Is it possible to be a polymath these days?
November 23, 2008 6:20 PM   Subscribe

Is it possible for somebody to be a true Renaissance Man these days, or has hyperspecialization taken us all as hostages forever?
posted by dcrocha to Human Relations (21 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I've heard it said that Isaac Asimov was the last man to know everything.

The body of human knowledge has grown too large for any single person to master it. The traditional "rennaissance man" was able to do that because the body of knowledge at the time was far smaller.
posted by Class Goat at 6:47 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Well, many academic programs are now focusing on interdisciplinarity to counteract the fragmentation that has occurred within academia. Complex problems such as environmental degradation require cooperative work between the hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities in order for any one discipline to gain understanding and traction. I would say that the modern renaissance man is someone who can facilitate translation and cooperation between disciplines. It is obviously impossible to develop expertise in every field of modern inquiry.

Disclaimer: I am in a graduate program based on an interdisciplinary approach.
posted by Derive the Hamiltonian of... at 6:49 PM on November 23, 2008

Have you redefined the term Renaissance man? If not, then there are no modern considerations that would prevent someone from achieving the same things as Leonardo da Vinci, an "archetypal Renaissance man," per your Wikipedia article. If you have redefined the term to include the type of specialization that we see today, then there never were any "Renaissance people" as you describe them, and probably never will be.

Human beings are no less capable today than in the past. It's just that the field of things people can be capable of has expanded. But I don't see how that redefines our capabilities as human beings.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 7:14 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Judging by the number of experts of everything ever that one commonly finds here in AskMe, I would suggest that, yes, it is entirely possible, but maybe not desirable.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:17 PM on November 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

Wow. I'm having a tough time imagining what your definition is here, but I'd have to imagine the answer is that yes, of course it is still possible.

If you're asking whether it is possible to become a master in several different (let's say at least three) and disparate fields, just looking into people I know than I've seen this to be true. I know people who are, for instance, getting their J.D. and M.D. concurrently. If one of them were to master a musical instrument, would that then count, by your definition? I myself doubled in Film Production and Philosophy in undergrad, am now halfway through to getting my J.D., and have been improving my songwriting since I was a child. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a "master" of any of these (though my screenwriting is very good) but I still passionately pursue all of them.

If you're asking whether or not the world can create another Aristotle, thought to "know everything there was to know" in his time, then no. There's simply too much out there. But that's obviously unrealistic, and your mention of "hyperspecialization" leads me to believe that you aren't talking about that sort of thing. But as for the world creating another DaVinci, genius at many different projects, I see know reason why not, though bviously anyone of that caliber is bound to be extremely rare at any point in history.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:20 PM on November 23, 2008

Best answer: Aristotle and DaVinci were incredible, but they didn't know everything. People are (rightly) so impressed with them, they base "what one should know" on what they knew. So of course it seems like they knew everything.

What did Aristotle know about cooking? Did he know how to make a sculpture? How much did DaVinci know about Africa?

There have been times when the topics studied at universities (or through other formal methods of teaching and learning) were relatively small compared to how many there are now. So if you define Renaissance Man as someone who is an expert on all the major topics taught today at, say, Harvard, then no there are no more Renaissance men.

But if you're asking if there are people who know an impressive amount about subjects in many fields than of course such people exist. I was in college with a guy who was getting his Phd in Comp Lit while also studying advanced biology. And he was also a first-rate athlete and a gourmet chef. I think most people who know him would be comfortable describing him as a Renaissance Man.

I think Douglas Hofstadter fits the bill. He's a Cognitive Scientist but also a gifted writer. He wrote "Gödel, Escher, Bach" but he also wrote a translation of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin." He's a composer and he speaks and writes knowledgeably and provocatively about many topics. Paul ("Hackers and Painters") Graham might fit the bill, too.

It's also possible to be a dilettante, which is what I am. I would never call myself a Renaissance Man, because I haven't mastered most of the things I dabble in, but I write books, program computers, draw pictures and direct plays.

Maybe you should pin down what you mean by Renaissance Man. It might help us answer the question.
posted by grumblebee at 7:40 PM on November 23, 2008 [7 favorites]

I would say that if you're good enough in a fine art that people will pay for your output, good enough in the sciences that you could teach an introductory undergraduate class, and good enough in the liberal arts that you could be professionally published... you're there, mate. Feel free to wear a gold 'R' lapel pin.

Now, having acquired all that knowledge and skill, apply it and make the world a better place.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:41 PM on November 23, 2008

Well, I guess it comes down to definitions. I would say that a polymath need not be deeply versed in every field of human knowledge, only have significant competence in a large number disciplines. Today's average first-world citizen enjoys considerably more freedom, opportunity, and leisure to pursue such expertise than most people living during the Renaissance. (The fact that they mainly choose to watch TV is unfortunate.)

Others might argue that my definition draws too fine a line between the polymath and the jack-of-all-trades. Perhaps. I can paint a portrait, write a sonnet, play a very competitive game of chess, code in a variety of programming languages, compose a melody, build a pin-hole camera and develop the pictures, write a novel, and build a fine wood table. I'm not saying I'm exceptionally gifted at any one of those things. While I can do them competently, I'll never be remembered as a poet with a capital "P" or design the next internet.

There are very few people alive today who can be the best of the best in multiple, unrelated disciplines. You will find few individuals who are simultaneously Nobel Prize worthy Physicists, Pulitzer caliber journalists, and gold medal winning cyclists. But, compared to the Renaissance, I'm not sure there are any fewer of them either.
posted by paulg at 7:55 PM on November 23, 2008

Jonathan Miller has worked in very diverse areas.

I agree with Class Goat that learned people today know far more than Leonardo da Vinci or anyone in antiquity did.
posted by lukemeister at 8:31 PM on November 23, 2008

"Feel free to wear a gold 'R' lapel pin." LastOfHisKind
In my line of work that means retired.

I think these days it's easier to find a jack of all trades than a hyperspecialist. The severe spread of knowledgable fields open to contemporary man kinda makes it hard to be an expert in more than a couple of things, but fairly easy to become competent at many.

I know of one man who I consider the true "Aussie" Renaisannce Man - a supremely confident individual who used to wrestle crocks, drive monster trucks for mines in North-Western Australia,could build/hammer/weld/construct anything, was an expert fisherman and sailor, AND was also up to date and incredibly knowledgable of international politics, Buddhist and Hindu mysticism/theology, and Western Philosophy.

He was also the garbage collector for my last office, and one of the nicest men I've ever met.
posted by robotot at 8:36 PM on November 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Find some anthropologists, make friends.
posted by docmccoy at 9:50 PM on November 23, 2008

The body of human knowledge has grown too large for any single person to master it. The traditional "rennaissance man" was able to do that because the body of knowledge at the time was far smaller.

It is worth bearing in mind that even during the Renaissance, intellectuals felt swamped by information overload. Within 50 years of the development of printing you have people complaining that it's no longer possible to read everything.
posted by greycap at 11:25 PM on November 23, 2008

Is it possible? Certainly.

I can think of a handful of professions where a polymath would be good:
  • columnist
  • certain kinds of fiction writers (is Tom Clancy a polymath? Dan Brown?)
  • non-fiction book critics
  • in-depth or feature journalists (for example, one's that embed into a field, know everything they can about it, and write an paper or book about it)
  • video game designers
  • entrepreneurs
  • venture capitalist, investors (think Steve Jurvetson)
  • an inventor
Is it easy to find a career as a polymath? I doubt it. As a jack-of-all-trades myself, I've been struggling deliberately for five years to find a career that can reliably work for me. I was even a video game designer for a while, but it didn't have the proper fit for my special arrangement of expertise.

It sounds like you might be doing a career search. I'd recommend What Color Is Your Parachute? and Pathfinder. They're life-changing.
posted by philosophistry at 12:37 AM on November 24, 2008

We worked a few things out since the Renaissance.
posted by AppleSeed at 4:22 AM on November 24, 2008

What? Of course. Lets take one guy I know. He's a singer, an accomplished painter and teacher, a stoneworker, an expert in Japanese cooking, an incredibility knowledgeable historian, and noted children's book author. Another friend is a polyglot who mastered Crow-quill pen work, Advanced PHP, Islamic Scholarship, and rudimentary ballet. Having lots and lots of skills is fairly common. Now you may not find a job that uses ALL of them, but that would be confusing your job with what you are.
posted by The Whelk at 6:45 AM on November 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: The real question is who gets to define what a "true" Renaissance man is? There are a lot of polymaths out there, but if youre looking for a modern day Leonardo or Newton then you probably wont be able to find them. Early scientists have a lot of accomplishments under their belt because they nabbed the low-hanging fruit early on.

A modern day Leonardo would be doing highly technical work that would be difficult to present to non-scientists in a history text book. I dont think specialization is the villain here, but complexity and our inability to digest and celebrate extremely complex and specialized discoveries.

I think this question ties in a little with the previous question about science celebrities.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:53 AM on November 24, 2008

In the first place, this question is chatfilter as stated. If you want it to be useful, provide some definitions. There's a huge difference between a polymath (knows a lot) and a Renaissance man (usually taken to be one who knows "everything," whatever one means by that). Since it's obviously possible to be a polymath and always will be, I don't see the point of asking that. As for the strong form, grumblebee has it: Aristotle and DaVinci were incredible, but they didn't know everything. Nobody knows everything.

I've heard it said that Isaac Asimov was the last man to know everything.

Whoever said that was an idiot; feel free to ignore them from now on.
posted by languagehat at 7:22 AM on November 24, 2008

Whoever said that was an idiot; feel free to ignore them from now on.

What a know-it-all.
posted by timshel at 8:34 PM on November 24, 2008

The person commonly regarded as the "last person to know everything" was Thomas Young who lived in the 18th-19th century.

I think it's possible for someone to be a polymath, but notably less desirable due to the amount of specialised knowledge required to make any impact in any one area: the scope of any one subject area is just incredibly vast, and I think that's the root cause of the hyperspecialisation.
posted by HaloMan at 10:56 PM on November 24, 2008

Best answer: It seems to me the unspoken foundation of the OP question is that a Renaissance Man is something society should bestow untoward worth.

After you parse any definition you'd like you essentially are talking about someone who has a knowledge base with a wide breathe and some depth of many topics versus someone who has a very deep knowledge base on a singular or small range of topics.

Why is the former considered more fascinating to society than the latter? Another way, if somehow all knowledge of a person could be measured in units, and if the RM has 1000 units spread over 200 topics and the latter has 1000 units in one topic, why is the RM more interesting and/or desirable?

A renaissance man aint breaking cold fusion or any fusion, or making fuel cells 100% efficient or curing cancer, or making my car get 100mpg. He might write a cool book or paint an awesome painting, but more likely he'll putter through life finding personal bliss bouncing from topic to topic maybe not really contributing to society in a long term way.

And I have serious doubts as to all the notable RM's abilities to learn multiple crafts/functions and ALSO have the psyche to maintain healthy relationships.

Anyway, short answer to your question; yes, it's possible.
posted by Kensational at 12:32 PM on November 25, 2008

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