SUMMARY. A definition and description for what polymaths are all about and what makes them far far different from how most people are “wired” to process information. Includes several quotes about polymaths and their interdisciplinary, philosophical (but not philosophist) nature.
This morning, as I was wafting toward consciousness, the first thoughts in my mind were wonderments about the differentiation between set theory, organizational systems theory, and complex systems. Didn’t come to any conclusions; just giving a gestalt-shot of some early morning meta-cognition.
And that was even before I had my first cuppa coffee!
Welcome to my world …
I thought I would mark the occasion with a new look on my blog, and some thoughts and quotes on polymathology … those intriguingly odd and rare interdisciplinary people who analyze widely and synthesize freely.
Here is something I wrote this past summer on the subject:
In July 2001, I had a most intriguing conversation with my church planting strategist friend Linda Bergquist. She identified me and two other people we know in the San Francisco Bay Area as “Christian philosophers.” Linda felt the Church doesn’t particularly like philosophers, but she believed it still needs them. Specifically, she sensed these three people were being raised up to help the Church transition into what we then were calling the post-postmodern era. Ahh, how terms change over time!
Anyway, Linda told me how she’d recently read that Thomas Jefferson was offered all kinds of military commissions and other strategic jobs during the Revolutionary War. Instead of taking any of those opportunities, he went back home and worked diligently on the background for creating the American Constitution. He had confidence the Revolution would succeed, and so he was free to do the philosophizing that was necessary for the establishment of long-term goals and sustainability of this new union. As a “renaissance man” and philosopher, Jefferson trusted his abilities matched this historic opportunity, and he knew where he should invest his time in order for a larger payoff in the long run.
Similarly, Linda was convinced that these three church planting philosophers in the Bay Area need to NOT feel pressured to be “The Theologian” or “The Practitioner,” but to invest in the most important roles we could play right now for the future of the Kingdom – research and development, and philosophy. This encouraged me then, and it remains comforting now, six years later, while I am still working on the same massive set of trainings in paradigm and cultural systems for growing Kingdom Culture. I am a polymath; I am called to be a philosopher; I am stewarding something important for the long run of the Kingdom. It requires complex thinking and dense communicating. So, regardless of what may be published during my lifetime, I know at a deep level that pouring myself out in these tasks will have paid off in the long run for what God is doing in His world. It is a privilege, within God’s providence, even when at times I feel wearied from and worried for this project …
Here’s one of my favorite quotes on the subject of polymaths:
This is a bad time for polymaths. The old jibe about a Jack-of-all-trades being master of none has bitten deep into our minds, so that few people will admit to an intellectual grasp of anything more than a narrow range of experience. In a fragmented culture, everybody is expected to be a specialist: so men cling to the professional standards of their guilds as the lifebelts which will keep them afloat on a sea of general ideas which they have lost the capacity either to swim in, or to plumb. By now, a politician who habitually quoted Horace in Parliament would be endangering his position as [a Member of Parliament] – and what matters more, it would be the same if he had a reputation for habitually quoting (say) T. S. Eliot. Natural scientists, again, look with suspicion at those colleagues who stray too far outside their specialisms, and for the most part they shut their eyes to the very existence of philosophy. In return, the philosophers have made their craft a “profession” of its own: a professional philosopher no longer needs to understand even the broadest ideas of contemporary natural science – to say nothing of its factual discoveries.
To use a phrase of Pascal’s, ours is an age dominated by the esprit geometrique. Narrow precision and deductive exactitude carry the palms: analogies are distrusted, virtuosity suspect. So to embark on any large synthesis of the different sciences – still more, to range with confidence through both the sciences and the humanities – a man must have both a level head and a well-stocked mind. His esprit geometrique must be counterbalanced by a well-developed esprit de finesse, and his personal position must be so well assured that he need no longer be afraid of making mistakes.
Who among our contemporaries dares measure himself up against this specification? One man, at any rate, has had the courage – or the foolhardiness – to do so: Mr. Arthur Koestler, whose remarkable new book The Act of Creation is an attempt to integrate into a single system of ideas the results of modern physiology, psychological theory and his own novel analysis of artistic creativity and scientific discovery.
This is the opening to an article originally published in Encounter, July 1964, as “Koestler’s Act of Creation.” It appears in The Return to Cosmology: Postmodern Science and the Theology of Nature by Stephen Toulmin – University of California Press, 1982.)
I’ll have more to say on the subject as time goes by. But there’s a beginning of a new category.
Time for coffee …
Meta-cognition. Awareness of what you are thinking, while you are thinking it. Think of meta-cognition as a sort of mental MRI, where you have multiple streams of internal thought processes coinciding – or colliding – around some particular subject, such that you end up with a three-dimensional perspective on it. [Added 11-30-07.]
Polymath. Person who has not only wide-ranging interests and significant areas of expertise in multiple fields. Polymaths typically synthesize their knowledge and frequently come up with fresh, intriguing perspectives on subjects old and new. Often, the older they get, and the larger the databanks of multi-disciplines they can draw from, the more unusual the insights they can integrate. More than just dabblers in various academic disciplines, they grow into paradoxical and interdisciplinary philosophers who sometimes become acknowledged as “paradigm shifters” – making such original contributions in their field(s) of interest that the discipline is forever changed. Interested in more on polymaths and paradigm shifters? See my blog page on Interpolators, and check out Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. [Added 11-30-07.]