Polymaths want to know everything – but ‘everything’ isn’t what it used to be

Michael S Roth

THE WASHINGTON POST – What counts as knowledge? Answers differ in different times and places, and even in a single time and place there are multiple paths for knowledge seekers. Today’s students, teachers and scholars generally recognise that their own education is partial at best and that even prized discoveries may be rejected by others later on.

Still, every once in a while less intellectually humble individuals arise who think they can know it all, who seek to learn everything there is to know. We call them polymaths.

Peter Burke, the author of The Polymath: A Cultural History From Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag, is a cultural historian with an abiding interest in the history of knowledge and its organisation, mostly in the West.

In principle, there is nothing in the past that would fall outside of cultural history, and there is something polymathic about Burke’s approach.

He writes with easy authority about extraordinary scholars from many countries over several hundred years, but he can provide only quick sketches of their achievements and ambitions. He is attentive to the rise of specific scientific disciplines, with their powerful ways of organising what we think we know, and to efforts to resist these modes of organisation.

What it means to learn everything changes as cultures change. To be a know-it-all in the Renaissance took considerable time and effort, even for the most brilliant; to be a know-it-all today requires only a good smartphone, and that does not in itself produce a polymath.

Burke notes that there were polymaths, of course, outside the West, and he underscores that learned Islamic scholars with wide-ranging interests prevented the loss of much knowledge from the ancient world. In the West, the idea of an intellectual whose quest for inquiry knows no bounds is often associated with the European Renaissance (1400-1600), and the ideal type of this “universal man” is Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo’s curiosity is legendary, and his ability to put that curiosity to work – in painting, in science, in engineering – set the standard for polymaths. At the same time, his hunger for learning was often twinned with impatience and an inability to stick to a task and see it through. Burke dubs this the ‘Leonardo syndrome’, a defect in polymaths whose intellectual restlessness prevents them from finishing things properly.

If the Renaissance seeded the early modern version of the polymath, the 17th Century saw its flowering in what at the time were called “monsters of erudition.” They collected thousands of books, learned dozens of languages and wrote poetry while attending to the latest developments in the sciences.

Some collected unusual objects from distant places; others managed the affairs of their own cities while writing thousands of pages of essays, fiction and futurist speculation. And the correspondence! Deeply invested in networks of knowing, they wrote letters to interlocutors far and wide.

In some cases, fame bred intellectual arrogance, as with Athanasius Kircher, about whom Burke judges, “More serious than his failures was his continued belief in his success.” Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, on the other hand, was always eager to seek out collaborators, for he knew that the task of creating “the science which contains the principles of all the other sciences” was just too big for one individual.

Burke writes about obstacles to learning that frustrated even the most determined polymaths. Women, for example, were often denied access to the educational foundations on which the search for knowledge can be built; and when they were able to get to a school or even someone’s library, the patriarchal practices there often proved prohibitive.

Although Burke finds examples of women who were polymaths – he cites Germaine de Staël, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot, among others – their quests were undermined by cultural “niches” available to men but not to women.

Burke says nothing about race, and I suppose that’s because he doesn’t think it relevant to his subject. Perhaps I am missing someone, but I don’t find a single polymath of African descent in his list of 500. No WEB Du Bois (historian, sociologist, author, political leader), no Zora Neale Hurston (writer, anthropologist, filmmaker), no Frantz Fanon (writer, physician, philosopher, psychoanalyst). Alain Locke, philosopher and “dean” of the Harlem Renaissance, goes unmentioned. Burke notes that his list is subjective, and of course one can always argue about particular choices. Still, the absence of any of these Black polymaths bears mention.

In the 18th Century, the conditions of polymathy shifted as intellectuals came to regard the universe less as an animate being and more as a machine.

That, coupled with increased specialisation, made it both more challenging and more important to aim at holistic knowledge. It was more challenging because as disciplines developed they adopted jargon or methods (or both) often impenetrable to outsiders.

It was more important because “viewing the big picture and pointing out connections that specialists had missed” opened up pathways for new discoveries and inventions. Mary Somerville did this in her synthetic and accessible exploration of the connections among the sciences, as did Charles Darwin in writing On the Origin of Species.

Burke writes knowledgeably about the rise of interdisciplinary programmes in the past 75 years or so.

“We have moved from an age of institutionalised specialisation in the second half of the 19th Century,” he says, “to an age of institutionalized anti-specialisation in the second half of the 20th Century and beyond.”

In his coda to “The Polymath,” the historian worries that in our Internet age, when at our fingertips we find so much scannable knowledge, we are losing the capacity to dig deep and become truly absorbed in a variety of subjects. His survey of polymaths is a reminder of the importance of doing just that.