Practical starting points for a polymath
I’ve been reading The Polymath by Peter Burke over the holidays. I make no pretence of being any sort of polymath in the sense Burke describes, but as a generalist who likes diving in and out of various disciplines the subject definitely appealed.
It didn’t disappoint, and there are some things in particular I thought I’d capture here as I think about them.
There’s a list below of 24 factors that may have helped polymaths thrive which I’ve taken from the book, but added my own questions and notes to to reframe them. First though, general observation from the book that grabbed my attention.
Collecting vs Connecting
Burke draws a useful distinction between the centrifugal and centripetal…
“Another possible typology distinguishes just two varieties of polymath, the centrifugal type, accumulating knowledge without worrying about connections, and the centripetal scholar, who has a vision of the unity of knowledge and tries to fit its different parts together in a grand system… Most if not all polymaths can be located on a continuum between the two extremes.”Peter Burke, The Polymath
It feels that the TENETS project I stated last year is very much pushing in the direction of the latter. I’ve been seeking and finding connections between the various tools and strand of thought I’ve been collecting over the years.
Yet the description of these less as extremes, and more as a continuum, helps me identify two modes perhaps of working like this. The accumulation of knowledge, and then the arrangement of it, and then back again. I think it’s also what The Gallery of the Mind essay, one of the TENETS tools, is largely about (in retrospect).
Perhaps inevitably, Isiah Berlin’s essay The Hedgehog and the Fox comes up a lot in the book too. Here, though, it’s deployed to discuss the distinction between centripetal and centrifugal types instead of ‘specialists versus generalists’.
It’s the first time I’ve thought about the distinction in that way, and bears more mulling over; when do we act as hedgehogs, and see all the connections in one way, and when are we foxes?
Practical Starting Points
The most useful section for me is when Burke starts drawing conclusions in the final few chapters around the conditions that made it possible for those polymaths to emerge. The book profiles a lot of polymaths, so you can discover thinkers you perhaps only know from one or two different disciplines, if at all.
I’ve stolen Burke’s subheadings from these chapters in the list below. But rather than repeat his conclusions, I’ve set out my own notes on how these factors might apply for my own work, and when thinking about working inside organisations.
Burke sets out two key chapters in his conclusion. The first about the general characteristics of polymaths, which he calls the Group Portrait. I think these are more applicable to considering individual practice. I’ve split these into two sections below, Character and Application.
Curiosity is often represented as an appetite for new knowledge (insatiable, hunger, thirst…). What new knowledge do you genuinely crave? How does it fit with your existing diet? How broad are your tastes?
Your concentration exists at different levels; not just the momentary ability to focus on something completely, but the unconscious grip you maintain on ideas that you are working on more slowly. Where do you keep track of all of these things?
Memory is hailed as a feature of great polymaths over times, but nowadays we have more aids not just to support memory, but an overall change in how we manage knowledge; search can be more important than recall. How do you train yourself to be better at it?
The speed with which polymaths could pick up new information is largely, perhaps, about learning to learn. For instance, once you’ve learned four disciplines, the fifth is easier still. But be mindful you don’t look at everything with the sane lenses, perhaps?
A vivid imagination, daydreaming, the ‘linking of facts’ (Darwin), the ‘perception of the similarity in dissimilars’ (Aristotle)… all feature heavily in the polymath’s makeup. Familiarity with many different domains makes it easier, though analogy and metaphor, to frame and explain possibilities in ways previously unthought of.
Often noted is the energy that polymaths have for their work; it is not simply enough to have the abilities as listed, but the attitude to apply yourself to them too. Understanding how to focus that energy best, across multiple projects, or when engaging others, should perhaps be a key consideration?
Restlessness seems best characterised by wandering and wondering into the next field along. It’s not about searching for an end destination, a place in which to settle, but learning more about what’s out there. How do you open yourself to these new fields?
There’s also a predisposition for hard work drawn out in the profiles; long days, late nights, almost fanatical work patterns. Though this is not universal, and I surely shouldn’t be seen as a major requirement? Maybe when new enquiry is a passion, it feels less like work, and more like a hobby, or exercise for the mind?
Measuring time is perhaps a function of how much there is to explore, and how little time to do it in. Hence a driving force in how polymaths apply themselves to the world. How do you make sure you’re getting the right stuff done, though?
Competition is noted as a way to drive polymaths on, though naturally those rivalries perhaps fall into specific disciplines and tasks. How do you harness competitive nature to best effect where it exists? Where might it be counterproductive?
Finally for this section, there’s the play element. A good proportion of the polymaths listed explicitly refer to their work as a game or sorts, a puzzle to solve, a riddle to untangle. Does viewing problems as a game to play help you apply yourself differently to it?
Then the second chapter is on Habitats, the structures which polymaths through the ages tended to live and operate within (and between). These are useful in thinking about how you connect with others, but perhaps more relevant for me currently in thinking how organisations can replicate some of these to break down silos. Again, I’ve broken this list down again into two sections; Culture and Connections.
First, there are two background religious perspectives. The work ethic refers to places where Puritan Protestants held sway, and whose ethics of hard work and frugality set a context for enquiring minds. The Veblen question refers to an essay by Thorstein Veblen in 1919, exploring the disproportionately great impact Jewish polymaths had on modern science and scholarship. Burke points to the ways in which Jews have often straddled two worlds; for example, between the highly traditional and the quest for new learning, or between a homeland and a ‘hostland’ (all the Jewish polymaths Burke identifies are either exiles or the children of exiles).
Taking both together offers interesting questions for organisations. How might you codify the ‘religion’ of an organisation in this sense? What commandments are followed, which behaviours are prized or punished? How do you see the best of this in the talent coming through your ranks? Then, how do you invite in people from other cultures to see things in different ways?
Education was always going to make the list, but it is non-conformist education that Burke suggests make a difference. Home-schooled polymaths seem to have less respect for the enforced boundaries of traditional schools, and benefit from that as a result. Where can you find people shaped by different educational experiences?
Independence, and considerations of enforced leisure, are both presented as ways that free the polymath, by replacing their need to make a living for themselves, or providing space to operate within. How can you build enough independence for people, when so many roles are burdened with responsibilities and tasks?
Families are important for polymaths; you spend a lot of time growing together. The proxy here is perhaps the team; how do you make sure a team’s habits are a positive, ongoing influence on each other?
The networks that polymaths formed were highly important. Salons, correspondence and the like are replaced in the modern age by meet-ups, podcasts, blogs and more. How might you use these methods to curate networks inside organisations?
Courts and patronage offered polymaths a forum in which to demonstrate their knowledge, and the support that encouraged them to go further. Mentoring and innovation programmes seem a useful proxy here; what are the value exchanges we can identify and leverage?
As well as the space and resources to work, schools and universities offered polymaths connections to others; shared spaces for enquiry without immediate pressures (of, for instance, commercialisation). Where does shared opportunity to think and teach like this happen in organisations?
Certain disciplines seem to offer routes to polymathy more than others (philosophy, for instance). Equally true seems to be that new, emergent disciplines could only be taught and led by polymaths; there are no specialists in an emergent field. How do you identify where generalists come from, and where they should be leading?
Polymaths through the ages often worked in libraries and museums, the material to hand allowing and encouraging them in their research. Additionally, the encyclopaedias and journals to which polymaths were considerable contributors were also broad sources from which to learn. How might you create and update similar repositories within an organisation?
Finally, collaboration was no doubt born of many of these supporting connective networks above. Working together with others, polymaths could push boundaries they found hard to do on their own. Can you forge these partnerships on purpose?
Conclusions and opportunities
“the explosion of knowledge has made it impossible for all but a few energetic and dedicated individuals to keep up with what is happening in even a few disciplines. Hence the many collective attempts to solve the problem, at the level of general education as well as that of problem-oriented research.”Peter Burke, The Polymath
Burke concludes that complexity means interdisciplinary groups are a much more practical and plausible way of making significant breakthroughs.
I think there’s a way to use the factors above to help set out an infrastructure for cross-divisional teams; an organisational polymathy, as it were, a common set of principles managed by the group themselves. Within that structure though, I think there are still lessons for individual practice and reflection.
I am less pessimistic about Burke’s contention that we may have seen the last individual polymath, however. Through the centuries detailed in the book, there is frequent mention of ‘the last renaissance man’ or some similar phrase. It is often used when there is an explosion of information and it seems unlikely that someone could ‘understand everything’.
It feels that advances in supported knowledge, from the centaur approach to AI, to building second brains, means that if anything, we might be in for a resurgence in those we will consider polymaths in the future as they skip gleefully through a hundred fields or more.