirable. The reason I stumbled across this discussion in the first place was in search of context for a paragraph in Marc Bloch's _The Historian's Craft_, where he suggests that any "science" (field of study) that FAILS to offer "explanatory connections" between things is "MERE 'polymathy' " (my emphasis). From his POV, polymaths are like antiquarians: they collect facts like crazy but don't necessarily apply their knowledge or make connections. An encyclopedic mind--period. Full of facts, carefully arranged.
I think the writer of this article has something else in mind for polymathy, but I'm not sure that it's possible under our current knowledge (look-out ahead for the P-word!) paradigm. All the seemingly best examples of polymaths lived in an utterly different world--one in which all fields of study WERE one. Aristotle, Leonardo, Newton. Newton striding the most recent cusp; after him we broke that model. Before that, though, almost anyone who bothered to write or speak publicly arguably qualified, since any thought one gave to, say, astronomy had physical and theological and political and moral ramifications. Dabbling was encouraged--everyone dabbled in everything. Think of it.... Jesus! No, really--Jesus! "The kingdom of heaven is like..." Buddha--the fourfold path. Now we have experts, who "own" information, and everyone else has opinions. Even the 19th-century critic--widely read and outspoken on any subject--has largely "gone the way of the buffalo," as a friend of mine used to say.
If polymaths are fact-collectors, then their task is getting more difficult by the minute. If polymaths are NOT just collectors of facts, then who qualifies? If our current best models are those who stood at the cusp of earlier knowledge-paradigm shifts, then should we be looking at those whose lives or works suggest (or predict) new knowledge paradigms? Perhaps in that case, Douglas Adams does qualify, but damned if I can think of anyone else.
Otto Fisch ("Stop analysing Strava.... and cut your hedge") Posted Dec 31, 2002
Thanks for your response. My view is that spelling is that spelling conventions are just another form of opression.
I suppose that the title "polymath" is up for grabs, both in terms of its award and its definition. In much the same way as words like "justice" and "freedom", but much less important. I'm not sure how much mileage there is in the concept of the polymath as a useful tool or distinction.
Something that I perhaps should have mentioned is the distinction between the "jack of all trades" (and therefore master of none) and the polymath, if indeed there is one.
the fire and the rose are one Posted Jan 3, 2003
... or perhaps resistance to oppression, if Welsh and Irish are any evidence!
Just curious - what prompted you to write about polymathy in the first place? It certainly strikes a nice chord in the context of h2g2.
Otto Fisch ("Stop analysing Strava.... and cut your hedge") Posted Jan 3, 2003
I'm not sure why I wrote something about polymathy. It started off as a brief journal entry and escalated from there. I thought it was probably getting too long, and then thought that it might not need too much more work to get in the edited guide. I'm still surprised that I wrote it....
polymather Posted Mar 3, 2006
My main goal in life is to try and become a polymath. Right now, I am in the process of working towards a double P.H.D in math and English. This will allow me to become well rounded enough at both ends of the scientific and art spectrum. Afterwards, I will have to figure out how to fill in the middle of the road. All I know now is that the mastery of mathematics and English will give me the tools to analyze any type of human problem. Maybe, if I am up to it I will try to add a M.S in computer science later in my life.
PS: The English will allow me to let other people join with me on this lifelong journey, and maybe help them consider such a path .
Key: Complain about this post
More Conversations for Polymaths
Write an Entry
"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book. It has been compiled and recompiled many times and under many different editorships. It contains contributions from countless numbers of travellers and researchers."