30 June 2004


From Ming the Mechanic
The NewsLog of Flemming Funch

What is a "polymath"?
Dictionary.com : A person of great or varied learning; one acquainted with various subjects of study

Polymath is from Greek polymathes, having learned much, from poly-, much + manthanein, to learn.

You could also call it a comprehensivist. Waldzell : A polymath, as defined here, is a person with the knowledge and expertise of a specialist in several, usually non-overlapping, domains of knowledge or expertise. A comprehensive polymath, or comprehensivist, is a polymath with the ability to synthesize knowledge and expertise from any combination of domains.

Some definitions describe it as some kind of genius, but that is not necessarily the point, even if the most famous polymaths probably have extraordinary genius. Think Leonardo da Vinci. But the point is probably rather a wide range of interest and general knowledge, and a certain urge to tinker with different things. Polymath Society : The dictionary definition of a polymath is a very learned person, of encyclopedic knowledge. There is also the connotation of having an understanding deeper than that found in an encyclopedia, that is, an expert in many fields.

Anyone can be a polymath as long as he or she has the right motivation. A polymath is not necessarily a brain. In fact, a polymath usually does not think of his or herself as being particularly smart, only curious. Curiosity and interest are the true motivation for work, both intellectual work and the nitty gritty of hands on inventing. Thomas Edison said that genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. He had a passion for getting his hands dirty, for tinkering, for inventing through trial and error. The polymath makes lots of mistakes. This is how new sciences are created.

I haven't really used the word polymath much, but I've often said that I'm a comprehensivist. As mentioned, one sign might be one is skilled in several apparently unrelated areas. Which might seem puzzling to others, but which usually fits together as facets of a bigger picture, even if it might be invisible to anybody else but that person.

Of course, calling oneself a polymath or comprehensivist can also be a cover for scattering oneself over many subjects without really getting anywhere with any of them. A euphemism for Attention Deficit Disorder. Well, I'm gonna leave that alone.

The part I identify with is not particularly being a very learned person. I personally don't really have much to show for any extensive learning, certainly not in any academic field. Maybe rather the part about being able to synthesize knowledge and expertise from any combination of domains. Or the ability to span domains, and connect up different fields. People who only are specialists in one field might not notice the potentially valuable connections that field has with other very different fields. Somebody who has learned both fields might. But it is not necessarily needed to be thoroughly trained in both fields. It might simply be that one is tuned into looking for connections and synergies.

And it might be that one is looking for something with doesn't quite fit in any category, any specialized field. Something that is found in a lot of fields, but which also is a little beyond all of them. For example, a certain connection between all things. The patterns that the whole is moving in. Maybe a certain aestetic. A certain sense of something that needs to be expressed.

A few more recent writings on polymaths: Suw Charman wrote about A polymath in an age of specialists. Julian Elve about the Unpredictable Emergence of Learning. Mentions by Seb Paquet , Jim McGee. Julian adds up some key points:
-- Generalist / Polymath learning exists, contributes knowledge and helps the horizontal distribution of knowledge;

-- The public, linked, asynchronous nature of blogs and related technologies both exposes conversations to a wider pool of people and helps the ideas start to flow before any face-to-face meeting;

-- The benefits of any specific piece of knowledge are not always forseeable until the right combination of circumstances and other people arises � in other words unpredictable emergent behaviour.

OK, so we need people who go around combining things, poking into different fields, trying to connect things up. Agents of Emergence, I suppose. Looking for synergies, looking for things that might be possible. Or maybe just fluttering about and cross-polinating things by accident.

And, yes, clearly blogging in a useful tool for all of this.

by Flemming Funch

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