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Peter Burke's Polymathy

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Yuvraj Singh recommended me Peter Burke’s The Polymath, a cultural history of “polymaths” from Leonardo Da Vinci to Susan Sontag. It sparked some thoughts that have been fermenting a while. I think it’s safe to open that bottle now.

Defining a polymath

The problem starts with Peter’s definition of a “polymath”. Wikipedia keeps it high-level

An individual whose knowledge spans a substantial number of subjects.

Is substantial more than two? Is only theoretical “knowledge” enough? Or is exclusively knowledge a factor? The term first appeared in the 1600s when a German philosopher defined polymathy as knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies, ranging freely through all the fields, as far as the mind is able to pursue them. But according to Burke, the term polymath should be used where it belongs: in academia. He says that a polymath is:

An individual who made a significant contribution to many [academic] fields.

Let’s break that down:

  1. A significant—does that entail originality or does it require a positive impact to the lives of thousands of people?
  2. Contribution—this smells like a classic academic publication?
  3. Many—again, is many more than two?
  4. Academic fields—what’s wrong with practical knowledge, or even an engineering approach?

The biggest problem I have with Burke’s vision on polymathy is that of an academic approach. Being an emeritus professor himself, that is perhaps not so surprising, but it does have a big tendency to ignore more practical (and perhaps important) knowledge of for instance crafts. Not a word about cookery, pottery, drawing, or landscaping. The term “renaissance man” is even more troublesome and confines oneself to the bygone era of the renaissance, plus again puts too much emphasis on the painful fact that women were not supposed to study.

Burke’s book is filled to the brim with 500 polymaths and at times feels like a very dry enumeration of high (academic) achievers that I couldn’t care less about. When things became interesting (what do these people have in common, what are their habits like, how to induce polymathy yourself), the sections suddenly became very thin, hinting that Burke himself doesn’t seem to have a clue either.

Some polymaths are what he calls “passive”: they amass an impressive amount of information, and usually draw interesting conclusions and generate new insights by combining ideas across domains, but they do not publish—that is, they do not actively contribute. There seems to be a thin line between being a cool but useless walking encyclopedia and a “passive (pedantic) polymath”. A passive polymath seems to defy the definition of a polymath by breaking #2. Furthermore, Da Vinci, one of the classic examples of a polymath, is a omo sanza lettere: an autodidact without a degree that defies rule #4.

The text in the book seems to even suggest that a contribution should be a discovery to move the field forward, something that could also be called “BigC” creativity, and something that very few people will ever achieve to do, especially nowadays. This form of exclusive discovery demoralizes the reader to become interested in generalism, which is a big shame. Isn’t a significant contribution also a piece of open source software that others gratefully make use of? Or a practical book about positivism that helps combat depression? Or even… a blog? Now we’re getting somewhere!

Latent polymathy

I’d rather go with the 1600s definition: knowledge of various matters includes my academic and practical knowledge of baking bread, sowing peas, and playing games.

When I read Emilie Wapnick’s work years ago, I found her definition to be much more alluring. Emilie avoids using the term polymath all-together and prefers “multipo” or in full form multipotentialite. A multipotentialite has latent abilities to pursue multiple interests—that’s it. These people don’t like calling themselves programmer or accountant: they can be slashers (I’m a programmer/baker) or sometimes make up another more high-level title that encompasses all their interests. For now.

As a multipo, you’re simply interested in many things. Interest does not necessarily translate into knowledge, let alone a “significant contribution”—it’s still in its latent state. But it also frees the narrow-minded polymathesis from the confinements of academia. A cameraman can and will translate interesting practical knowledge into his next interest as an illustrator. By the way, I’d argue that produced photographs and drawings can be called a contribution.

Wapnick paints a picture that is achievable for all of us. Burke paints a dry picture of academic over-achievers that made me yawn. He even goes as far as describing these men and women as working 12 hours a day or more, priding themselves of never taking a day off. Good for them. Is that really where you want society to go? I don’t think so. He does sparingly admit that many of these polymaths struggled with mental breakdowns—no wonder.

I’d conclude that the term polymath is best to be avoided. In true Wapnick fashion, I call myself a Brain Baker because I’m interested in many things and love sharing those baked buns—whether that’s through teaching, coaching, writing articles like these on the blog, or more conventional books or academic papers. I love doing all these things, and I love reading generalist blogs. The more time I spent scrolling through my RSS feeds, the less I’m interested in technical articles on how to program x in Linux.

Sure, I have a degree in computer science, but I also have one in baking. When I was working as a software engineering consultant, my managers always tried to push me towards a Java job, while I wanted to explore other languages. As the proof is in the pudding, I got various certifications in other languages, which did nothing, as a Java job brought more money in the pockets of my employer. I quit a few years later. I now study computing education, a highly interdisciplinary field that touches upon pedagogy, engineering and psychology—stuff I know little about. Great!

In nowadays' highly specialized environment, I just get sad when I hear someone proudly saying they’re a Python dev. Most of these people refuse to look beyond Python. And guess what: there’s also something beyond programming! The problem is that society looks up to specialists. Would you rather read a book about neurology from a professor in neurology (the paper proves he’s the expert, right?) or from a philosopher who also explored that field? Would you rather try out recipes from revered cooks or from an amateur who likes to experiment at home?

Funny thing, the term “amateur” means to be interested in multiple things and only recently received a very negative connotation. We now say someone is an amateur if they barely manage to get anything working. Bricolage. We now scold at amateurs. But guess what. In Ancient Greece and up to the 1700s, amateurs were the heroes and specialists the losers.

To all generalists out there: 🤜 fist bump 🤛

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

If you found this article amusing and/or helpful, you can buy me a coffee - although I'm more of a tea fan myself. I also like to hear your feedback via Mastodon or e-mail. Thanks!