It is customary to identify anyone who has acquired a considerable depth and range of knowledge within multiple fields of intellectual and cultural inquiry — including philosophy, history, literature, art, science, economics and politics — as a polymath. Such persons seek to develop their abilities in all areas of liberal knowledge as well as in physical development, social accomplishments, and the arts. The polymath is an educated generalist.
It is commonly noted that the European Renassance generated a considerable number of polymaths, whereas today because of the specialization of knowledge into different academic disciplines and professional occupations that the presence of multidisciplinary polymaths seems to have sharply diminished. Whether this is in fact the case may not be worth debating. What matters is that our corporate commercial “technological society” recognizes not only the value of the specialized knowledge workers and technicians in a narrow fields of expertise but also the value of educated generalists and interdisciplinary polymaths who provide a wider perspective on the meaning of life, one that makes connections between all the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience.
As contemporary American public education has continued to replace the Renaissance Humanist ideal of the liberally educated generalist and with the technological specialist, we have lost something essential to our common humanity and to the life of cultural literacy and civic engagement in an educated democracy. We have come to the point where anyone who is committed to developing the full range of human intelligences in the exploration of the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience must appear as an anomaly of nature. If Leonardo Da Vinci, Francis Bacon, Wolfgang von Goethe, or Thomas Jefferson, among other great polymaths of history, were to come among us today, would we know what to make of them or what to do with them? We need the wisdom of our polymaths in order to make new and creative connections between various phenomena in disparate fields of knowledge and experience, and to construct narrative arcs and conceptual paradigms that give greater coherent and encompassing perspective on the human enterprise in the global age.
The Polymath in Leadership: General polymaths with broad knowledge and wide experience make better “generals” and “leaders” than narrowly specialized technicians because they are more likely to pay attention to a combination of vision, strategy, tactics and interpersonal relationships than to any one of these four essential elements in isolation from the others.
What follows is the Wikipedia article on the idea of the polymath:
A polymath (Greek: πολυμαθής, polymathēs, “having learned much”), is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The term was first used in the seventeenth century but the related term, polyhistor, is an ancient term with similar meaning.
The term is often applied to great thinkers of the Renaissance and Golden Age of Islam, who excelled at multiple fields of the arts and science, such as Ibn al-Haytham, Ibn Sina, Omar Khayyám, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, Francis Bacon and Michael Servetus. These thinkers embodied a notion that emerged in Renaissance Italy and that was expressed by one of its most accomplished representatives, Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472), that “a man can do all things if he will.” The concept embodied a basic tenet of Renaissance humanism, that humans are empowered and limitless in their capacity for development, and it led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible.
The term applies to the gifted people of the Renaissance who sought to develop their abilities in all areas of knowledge as well as in physical development, social accomplishments, and the arts, in contrast to the vast majority of people of that age who were not well educated.
- Anyone can be a polymath (jdd.io)
- When Being an “Expert” Is a Bad Thing (99u.com)
- Why It Pays To Be A Generalist (openforum.com)
- Polymaths are more interesting than specialists. The greatest innovations come from people who can draw from a variety of fields (albertobalatti.wordpress.com)