The polymath in the age of specialisation

Crises of knowledge precipitate drives towards specialisation. In our digital age we still need polymaths.

This chart is taken from the book 'Ars Magna Lucis Et Umbrae' which was published in 1646 by the Jesuit scientist and inventor, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680).
This chart is taken from the book 'Ars Magna Lucis Et Umbrae' which was published in 1646 by the Jesuit scientist and inventor, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680). Credit: SSPL/Getty Images

In the last few decades, scholars have been taking an increasing interest in the history of knowledge, fuelled by debates about our ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘information society’. They have discovered that today’s anxieties about the ‘glut’, ‘flood’ or ‘overload’ of information had their parallels in earlier periods. The amount of knowledge available has expanded continuously since the 15th century, if not before – indeed it has exploded, in the double sense of rapid expansion and fragmentation. This explosion has produced a crisis of knowledge. By a crisis I do not mean any dramatic event that might make the headlines in a newspaper. I prefer to use this over-employed term in a fairly precise sense, close to its original, medical meaning: in other words a tipping point, the moment when the patient either dies or recovers, or more generally a time of turbulence that is followed by a change in structure.

There have been three major crises of knowledge since the end of the Middle Ages. There was one such crisis in the ‘order of knowledge’ in the West in the 17th century, a second in the 19th century, and we are confronting a third, worldwide, in our own time. Somehow, polymaths have survived all three crises, at least so far.

Each of the three crises is linked to a revolution in communication. The first crisis is inseparable from the Gutenberg revolution, and the increasing number of books printed with moveable type. The second crisis is linked to the rise of cheap journals and newspapers, thanks to the invention of the steam press and the use of less expensive paper. The third crisis could be seen coming in the later 20th century: the phrase ‘information overload’ was coined in 1970.

However, the digital revolution that is still in progress has led to the accumulation of information on such a huge scale that new units of measurement, each larger than the one before, have been invented to keep up with it, from gigabytes to terabytes, petabytes, exabytes and now – but for how long? – to zettabytes. There is even a glut of books on the glut of information, otherwise known as a flood, deluge or more recently a tsunami.

In the first case, a period of gradual change led up to the 17th-century crisis, a kind of run-up to the high jump. The years around 1650 and 1680 in particular reveal what has been called a ‘crisis of consciousness’ or a ‘crisis of the European mind’, forming part of what historians have christened the ‘general crisis of the 17th century’. In the second case, change was more rapid, while the third is of course the most rapid of all.

Each crisis has led to cries of ‘too much to know’ and has been followed by increasing specialisation, both inside and outside the academic world. One response to specialisation has been a certain nostalgia for the age before knowledge was fragmented, divided into departments and parcelled out among an increasing variety of experts or specialists.

This nostalgia has expressed itself in various ways, including the recent publication of four books about polymaths, all of which happen to bear the same title, The Last Man Who Knew Everything. Curiously enough, they concern four different individuals living in four different periods. The first ‘last man’ is the 17th-century German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher; the second is Thomas Young, a Cambridge don (and a fellow of my college, Emmanuel) around the year 1800; the third is Joseph Leidy, a mid-19th-century American professor of anatomy and natural history; while the last ‘last man’ – at least so far – is the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi.

I should explain right away that I follow the traditional definition of the polymath as a scholar who has mastered many (or at least several) academic disciplines, rather than the more general recent use of the term, at least in English, to refer to any kind of all-rounder, in art, for instance, or in sport. As an intellectual species, the polymath is threatened by the rise of specialisation. I nearly said ‘the irresistible rise of specialisation’ – but in fact the process has been resisted, not only by attempts at collective interdisciplinarity, including the foundation of new universities in the 1960s and 1970s in Sussex, Bielefeld, Linköping and elsewhere, but also, heroically, by single individuals.

The 17th century was both the age of a few intellectual giants (vividly described at the time as ‘monsters of erudition’) and an age of crisis.

Today, we usually remember these giants for only a small proportion of their achievements, a phenomenon that says more about us than about them. Isaac Newton, for instance, not only made well-known contributions to mathematics, optics and mechanics but also studied and wrote about alchemy, theology and chronology.

Newton’s rival in the study of calculus, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, is now remembered as a philosopher but also contributed to the knowledge of history, languages, law and theology. His manuscripts reveal that Leibniz also took a lively interest in astronomy, botany, geology and medicine. Athanasius Kircher, the first ‘last man’, wrote on subjects as varied as China, ancient Egypt, acoustics, optics, language, fossils, magnetism, music, mathematics, mining and physiology. The Swedish giant, Olaus Rudbeck (actually a big man with a loud voice), ranged from anatomy to linguistics, music, botany, ornithology, antiquities and what we now call archaeology. The French giant Pierre Bayle, a Protestant pastor who went into exile in the Dutch Republic, wrote mainly about theology, philosophy and history, but also edited a learned journal, the Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, and compiled an encyclopaedia, the Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, in which the footnotes took up more space than the text because he filled them with critical remarks of his own. All these ‘monsters’ not only mastered but also made original contributions to a number of different disciplines.

Looking back from our own time, the 17th century appears to have been a golden age of polymaths, but there was also a dark side to the period. Complaints about what we call information overload and about the fragmentation of knowledge multiplied at this time. For example, the Oxford don Robert Burton made the point about overload in dramatic fashion when he wrote in his Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621) about the ‘vast Chaos and confusion of Bookes’: ‘We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.’ Another well-known complaint came from the French librarian Adrien Baillet, who feared the return of barbarism as a result of ‘the multitude of books which grows every day in prodigious fashion’, making it increasingly difficult to identify what was really worth reading. Even the widely-read Leibniz wrote of the ‘horrible heap of books that is constantly increasing’ [horrible masse de livres qui va toujours augmentant].

The problem was not simply the multitude of books, which had, after all, been proliferating since the mid-15th century. More and more information was becoming available in 17th-century Europe, thanks to the invasion of other continents and the consequent discovery of their fauna, flora, peoples, languages and so on. For example, the 500 species of plants described by the ancient Greek physician Dioscorides had expanded by 1623 to the 6,000 described by Caspar Bauhin and by 1682 to the 18,000 described by the English botanist John Ray.

Like printing, this process had been going on since the 15th century, but a tipping point was reached in the 17th, partly because the new inventions of the telescope and the microscope gave access, like the expansion of Europe, to new worlds of knowledge.

Unfortunately, what Francis Bacon called ‘the advancement of learning’ had its downside. The proliferation of books and discoveries encouraged the fragmentation of knowledge, about which complaints were already expressed at this time, notably by Comenius, who wrote: ‘Metaphysicians sing to themselves alone, natural philosophers chant their own praises, astronomers dance by themselves, ethical thinkers make their laws for themselves, politicians lay their own foundations, mathematicians rejoice over their own triumphs and theologians rule for their own benefit.’ Comenius dreamed of reuniting the fragments into what he called pansophia, a universal wisdom that would lead to the reform of the world.

All the same, polymaths did not disappear. A few were even able to emulate the giants of the 17th century and make original discoveries in very different fields.

Take the case of the Russian Mikhail Lomonosov, professor of chemistry in the Academy of Sciences in St Petersburg. For a long time, Lomonosov was viewed by posterity as essentially a man of letters: a poet and the author of a history of Russia and a grammar of Russian, despite the publication of works such as The Elements of Metallurgy or Mining (1763). However, the discovery of his manuscripts revealed his interest in the origin of heat and cold, the elastic force of air, the theory of colours, electricity, navigation, optics and other fields.

Again, the Comte de Buffon, remembered today for the huge enterprise of his Histoire Naturelle, published in 36 volumes, was also active in the fields of mathematics, physics, demography, palaeontology and physiology. Other individuals were still able to master a wide range of disciplines, even if they did not make original contributions to many or even to any.

The new ideal was the man or woman of letters. A famous example of the man of letters is Denis Diderot. Diderot was able to edit the famous Encyclopédie precisely because his interests were encyclopaedic. Indeed, besides editing this massive work, Diderot contributed several hundred articles on philosophy, literature, acoustics, biology, art, music and the crafts. However, the remainder of the Encyclopédie was the work of a team of nearly 140 contributors.

Again, the Spanish monk and professor Benito Jerónimo Feijóo, known in his day as a ‘monster of erudition’ in the 17th-century style, was more exactly a man of letters who kept up to date with discoveries in a number of fields and wrote about them all in an agreeably conversational style, without making any serious original contribution to knowledge. The nine volumes of his Teatro crítico universal dealt with ‘every sort of subject’, as the title-page proclaimed, while the prologue declares that the author planned to arrange the essays by discipline but desisted, ‘either because they did not belong to any discipline, or participated equally in in all of them’.

By the early 19th century, a second crisis of knowledge was becoming visible. The problem once again was that of overload, as scientific expeditions brought back more and more information, experiments became ever more numerous, the public archives were opened to scholars and the steam press and the shift to paper made from wood pulp reduced the price of printed matter, including newspapers and journals as well as books.

Information anxiety revived. The institutionalisation of specialisation in universities, especially from the later 19th century onwards, may be regarded as a kind of defence mechanism, building dykes to contain the deluge of information. In Germany, the United States and elsewhere, new institutes, faculties, departments and courses for undergraduates proliferated. In Cambridge before 1870, for instance, undergraduates could only choose between classics and mathematics, although students with wider interests, such as Charles Darwin, could study subjects such as botany and geology informally. After 1870, new courses (known locally as ‘triposes’) were rapidly established: in law, for instance, modern history and natural sciences; by contrast, it was necessary to wait until 1917 to study English literature.

New words are often signs of new trends. In English, the word “scientist” was coined in 1834, as specialists in the study of nature began to separate themselves from specialists in the study of the humanities. In French, the term spécialité came into use in the 1830s, the term spécialiste was coined in 1848, while, ironically enough, the polymath Auguste Comte coined the term spécialisation, adopted into English by another polymath, John Stuart Mill.

By the end of the 19th century, teamwork in the laboratory had become a feature of what was already becoming known as ‘big science’ [Grosswissenschaft], a collective production of knowledge that was compared at the time to the mass-production of goods in factories. Even so, it is not difficult to find individuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries whose interests and knowledge ranged widely across the disciplines. To return to Thomas Young, for instance, the second ‘last man to know everything’: he was trained in medicine, but his interests expanded to include physiology, physics, optics, acoustics and ancient and modern languages. He was making good progress in the decipherment of hieroglyphics when he was overtaken by a more specialised French scholar, Champollion. No wonder that he was known in Cambridge as ‘Phenomenon’ Young.

Still more spectacular were the many contributions to knowledge made by Alexander von Humboldt, a true monster of learning comparable to Leibniz. Humboldt made original contributions to the disciplines of geography, geology, botany, zoology, anatomy and astronomy. He also studied and wrote on archaeology, ethnography and demography.

As specialisation became the norm, wide-ranging achievements provoked suspicion as well as admiration. Thomas Young published some of his contributions anonymously so that his medical colleagues and his patients would not lose trust in his work, while Humboldt noted that some people complained that he was interested in too many things at once.

It must be admitted that polymathy comes at the risk of superficiality. From the 17th century onwards, some wide-ranging scholars have been described as ‘charlatans’, in other words people who promise what they cannot perform, like the early modern vendors of miraculous medicines. For example, Descartes described Kircher in this way, not without reason, since Kircher claimed to have succeeded in squaring the circle and deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, whereas he actually failed in both attempts.

A second risk run by polymaths is what might be called ‘Leonardo syndrome’, in other words leaving projects unfinished because new ones seem so enticing. This was the case for Leibniz, for instance, as it was for Young, to whom a colleague once wrote about the ‘universal regret that your versatility is so widely engaged in the sciences… that you are unable to press on with your discoveries and bring them to that pitch of perfection which we have the right to expect from a man of your conspicuous talents’. One might have thought that the institutionalised specialisation of the later 19th century would have marked the extinction of the polymath. It didn’t. Paradoxically, polymaths became a new kind of specialist, the ‘generalist’, specialising in connecting different parts of the fragmented world of learning (the term generalist was already in use by the 1890s).

Particularly effective generalists are what I call ‘serial’ polymaths, on the model of the serial polygamist. They migrate from one discipline to others. They often notice unexpected connections because they examine problems in their second or third discipline with the mental habits formed in their original training. Vilfredo Pareto, for instance, who began his career as a civil engineer working on Italian railways, took the idea of equilibrium with him when he moved first into economics and then into sociology. A former colleague of mine at the University of Sussex, John Maynard Smith, who was one of the leading British biologists of his time, explained his success by the fact that, as an undergraduate, he had not studied biology but engineering. Writing a dissertation on the evolution of the flight of birds, he regarded the subject from the viewpoint of an aeronautical engineer, interested in the tension and the possible trade-off between stability and manoeuvrability.

One unfortunate consequence of specialisation has been much debated since the 1960s, in Italy, Germany and Sweden, as well as in Britain, thanks in particular to a lecture given in Cambridge in 1959 by Charles Snow, a physical chemist who became a civil servant and finally a novelist. Snow complained about the growing gap between what he described as ‘two cultures’, the natural sciences on one side and the humanities on the other. All the same, some individuals in Snow’s generation – he was born in 1905 – were still able to cross the frontier between the two cultures. One remarkable example from this generation is the Russian Pavel Florensky. Florensky wrote of himself that his ‘life’s task’ was to continue along ‘the path toward a future integral world view’. This serial polymath began his career as a mathematician and went on to study philosophy and theology, becoming a Russian Orthodox priest. When he studied religious art, he focused on the representation of space in icons (revealing the habitus of a geometrician). Mathematics also led Florensky to electrical engineering. Imprisoned in the course of Stalin’s purges, he was working, before he was shot, on a new topic, the production of iodine from seaweed.

Today, as we are all too well aware, the gap that Snow lamented has widened still farther. We should surely speak of many cultures rather than two cultures of knowledge. Once again, then, one might have expected polymaths to have become an extinct species, along with so many other species in the world of today. All the same, a few individuals have continued to resist specialisation, apparently with success.

The late Umberto Eco began his career by studying medieval philosophy, writing a dissertation on the aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas. He moved into the comparative study of languages, literature, art and music as forms of communication, and in this way he arrived at semiotics, a new discipline in which he became one of the pioneers. This serial polymath was also a novelist and a cultural critic, writing in L’Espresso and other Italian journals on an amazing variety of subjects, from the Red Brigades to comics and candomblé. In similar fashion, Susan Sontag wrote on a regular basis for the New York Review of Books and other journals. Her essays, which filled nine volumes when they were republished, were concerned not only with literature and philosophy, the academic disciplines in which she had originally been trained, but with art, photography, fashion, dance, illness and politics, from the war in Vietnam to the attack on the World Trade Centre in 2001.

A living example of a serial polymath is the American Jared Diamond. He was trained as a physiologist but moved into ornithology. Visiting New Guinea to study the birds there, he became interested in biogeography, ecology, linguistics and anthropology. He is perhaps most widely known today for his essays on world history, notably Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) and Collapse (2005). Diamond’s books on history have often been criticized by specialists but they have also been taken seriously. One might say that, whether or not one agrees with his answers, the questions that this outsider to the discipline has asked have been original and fruitful ones.

We surely need not only a history but also a psychology and a sociology of polymaths. To begin with the psychology: becoming a polymath – sowing the seeds, one might say – requires a combination of qualities. Polymaths obviously need an overdose of curiosity, a formidable memory, and both the ability and the desire to work long hours. They are often competitive, driven to succeed. They are able to concentrate their attention, a capacity that observers often describe in a negative manner as absent-mindedness. Polymaths also have a gift for drawing analogies, seeing connections between apparently distant fields, as in the case of Young, who studied tides and imagined ‘waves’ of light.

However, for the seeds to bear fruit, polymaths need to find a social niche that will give them the leisure to study, think and write. Religious orders have often provided polymaths with such a niche. Feijóo was a Benedictine monk, while Kircher was a Jesuit and so were two leading 20th-century polymaths, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was a geologist, palaeontologist, philosopher and theologian, and Michel de Certeau, whose fields included theology, philosophy, history, psychoanalysis and sociology.

Other polymaths, such as Buffon, inherited wealth. Humboldt, for instance, was an independent scholar whose wealth gave him not only leisure but also the opportunity to make the famous expedition to South America, where he made most of his discoveries. After inheriting a fortune, Vilfredo Pareto gave up teaching in order to devote his time to writing. Universities have often offered a niche for polymaths and a few have been astonishingly flexible, in the sense that some serial polymaths have been able to move from one department to another as their interests changed. The Hungarian exile Michael Polanyi became professor of physical chemistry at the University of Manchester, but as he wished to concentrate on philosophy, he was allowed to keep his chair and was simply moved along the campus. More recently, Jared Diamond has spent his whole teaching career at the University of California in Los Angeles, beginning in the Department of Physiology and ending up, so far at least, in the Department of Geography.

The post of librarian has appealed to a number of polymaths, notably Leibniz, who exercised this profession at Wolfenbüttel and elsewhere. As Plato said of kings, it might be argued that either librarians should be philosophers or philosophers librarians, as in the case of Leibniz, reforming the classification of knowledge as well as the classification of books.

Another niche, from the late 17th century onwards, has been the cultural journal in which polymaths such as Bayle, Eco, Sontag or Aldous Huxley (who was notorious for having read the Encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z) were able to publish articles on a wide variety of subjects.

However, all these niches are at risk in the age of the digital revolution. It is now rare for intellectuals to have a private income. Librarian has become a profession that requires specialised training and concentrates on management, leaving little or no time for reading the books. Universities are less hospitable to polymaths than they used to be as teaching loads increase and meetings multiply. Speaking on this topic recently at the University of Manchester, I asked the audience: “What would happen to Polanyi today if he asked the vice-chancellor for a transfer from one department to another?” A roar of laughter provided a clear answer. Cultural journals, happily, still exist, but they are losing readers and also advertising.

There have been and still are different regimes of knowledge. It might be argued that the polymath belongs to an old regime that is obsolete or at least obsolescent. The only living polymaths known to me have all left middle age behind. Diamond is 82, Bruno Latour, who has made important contributions to philosophy, sociology, anthropology and the history of science, is 72 and Slavoj Žižek, who seems to have written about almost everything, is 71. They are all too old to feel the full effects of the third crisis. I am unable to think of any polymath born later than the 1950s – can you?

Will the digital generation produce polymaths? I certainly hope so, for within the division of intellectual labour there remains an important role for generalists, individuals who are able to perceive unexpected connections. The problem is that we are making life increasingly difficult for these remarkable individuals. We are destroying their niches at a time when we need these people more than ever before.

The polymath in the age of specialisation by Peter Burke was first published in Knowledge and Information, 2018, Axess Publishing


Peter Burke