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Everyone's a Polymath on the Internet

David J. Berg
Jim Parsons as Dr. Sheldon Cooper in Big Bang Theory

The concept of polymath has become a pop culture meme. But what is a polymath, really?

A polymath trumpeter, a swimming polymath, a tax polymath, a modern polymath, a polymath seeking a serious relationship. These are just some of the "polymaths", self-proclaimed and otherwise, that can be found these days in newspapers, books, and magazines, and on social media, blogs, personal ads, and elsewhere on the internet (everyone’s a polymath on the internet). The concept of polymath has become a pop culture meme. Here are just a couple of examples: from The Boston Globe, “Witty, Wide-Ranging Journeys With a Musical Polymath”; a book honoring a tax lawyer and judge, Tax Polymath: A life in International Taxation, Essays in Honour of John F. Avery Jones; and from a respected medical journal, the complimenting of an OB/GYN as “a polymath in reproductive health”. But what is a polymath, really?

“A scientist who composes operas and writes novels is more of a polymath than a novelist who can turn out a play or a painter who can sculpt.”
A polymath may strike you as a really smart person, possibly even a person with multiple, even disparate, interests, hobbies, or avocations, but how many different accomplishments or interests qualifies one as polymathic? How intellectual and/or widely disparate must these accomplishments be? Can excellence at, for example, both dog breeding and cross-country skiing qualify as polymathic accomplishments? Was the 20th century leading actress, the gorgeous and brilliant Hedy Lamarr, who (among other things) co-invented and patented a guidance system for torpedoes, a polymath?

Knowing what polymathy really is might get journalists, critics, and others to stop throwing the term around so loosely and certainly will permit us to have a more informed debate about polymathy and its merits (or lack of). After all, as Socrates might have said, How can we really talk about something until it has been defined?

Thus, we need to tease out the true definition of polymathy in the modern era. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a polymath is a person of great or varied learning; a person acquainted with many fields of study; or an accomplished scholar. What is great or varied learning? How many fields of study is polymathic study, and how much acquaintance with these fields of study does someone have to have in order to be considered a polymath?

The word’s origin is found in ancient Greece. It comes from the ancient Greek polymathis, which means having learnt much. And that’s what it means today; so it turns out that the word hasn’t changed at all in 2,500 years. But we still have the same problem; what does it really mean?

It was the philosopher Heraclitus, who is most well-known today for having said that one could not step twice into the same river, who coined the term, saying, “Much learning (polymathy) does not teach understanding. For it would have taught Hesiod and Pythagoras, and also Xenophanes and Hecataeus.” Regrettably, no one knows anymore what Heraclitus actually meant by polymathy, but perhaps examining who Heraclitus’s polymaths actually were might shed some light on what he actually meant. So who were Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hecataeus, and what did they do?

Hesiod was the second great early Greek poet, after Homer. The Greeks considered Hesiod to be the authoritative source of history, the gods, astronomy, farming, and other useful information. Pythagoras was renowned for his excellence in mathematics and geometry (the Pythagorean Theorem), philosophy, astronomy, and music. Xenophanes was a poet and early scientist who wrote about the elements, the earth and cosmos, the gods, history, philosophy, and the weather and meteorological phenomena, and Hecataeus was a celebrated geographer, historian, and cartographer.

So Heraclitus’s subjects do help us. The first three had a truly extraordinary depth and breadth of knowledge and intellectual accomplishments, and Hecataeus was distinguished in three fields. Thus, a polymath to Heraclitus could be said to have been a person of outstanding achievements in at least three fields. That’s very helpful information.

We don’t get any other real definitions of the word from later Greeks, however, so we need to jump far ahead to an obscure 17th century German intellectual named Ioannes Wower, who defined polymathy in his 1603 De polymathia tractatio (Treatise on Polymathy) as “knowledge of diverse things, drawing on every kind of discipline and ranging very widely.” A later, far more renowned German, Daniel Georg Morhof, then defined polymathy in his 1688 Polyhistor as “the extent and actual state of all living knowledge.” The 1728 Chambers Cyclopedia, an early encyclopedia that predated the famous French Encyclopédie, described polymathy as “the knowledge of many Arts and Sciences; or an Acquaintance with a great Number of different Subjects.” So, by the 17th and 18th centuries, polymathy had an outrageously broad definition, and a polymath was seen as a person who possessed a staggering amount of knowledge.

Moving into the modern era, some good definitions come from a 2007 presentation at the Royal Institution of Great Britain with the fascinating title of "What happened to the polymaths?" Oliver Morton, then Chief News and Features editor at Nature, offered a rigorous definition of the polymath as “someone who makes contributions to four widely conceived as distinct areas of science and culture” at a “professional level.” John Whitfield, author of a biography of the British polymath D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, argued that a polymath was one who made “a contribution to more than one field that would stand on its own.” Andrew Robinson, author of a biography of another British polymath, Thomas Young, thought that a polymath had to have broad learning and curiosity that led to something original.

A prolific polymathy researcher at Michigan State University, Robert Root-Bernstein, has used two alternate definitions: those who have “become world famous in one field of endeavor and have demonstrable competence (and even excellence) in one or more avocations that they have not developed to professional levels”; and “a balance of abilities, as indicated by a range of avocations practiced at an intensive level, or high scores on both the verbal and mathematical portions of SAT tests, or a range of well-developed ‘multiple intelligences.’” Journalist Edward Carr, in a 2009 article in Intelligent Life, used a “breadth” test, explaining that “a scientist who composes operas and writes novels is more of a polymath than a novelist who can turn out a play or a painter who can sculpt.” He believed that success in thoroughly unrelated fields enhanced one’s polymath status. In his article, Carr interviewed the polymathic Carl Djerassi, one of the inventors of the birth control pill, who held that influence / acceptance was an essential requirement. For Djerassi, one was not a true polymath unless he or she was accepted as an expert by practitioners in each field that the polymath claimed to master.

The Cambridge historian Peter Burke, who has done a lot of thinking about polymathy recently, proposed a new understanding of the modern polymath that has attempted to take into account the limitations on polymathy caused by specialization. He lamented that polymathy “has been diluted to refer to people who have mastered two or three disciplines,” and suggested categorizing the modern polymath into four distinct groups:

1. The passive polymaths, who read widely but make their reputation in one discipline alone.

2. The limited polymaths, active in a small cluster of neighboring disciplines.

3. The serial polymaths, whose interests gradually shifted from one discipline to others.

4. Most remarkable of all, is a fourth group, proper polymaths who have continued to work in several fields and to make serious contributions to all of them, keeping several balls in the air at the same time rather than picking them up one by one.

These definitions help us to come up with a definition for the modern polymath that best matches not only the original Greek concept, but also how polymaths have been viewed throughout the centuries.

Let’s begin by eliminating the weakest candidates. Wower’s, Morhof’s, the Cyclopedia’s, and Morton’s definitions set the bar too high. Outside of perhaps The Big Bang Theory’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper, no modern brainiac knows everything. No one can contribute to four distinct areas of science and culture at a professional level, anymore. Unfortunately, specialization, the sheer explosion of knowledge, the increasing number of specialists, and the fragmentation of the sciences into separate disciplines that have had less and less connection with each other all have contributed to the decline of the polymath and the generalist.

On the other hand, Whitfield’s definition, contributions to more than one field, might not be rigorous enough. Polymathy has always meant “great learning”, and “great learning” might require excellence in more than two disciplines. Root-Bernstein’s first definition (world famous in one field) is too rigorous. While polymathy status certainly requires mastering a field, it should not require international fame. His second definition, range of avocations or high SAT scores, as well as Burke’s passive polymath, are too hard to measure without a serious investigation.

Heraclitus’s original definition of a polymath, mastery of three or more fields, could be a good fit for a modern interpretation. If two disciplines might be too few and four too many, three might be just right. Carr’s, Djerassi’s, and Robinson’s ideas (breadth, acceptance, and curiosity) are all critical. The aspiring polymath must have significant breadth of knowledge and must be accepted as a true member of the fields in question. This would also knock out Burke’s limited polymath.

Putting it all together, the best standard for the modern polymath is a combination of Burke’s serial and proper polymaths with Carr’s and Djerassi’s breadth and acceptance requirements. Burke’s prerequisite of “several” fields of expertise pays homage to Heraclitus’s original concept and is a good middle ground between requiring too many fields of expertise and too few and acknowledges that a real polymath should work in “several” disciplines.

Accordingly, the modern polymath should be one who is proficient in or who has made significant accomplishments in at least two widely disparate fields or three less disparate fields; the more unrelated the fields, the more polymathic the person. This definition can be gauged objectively and satisfies the breadth test. The acceptance requirement can be satisfied by professional licensure, by publications, or by acceptance by experts in those fields. The acceptance requirement also allows for the conclusion that, the more generally accepted as an expert such a person is in each of his/her fields, the more polymathic the person is.

This definition puts Hedy Lamarr squarely in polymath status (acting and electronics are about as far apart as two fields can be), but easily knocks out the swimming, trumpeting, and tax polymaths discussed earlier (and probably almost all of the alleged modern polymaths and personal ad polymaths as well). However, it will allow us to recognize and appreciate the incredible achievement of a real modern polymath.

Dave Berg is a lawyer and legal writer in Milwaukee who has been thinking about polymaths and polymathy for the last ten years and has started a blog on polymaths at www.thepolymaths.com. He does not claim to be a polymath himself.

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