Is Polymathy Dead?

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The Economist Foreign Editor Edward Carr wrote a paean to the polymath in the Autumn issue of More Intelligent Life that sounded like a eulogy. Carr believes – with some justification – that the class of people who can claim expertise in more than a couple of fields is dying out. Carr notes that the rapid expansion and dissemination of knowledge – especially scientific knowledge – over the past century has made it increasingly difficult for people to claim expertise even in one field, much less many.

Farewell to the Polymaths

Carr clearly has a soft spot for people like Jared Diamond, Umberto Eco, Brian Eno, and Oliver Sacks, people who were able to come up with profound insights or innovations in diverse fields based on their wide breadth of knowledge. But his concern is not entirely sentimental. Polymaths are an endangered species, Carr tells us, and we as a race will be much diminished by their passing.

The question is whether their loss has affected the course of human thought. Polymaths possess something that monomaths do not. Time and again, innovations come from a fresh eye or from another discipline. Most scientists devote their careers to solving the everyday problems in their specialism. Everyone knows what they are and it takes ingenuity and perseverance to crack them. But breakthroughs—the sort of idea that opens up whole sets of new problems—often come from other fields. The work in the early 20th century that showed how nerves work and, later, how DNA is structured originally came from a marriage of physics and biology. Today, Einstein’s old employer, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, is laid out especially so that different disciplines rub shoulders. I suspect that it is a poor substitute.

I understand Carr’s sentiment and I share it to some degree, but I do not agree with his implicit contention that when polymathy dies nothing will rise to replace it.

Welcome the Medicians

Carr would do well to read Franz Johansson’s short but excellent Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation. While pitched to the business crowd with its front page focus on making new and useful things, Johansson delivers an insight that actually touches a far wider range of intellectual endeavor than the merely commercial.

Johansson points out that some of the best innovation actually comes out of people who are actually specialists, but instead of trying to develop multiple specialties, they instead cultivate interests about fields completely unrelated to their core competency. He gives examples so numerous that you realize that this is an increasingly common phenomenon.

What appears to be replacing polymathy, then is something similar but far easier to master and much more common: the cultivation of ideas and concepts across fields by specialists who are neither polymath nor monomath but something in between.

A New Creative Elite

As we exit the knowledge era and enter the creativity era, Johannson has found the nexus where creativity can happen. All it demands, he seems to tell us, is the commitment to master a single field or craft, and the curiosity and sense of wonder to develop other interests, then look for ways to meld them.

If China is going to address the challenges implicit in evolving from an economy built on nimble hands and strong backs to one built on creative minds, its education system (including postgraduate training) is going to have to do more than just build better analytical skills. It will need to stop chunking out narrow specialists and start encouraging a wider range of enquiry from an early age.

Easier said than done, to be sure, but it leaves us with a much more hopeful prognosis for human intellectual endeavor than Carr’s heartfelt dirge. The Medicians may never truly replace the Polymaths, but hopefully the former will make up in quantity whatever they may lack in quality.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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