Embracing Polymath philosophy?

Is it possible to approximate (to some extent or other) a modern day Polymath? I for one would certainly like to, yet I’ve been told on several occasions that this is not possible. Specifically, that the extent of human knowledge is fundamentally too broad and deep for any one human to comprehend. And yes, I believe that this is true given the current definition of ‘any one human’.

However for a post-singularity human-machine hybrid with bio-electronic enhancement and connectivity to all other such instances, it would easily be possible. This state may well occur in the near future.* However, in order to bring about this revolution as quickly as possible, one must break a vicious circle and embrace the Polymath philosophy now. In order to bring about a singularity, we need to start working towards weaving together many fundamental technological and scientific strands of knowledge and understanding.

So I come to my point, which is that people in specialist subjects really need to read and actively work outside of their speciality. This breadth-focused approach may seem detrimental in some ways to the depth-based learning pursued by most academics. But hey, we’re really shooting ourselves in the foot here.

Breadth-based learning can complement an academic discipline. Concepts from far reaching areas can give ideas, insight and inspiration. They can even provide a motivation and reason for studying one particular area in such detail. For example studying the materials science of Josepshon junctions may help towards the implementation of quantum computers, leading to applications in many diverse fields. So you should learn as much as possible about those diverse fields.** [Note this may not be an entirely hypothetical example :)] Over the past few months I’ve been talking to quite a lot of people in different disciplines and concluded that we should really be talking and interacting more. Not only does it spark interesting and fun conversation, there can actually be tangible outcomes from this kind of collaboration.

This far-sight can be used as such a powerful motivational tool for research progress that I’m surprised traditional narrow discipline based teaching methods still exist. As such I feel that projects such as Singularity University are groundbreaking, and will pave the way forward.

Part of the Polymath philosophy would presumably involve teaching at a high-level from a young age. Current disciplines of science, engineering, mathematics etc. may well move towards a more connected scheme of understanding. Perhaps we can accelerate progress towards the Polymath state by embracing such learning models now. It’s a delicate problem of striking a balance between the depth and breadth of education.

* I may have been reading Kurzweil recently…
**As an aside this thinking also helps you to write successful grant applications!

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2 thoughts on “Embracing Polymath philosophy?

  1. quantummoxie says:

    I absolutely agree. Being a modern-day polymath is possible. The problem is more psychological and social than anything else. I pay no attention to disciplinary lines. I research and teach what interests me. If I’m not qualified in a particular area, I spend time to get qualified if it is something I really want to do.

  2. tisenf says:

    The danger in trying to be a polymath is that one becomes a Jack of all trades. Ideally, I think deep specialization in one or two subject areas should be obtained, but with a broad, shallow base of knowledge to dip into and gain tangential insights. But on top of that, collaboration – especially cross-discipline – is also important.

    A couple of old sayings come to mind here: “Non omnia possumus omnes” and “no man is an island.”

    And in the end, when death is upon us, we can only look back and hope we took the most useful path through life; and that through learning, understanding and publishing, we left at least some nourishing crumbs of knowledge for future generations to digest and enjoy.

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