Self Help

The Polimath - Peter Burke

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Matheus Puppe

· 45 min read

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  • The book aims to provide a cultural and social history of knowledge by focusing on polymaths, or scholars with broad, interdisciplinary interests across academic fields.

  • Historically, polymaths have been “squashed into a category” and remembered only for one or a few of their varied achievements. This book seeks to redress the balance and do justice to their full range of work.

  • There has been increasing interest in studying individual polymaths through biographies, but general surveys are more rare. This book aims to fill that gap.

  • Definitions of polymath vary. The author defines it as scholars with interests that were “encyclopaedic” and ran across a major segment of the intellectual curriculum of their time.

  • The book will focus on academic knowledge and learned polymaths, rather than extending the term to include diverse achievers in other fields like business, sports, etc.

  • It examines polymaths from the Renaissance to modern times, looking at cultural and social factors that enabled or constrained broad, interdisciplinary work over history. The goal is a history of knowledge told through the lens of polymaths.

  • The passage discusses famous polymaths like Elon Musk, who studied economics and physics before founding Tesla, and Sergey Brin, who studied computer science before founding Google. It also mentions John Maynard Keynes, who had diverse interests outside of academia.

  • It addresses the question of what constitutes an academic “discipline” and how that has changed over time, with greater specialization and fragmentation of fields.

  • The passage aims to provide case studies of major “polymaths” as well as shorter profiles of lesser-known polymaths. It wants to contextualize these profiles within broader intellectual and social trends.

  • Specifically, it will examine trends of increasing specialization versus synthesis across disciplines. It will also look at how supportive or discouraging different places and time periods have been of curiosity and polymathic pursuits.

  • A key concern is how polymaths have survived and remained resilient in an age of greater specialization. It will analyze the cultural and institutional contexts that have supported polymaths, such as certain universities.

  • The passage introduces some classifications of types of polymaths, such as passive vs. active; limited/clustered vs. general; and serial vs. simultaneous polymaths who work across disciplines.

  • The passage discusses polymaths in ancient Greece, beginning with debates around the value of being a polymath that date back to philosophers like Heraclitus and Empedocles.

  • It provides some examples of early Greek polymaths like Pythagoras, who had interests ranging from mathematics to spirituality but was criticized by some like Heraclitus as superficial.

  • The Sophists of this time were also very broad in their knowledge and traveled teaching various subjects.

  • The passage then transitions to noting how in periods without distinct academic disciplines, wide-ranging curiosity was more the norm. However, some individuals even then were admired or criticized for their breadth vs depth of knowledge.

  • It provides this historical context on polymathy in antiquity as a lead-in to the following chapter focusing more on specific pre-modern polymaths across cultures before the focus of the book on later European/American polymaths.

Here is a summary of the key points about teachers called Sophists in ancient Greece:

  • Sophists were itinerant teachers who traveled around Greece teaching a wide range of subjects to citizens. This gave them the nickname of “encyclopaedists” as they could answer questions on many topics.

  • One famous Sophist was Hippias of Elis who claimed to be able to teach and speak knowledgeably about subjects like astronomy, mathematics, grammar, rhetoric, music, history, philosophy and memory techniques.

  • Sophists like Hippias were often criticized for being arrogant and having superficial knowledge of many topics rather than deep expertise. Plato portrayed Hippias in a negative light in one of his dialogues.

  • Later scholars in Greece and Rome still promoted the ideal of a “polymath” who had broad and interdisciplinary knowledge, though there was debate around specialization vs. generalism. Famous polymaths included Aristotle, Cicero, and Pliny the Elder.

  • China also valued broad learning and produced scholar-officials and polymaths who studied diverse topics like the classics, history, politics, poetry and more. Individuals like Hui Shi, Su Song and Shen Gua demonstrated broad and interdisciplinary knowledge.

  • Su Song and Shen Gua were prominent Chinese polymaths who made notable contributions across multiple fields like astronomy, map-making, medicine, pharmacology, rituals, mathematics, administration, art of war, poetry and more.

  • Polymaths in ancient China developed out of careers as government officials, where they were expected to have broad general knowledge as tested in the civil service exams.

  • In early medieval Europe, there was a loss of secular knowledge as some Christian thinkers opposed pagan learning. Many classical Greek texts were also lost.

  • Figures like Boethius, Isidore of Seville and Gerbert of Aurillac played important roles in preserving fragments of knowledge from antiquity and compiling early encyclopedias.

  • The Islamic world between the 10th-12th centuries saw a revival of Greek learning as texts were translated to Arabic. Scholars in the Islamic world also pursued broad, interdisciplinary knowledge.

  • Expectations of what constituted knowledge differed between Western Europe and the Islamic world, though both valued polymaths who mastered many disciplines.

  • In Islamic scholarship, the ideal was the “adib” or gentleman scholar who was well-versed in a wide range of arts and sciences. This included religious sciences, poetry, history, natural sciences, and more.

  • Madrasas encouraged exposure to many teachers and fields of study rather than specialization, to develop this “many-sidedness”.

  • Some major polymath scholars between the 9th-14th centuries included Al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Khaldun. They made contributions across many disciplines from philosophy to medicine to optics.

  • In the High Middle Ages, western scholars began recovering ancient Greek knowledge as well as new knowledge from the Islamic world. Universities institutionalized the seven liberal arts and three higher faculties.

  • Some major polymath scholars of this period included Hugh of St. Victor, Vincent of Beauvais, Albert the Great, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, and Ramon Lull. They studied and wrote on diverse subjects from encyclopedias to nature to languages.

Here is a summary of the provided text:

  • The text discusses two influential polymaths from the Middle Ages - Albert the Great and Ramon Llull. Albert the Great studied theology, philosophy, alchemy and more. He is noted as a “Doctor Universalis” due to his wide breadth of knowledge. Ramon Llull invented his “Ars Magna” system which used logic, rhetoric and mathematics to teach students different ways of presenting arguments.

  • During the Renaissance period from 1400-1600, knowledge circulation rapidly increased as ancient Greek/Roman works were recovered. Exploration also brought new knowledge. However, some scholars still dominated university teachings.

  • Jacob Burckhardt helped popularize the concept of the “Renaissance Man” - individuals like Leonardo da Vinci who excelled across many fields of knowledge and the arts. Others also praised figures like Alberti for their “robust universal mind.”

  • The ideal of being a “universal man” knowledgeable in many disciplines was discussed during the Renaissance itself. However, some argue Burckhardt and others exaggerated the distinctiveness of such polymaths. Not all contemporary accounts portrayed many-sidedness positively.

So in summary, the text discusses two medieval polymaths and analyzes the concept and myth of the “Renaissance Man” as popularized by Burckhardt and others based on a few exemplary figures. It notes debate around how distinct or idealized such polymaths truly were.

This passage discusses the idea of the Renaissance “polymath” or universal man - an individual with expertise and interests spanning multiple disciplines. It provides examples of several notable Renaissance figures who approached or embodied this ideal to varying degrees.

Leon Battista Alberti is held up as an exemplar, as he was enormously versatile and claimed mastery of all the fine arts as well as physical feats. Other highly gifted scholars mentioned include Rudolf Agricola, who combined painting, sculpture, music and gymnastics with his studies. Some combined intellectual pursuits with careers in public service or the military, like Philip Sidney, Walter Raleigh and Thomas More.

The passage then examines several specific polymaths in more depth. Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa had expertise in theology, philosophy, law, medicine, alchemy and magic. Jean Bodin was a pioneering political philosopher and legal scholar. Giovanni Pico della Mirandola aimed for universality, proposing to debate 900 theses across many disciplines.

While not all these individuals were true polymaths by today’s standards, the passage suggests the ideal of combining broad and diverse interests from different fields was one valued during the Renaissance period as emblematic of the “universal man.” It presents the kernel of truth being that some individuals did strive to pursue multi-faceted intellectual endeavors.

The passage describes several notable polymaths from the 16th century Renaissance period. Some key points:

  • Jean Bodin was described as wanting historians to study multiple disciplines to gain a broader understanding. He emphasized geography, climate and philosophy.

  • Bodin wrote on various topics from witchcraft to economics and politics. He was interested in bringing order and coherence to increasing amounts of knowledge.

  • Joseph Scaliger was a renowned philologist who studied many ancient languages and combined approaches from different fields like law and philology. He produced important works critiquing and reconciling ancient chronologies.

  • John Dee studied many topics from mathematics to navigation to the occult. He had a large library and interest in polymath predecessors.

  • Conrad Gessner was a physician, naturalist and encyclopedist who wrote on topics from animals to plants to minerals. He produced an important bibliography of authors.

  • Many polymaths were driven by a desire to unify or reconcile different ideas, cultures and conflicts. This was a motivation for figures like Pico della Mirandola, Nicholas of Cusa and Bodin.

So in summary, the passage describes several 16th century scholars who excelled in multiple diverse fields of study, often with a goal of bringing more coherence, order and reconciliation to the growing body of knowledge.

  • Alberti advocated for a well-rounded, humanist education for painters, architects and other artists. He was friends with painters and sculptors like Masaccio and Donatello.

  • Georg Agricola was a physician who studied mining and metallurgy. He drew on both practical knowledge from miners and his own reading. Like Alberti, he showed that academics did not have a monopoly on wide-ranging knowledge.

  • Artists and engineers of the time, like Filippo Brunelleschi, demonstrated many-sided talents. Brunelleschi helped design the dome of Florence Cathedral and discovered the rules of linear perspective. He applied surveying techniques from measuring Roman ruins to painting.

  • Other polymaths mentioned include Taccola/the Sienese Archimedes who worked in multiple fields including sculpture, road works and military engineering. Francesco di Giorgio Martini worked as an architect, military engineer and invented machines after training as a painter.

  • The most renowned example of a Renaissance man was Leonardo da Vinci, who excelled at painting/sculpting as well as engineering, invention, anatomy and other sciences through hands-on study and observation. He far surpassed other polymaths in the breadth of his interests and achievements.

  • The passage discusses the rise of scholarly polymaths or “universal scholars” in the 17th century, which was seen as the golden age of such many-sided individuals.

  • Intellectual curiosity was rehabilitated by influential philosophers like Francis Bacon, who took “all knowledge” as his province and discussed classification of knowledge and epistemology.

  • While Renaissance figures may have excelled in physical skills too, 17th century polymaths focused more on academic pursuits.

  • Over 90 polymaths listed in the appendix were born between 1570-1669, more than double the number from 1470-1569, showing the prominence of polymaths in this period.

  • Dutch physician Hermann Boerhaave described these universal scholars as “monsters of erudition,” indicating their immense and wide-ranging knowledge across many fields of study.

So in summary, the passage establishes the 17th century as the height of scholarly polymaths or “universal scholars” due to influences like Bacon who promoted intellectual curiosity, as shown by the rise in known polymaths from this period.

  • The ration (ship) in 1620 that sailed between the pillars (Pillars of Hercules) had the motto “multi pertransibunt et augebitur scientia” which means “many will pass through and knowledge will be increased”.

  • This motto suggests the voyage hoped to increase geographical and scientific knowledge through exploration and sharing of information with others. Passing through the pillars represented traveling beyond known regions to discover new lands and possibilities for advancement of learning.

  • The motto emphasized an optimism about the potential for voyages of exploration and dissemination of their findings to contribute to collective growth of human understanding and intellectual progress over time. Each new traveler and experience would build upon prior knowledge in an iterative and expansive way.

  • Juana Ramírez, also known as Juana Inés de la Cruz or ‘Sister Juana’, was a Mexican nun and writer who was renowned for her learning. She was described by contemporaries as the “Mexican Phoenix” and a “Phoenix of Erudition in all sciences”.

  • As a child, Sister Juana had a strong desire to learn and studied in her grandfather’s library. She wanted to attend university but her mother did not allow it. She mastered Latin after only 20 lessons and also knew Greek and Nahuatl.

  • In addition to writing poems, Sister Juana studied theology, philosophy, law, literature and music theory. She entered a convent in order to be free to study without having to marry.

  • Sister Juana accumulated an impressive library in her convent. Her writings referenced scholars like Pliny, Kircher, Cicero and Tacitus.

  • However, her devotion to learning was criticized by the bishop of Puebla. She was forbidden from publishing her ideas and ordered to give away her books.

  • The passage introduces Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc as an example of an early modern polymath and virtuoso who collected artifacts and objects of interest from across different disciplines and cultures.

  • Peiresc had wide-ranging intellectual interests spanning law, history, languages, astronomy, anatomy, and more. He studied the ancient world, medieval Europe, and Mediterranean cultures.

  • Peiresc acted as an intellectual broker, soliciting and sharing information via his extensive network of correspondents. He sent questionnaires and wish lists to agents who acquired items for his collections.

  • Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz was a Cistercian monk, bishop, diplomat, architect, and polymath who wrote over 60 books across many disciplines and languages. He sought to reconcile theology with reason.

  • Olof Rudbeck was a Swedish polymath, rector of Uppsala University, who undertook enormous scholarly projects seeking to prove Sweden’s ancient origins and cultural achievements on a grand scale.

  • Olof Rudbeck was a Swedish polymath in the 17th century who studied and contributed to the fields of anatomy, languages, music, plants, and archaeology.

  • He began by dissecting hundreds of animals which led to his discovery of the lymphatic system. This generated a priority dispute with another scholar.

  • He discovered botany while studying medicine. As a professor he taught many subjects including anatomy, botany, chemistry, music, mathematics, physics, and astronomy.

  • He designed an anatomy theater and aqueduct. Wrote music. Mapped areas. Studied and illustrated plants.

  • Most widely known for his unfinished treatise “Atlantica” which argued that civilization originated in Northern areas like Sweden. He claimed Sweden was the location of Atlantis and the capital of the ancient Trojans and Scythians.

  • He took ethnocentric and controversial approaches to support Swedish claims through methods like comparing myths and digging stratigraphy to date sites. Conducted experiments to support his theories.

  • Other notable polymaths mentioned included Athanasius Kircher, a German Jesuit who wrote on many topics but made some errors, and Pierre Bayle, a French Protestant critic and editor known for his wide-ranging historical dictionary.

This passage discusses Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz as the most famous example of a 17th century polymath. It outlines his wide-ranging intellectual interests and activities, which extended beyond his usual recognition as a philosopher. Leibniz was also actively involved in mathematics, theology, linguistics, history, law, politics, China studies, library management, technology/invention, and practical projects like academic foundations. He had an “insatiable curiosity” and driving ambition to reform all the sciences through collaboration. The passage establishes Leibniz as the prime exemplar of the 17th century polymath, or “Renaissance man.”

  • John Selden was a renowned 17th century English jurist and scholar with impossibly wide-ranging interests and learning across many languages, including medieval English history, oriental studies, various types of law, ancient religions, and more.

  • He was praised for his enormous library and for always going back to primary sources. His approach was analytically comparing different systems and ideas.

  • Other notable polymaths included Luigi Marsili, a military officer who also studied coffee, the Ottoman military, phosphorus, coral, mushrooms and the Danube River.

  • Nicolaes Witsen was a Dutch mayor and East India Company administrator who had extensive scholarly interests and collections in topics like shipbuilding, Siberia, South Africa, Australia and more.

  • Many 17th century polymaths had a drive for intellectual and religious harmony or conciliation between faith/reason and different traditions/religions. Figures like Comenius, Caramuel, Kircher, Huet, Pufendorf and Leibniz worked towards these goals.

  • The bar was raised in the 17th century as original discoveries and ideas were increasingly expected, leading to more priority disputes and plagiarism accusations between scholars. Ciphers and anagrams were used to establish credit for findings.

  • Factors that enabled the golden age of polymathy included a period of freedom from suspicion of curiosity as well as pre-specialization, plus advances in education, science, communication and availability of sources.

Here is a summary of the provided text:

The passage discusses how the 17th century saw an “intellectual crisis” as knowledge was rapidly expanding in several ways:

  • Exploration of new geographic regions like the Americas revealed many new plants, animals, and cultures to study. Cabinets of curiosities grew to display these exotic objects.

  • New instruments like telescopes and microscopes revealed new worlds both far away like planets and close up but previously invisible like microorganisms. This stimulated further discoveries.

  • Fields like experimentation expanded knowledge in systematic ways. Many discoveries were still possible using relatively simple means.

  • The “Republic of Letters” intellectual community grew denser through increased postal networks allowing more communication between scholars worldwide. Polymaths like Kircher had access to a global network of information sources.

However, this expansion of knowledge also led to Anxiety as it became impossible for any individual to comprehensively know everything due to the “flood” of new information being produced, especially through printing. Organizing and managing the growing “chaos” of knowledge became a concern, as too much was discovered and published to fully comprehend. This was seen as an intellectual “crisis” threatening a collapse of order.

  • In the 17th century, there was a rapid increase in the amount of new knowledge and discoveries being made, which created an issue of “information anxiety” as individuals struggled to digest it all.

  • This “advancement of learning” led scholars to expand their interests but also threatened to fragment knowledge as different fields became more severed from each other.

  • Some scholars like Alsted and Comenius were worried about the “tearing apart” of disciplines and saw the unity of knowledge as under threat.

  • Terms like “polymath” became more frequent, indicating a growing awareness of the problem of fragmentation. Treatises addressed the need to see connections between fields.

  • Later critiques focused on how polymaths tended to be superficial or not finish projects due to taking on too many diverse interests. The “Leonardo syndrome” of beginning many projects but completing few was seen as an issue for some polymaths.

  • In the 18th century, there was a decline in the reputations of polymath scholars like Olof Rudbeck and Athanasius Kircher. Their intellectual works were seen as having serious flaws and overly speculative.

  • The term “polyhistor” shifted from compliment to criticism, with polymaths viewed more as “supermen of memory” rather than true scholars. Encyclopedias criticized polymaths for accumulating useless knowledge.

  • Figures like pedants and charlatans became associated with overly broad learning. Terms like “charlatan” were used more frequently to describe scholars who promised more than they could deliver.

  • The ideal of the universal scholar became seen as unattainable. A new ideal emerged of the “man of letters” - someone with broad but not encyclopedic learning who could discuss knowledge elegantly in salons and essays for a general audience.

  • Salons and conversational style played a key role in shaping this new ideal of the cultivated person of letters, rather than the ambitious polymath striving for universal knowledge. This new model dominated the 18th-19th centuries.

This passage discusses the rise of the “man of letters” ( homme/femme de lettres) in the 18th century Enlightenment. Cultural journals like the Spectator and Gentleman’s Magazine helped create a new “middlebrow” readership and bring philosophy and learning to a wider public audience.

Key figures discussed include prominent French polymaths like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Émilie du Châtelet, D’Alembert and Diderot. Their wide-ranging intellectual interests and contributions across history, literature, politics, philosophy and sciences are highlighted. Montesquieu studied law, history and social customs. Voltaire was a poet, playwright, historian and popularizer of science. Du Châtelet wrote on mathematics, physics and philosophy.

Salons organized by educated women also helped widen intellectual discussion. The term “man of letters” emerged to describe broad learned individuals engaged with both the humanities and sciences. While initially ambiguous, it came to imply contributions to “literature” in the modern sense. A few prominent early female polymaths are also cited.

The philosophes expressed their ideas through both collective works and fiction. Diderot and Raynal co-authored the Histoire des deux Indes, which discussed European colonialism in India and the Americas.

Diderot wrote hundreds of articles for the Encyclopédie across many fields of philosophy, science, art and crafts. As the son of an artisan, he emphasized the importance of technical knowledge. Another major contributor was Louis de Jaucourt, who wrote over 18,000 articles spanning many subjects.

Buffon and Condorcet had particularly wide-ranging interests. Buffon wrote his influential Natural History covering many scientific fields, while also engaging in mathematics, physiology and forestry experiments. Condorcet studied mathematics and published on topics from voting to history to the progress of human thought.

In 18th century Scotland, philosophers like Hume, Smith, Ferguson and their colleagues in the Select Society of Edinburgh exemplified the man of letters with diverse achievements across philosophy, history, economics, language and more. In England, Samuel Johnson and Joseph Priestley also engaged in many fields through their writing, editing, research and teaching.

  • The passage discusses prominent 18th century polymaths, or learned individuals with wide-ranging interests and knowledge, from England, Spain, Italy and India.

  • It describes Samuel Johnson as having a vast store of knowledge which proved useful for his Dictionary of the English Language project. It also discusses Joseph Priestley’s many scholarly contributions across science, languages and other fields.

  • It profiles prominent polymaths from other countries like Lorenzo Hervás y Panduro, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos and Benito Jerónimo Feijoo from Spain, Maria Gaetana Agnesi and Giambattista Vico from Italy, and William Jones from India, noting their diverse interests and accomplishments across various disciplines.

  • It frames these learned individuals as embodying the ideal of the “man of letters” or well-rounded scholar with wide-ranging intellectual pursuits, and discusses how they participated in discussion groups and societies to share knowledge.

  • Giambattista Vico was an 18th century Italian philosopher, historian, and jurist known for his seminal work Scienza Nuova (New Science).

  • His work drew on disciplines like philosophy, philology, literature, and law. Like Montesquieu, he viewed law as part of culture. It’s unfortunate they remained unaware of each other’s work.

  • Vico saw himself as the Galileo or Newton of history. He argued that societies progress through recurrent phases (“ages”) from the primitive to modern, with different customs, laws, languages, and modes of thought in each phase.

  • His analysis of primitive thought in myths and stories was innovative for the time and informed later concepts like “primitive thought”.

  • The late 18th/early 19th centuries saw clusters of polymath scholars in England and Germany who made contributions across multiple fields, combining careers in arts, sciences, politics, and more. Figures mentioned include Franklin, Jefferson, Coleridge, De Quincey, Young, and Herschel.

  • William Herschel had wide-ranging interests in botany, geology, acoustics, optics, photography and more. This positioned him well to write a “Preliminary Discourse” on the study of natural philosophy.

  • He was also friends with fellow polymaths William Whewell and Charles Babbage at Cambridge in the early 1810s. They formed a “philosophical breakfast club” which supports the idea of small groups fostering creativity.

  • Whewell was described as having gathered “a more wonderful variety and amount of knowledge in almost every department of human inquiry.” He worked in many fields including mathematics, mechanics, astronomy and more.

  • In Germany in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, notable polymaths included Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the Humboldt brothers Wilhelm and Alexander. Herder made contributions to linguistics, literature and culture. Goethe studied many languages and literature and made original discoveries in sciences like anatomy, botany and optics. The Humboldt brothers were also broadly educated figures.

  • Alexander von Humboldt in particular was praised as being “at home on every subject.” His wide-ranging five-year expedition and later work covered geology, botany, zoology, meteorology and more, helping establish new fields of scientific study.

  • Alexander von Humboldt was a 19th century German polymath who studied and wrote about many fields of natural science and the humanities.

  • His book “Cosmos” described not only the natural world but also the history of its study and emotions related to contemplating nature. It ranged across many topics from different cultures and time periods.

  • Humboldt bridged the humanities and sciences as well as action and contemplation. His works included detailed measurements and statistics as well as examining how the environment influences different civilizations and plants.

  • Later in the 19th century, some individuals like Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Marx attempted to build comprehensive intellectual systems that encompassed most or all human knowledge, as the volume of information continued growing rapidly.

  • These “system builders” had wide-ranging interests and studied multiple disciplines, from mathematics to sociology. They helped establish fields like sociology but their grand theoretical systems did not always endure.

  • The tradition of the wide-ranging intellectual or “man of letters” remained strong in the 19th century, with writers able to make a living through cultural journals and collections of essays on diverse topics.

This passage summarizes a few prominent 19th century French and English polymaths/intellectuals:

  • Ernest Renan had careers first as a priest, then as a scholar studying Semitic languages and philology, and finally as a public intellectual/cultural critic. He wrote controversially about the life of Jesus and argued France needed intellectual and moral reform.

  • Hippolyte Taine was attracted to philosophy, social sciences and natural sciences. He had a wide-ranging intellect but failed to get an academic career. He became an influential critic writing on art, literature, history and politics. He saw literature as shaped by race, environment and historical moment.

  • In England, John Stuart Mill had interests in philosophy, politics, economics and more. Matthew Arnold combined poetry, literary criticism of culture/society, religion, languages and more.

  • It also mentions some prominent 19th century women intellectuals/polymaths like Germaine de Staël who wrote on politics, philosophy and more, and compiled important studies of literature and German society/culture. Harriet Martineau and George Eliot also had wide-ranging intellects and writing careers.

This summary discusses several notable 19th century polymaths:

  • Harriet Martineau was an English writer who published works on religion, political economy, society, education, travel and history. She also wrote for newspapers and translated works of philosophy.

  • George Eliot was renowned as a novelist but began her career as an editor and contributor to the Westminster Review, writing on diverse topics. She had a keen interest in science and conducted thorough research for her novels.

  • Mary Somerville was a pioneering Scottish scientist who studied math, astronomy and other fields largely through self-study. She published scientific works and helped popularize science through synthesis and clear writing.

  • French scientists like Antoine Cournot and Georges Cuvier made contributions across multiple fields including mechanics, mathematics, zoology, anatomy and more.

  • German scientists Rudolf Virchow, Hermann Helmholtz and Ernst Haeckel worked across biology, medicine, physics, acoustics, optics, philosophy and more. They also participated in cultures like politics, ethnology, music and art.

  • Figures like Harriet Martineau, George Eliot, Mary Somerville and Alexander von Humboldt exemplified the polymathic pursuit of knowledge across diverse academic disciplines in the 19th century.

  • Charles Darwin was described as a polymath or “many-sided scientist” who contributed to several disciplines including botany, geology, zoology, and publishing works in each of those fields. His most famous work On the Origin of Species combined scientific observations with literary narrative style.

  • Thomas Huxley was another polymath who studied subjects like geology, paleontology, and wrote works popularizing science to wider audiences.

  • Francis Galton studied diverse topics like heredity, anthropology, meteorology and established new fields like fingerprint analysis and intelligence testing.

  • William Henry Fox Talbot made contributions to mathematics, optics, chemistry and invented an early photographic process, but was known for a wide range of intellectual pursuits beyond photography.

  • By the late 18th century, there was increasing discussion around specialization and division of intellectual labor as knowledge grew. Institutions were founded focused on individual scientific disciplines, encouraging fragmentation and dismantling of the older model of the polymath scholar.

  • By the late 19th century, wide-ranging scholars (polymaths) were increasingly criticized for attempting to master too many subjects and fields of knowledge. Specialization was seen as necessary to make progress.

  • There was an explosion of knowledge due to expanding research, discovery, data collection by governments/businesses, and proliferation of cheap printed works. This created an “overload” of information.

  • Specialization emerged as the principal response to deal with this overload. New terms like “specialist” and “specialization” reflected this trend towards focusing on narrower fields.

  • The debate continued between seeing specialization as dividing labor productively versus limiting humans’ intellectual potential. Supporters like Durkheim saw disciplinary specialization as making fields more precise, while critics like Marx and Morris valued intellectual flexibility.

  • Comte believed specialization was needed but worried it limited perspective, and predicted a group would emerge to specialize in “generalities” and maintain a comprehensive view. The story suggests he was correct in his views.

The passage discusses how knowledge became increasingly specialized and divided in the late 19th century. Universities started developing separate departments for different disciplines like medicine, political science, sociology, etc. Professors became specialists focused on narrow fields. New research universities in places like Germany and the US further encouraged specialization. Outside universities as well, knowledge institutions grew more specialized, with museums focusing on particular topics and scholarly societies forming for individual disciplines. Overall, there was a territorialization and fragmentation of knowledge as boundaries between fields hardened and academics staked claims over their own domains. This trend toward specialization challenged the notion of the polymath able to engage broadly in many areas of study.

  • Specialization increased dramatically in the late 19th century in fields like medicine, with the emergence of specialist societies and congresses like dermatology and otolary’ (ear, nose and throat). These helped forge identities among specialists.

  • Specialized academic journals also proliferated in this period, replacing more general journals. Journals became increasingly technical in language and focused on narrow topics.

  • The growth of specialization led C.P. Snow to identify the emergence of “two cultures” - sciences and humanities - that lacked communication by the mid-20th century. However, fragmentation has continued since.

  • Teamwork became important for managing increasing information, through scientific expeditions, encyclopedias, laboratories drawing on many contributors.

  • Universities underwent increasing departmentalization, with new specialized chairs established in fields like economics, natural sciences, languages and more over the 18th-19th centuries.

  • Explosion of knowledge alone does not fully explain specialization. Other factors included practical needs, institutionalization through journals/societies, and economic incentives of specialization.

This passage summarizes a few key points about the history of specialization in knowledge and academics:

  • Specialization emerged as a response to the growing volume of information and specialties. It allowed for deeper exploration of niche topics and managing the “flood of information.”

  • Expansion of higher education in the late 18th/19th centuries, with growing student populations, facilitated more specialization by allowing for a greater variety of specialized courses taught by more specialized professors.

  • Specialization also served individual interests, as it allowed scholars to carve out unique niches and differentiate themselves from competitors.

  • However, specialization eventually created a backlash and concerns about fragmented knowledge. Some thinkers called for restoring unity and breaking down boundaries between specialties.

  • Polymaths and generalists played a role in keeping knowledge unified and correcting narrow specialization. Figures like Geddes, Otlet, Neurath, and Mumford embraced multiple disciplines and fought against overly specialized silos of knowledge.

So in summary, it traces the development of and debates around specialization versus generalization in academics and intellectual thought.

  • Lewis Mumford was a American writer and public intellectual who began his career as a literary critic but expanded into other fields like architecture, cities, technology, and history. He took an interdisciplinary approach and focused on cities as a single object of study, producing influential works like The Culture of Cities and The City in History.

  • Distinctions were drawn between passive, clustered, and serial polymaths in the age of territoriality. H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, and Jorge Luis Borges were examples of passive polymaths who extensively read encyclopedias.

  • Cultural critics in the 20th century who applied a polymath approach included Johan Huizinga, José Ortega y Gasset, Edmund Wilson, George Steiner, and Susan Sontag. Steiner and Sontag took interdisciplinary approaches in their work and played the role of public intellectuals/cultural critics.

  • Some polymaths were described as “clustered” in that their achievements were concentrated in related fields, building shorter bridges between neighboring disciplines compared to generalists who bridged distant fields. This localized transfer of concepts was seen as both less difficult but also less spectacular than distant transfers.

The passage discusses how polymaths probably played a more important role in the history of knowledge than in advancing any single discipline. It notes that early scholars in fields like sociology, economics, political science and other social sciences tended to be polymaths, drawing from diverse backgrounds and contributing across disciplines. Their interdisciplinary work helped establish new fields of study at a time when boundaries between subjects were more permeable. The founding figures mentioned, like Weber, Boulding, Lasswell and Foucault, applied ideas and methods from multiple areas to their research and teaching. Their diverse interests and ability to connect ideas arguably accelerated the development of knowledge in a way that narrow specialization could not.

  • Many early sociologists and anthropologists came from other fields like mathematics, engineering, astronomy, medicine, criminology, etc. and applied their skills to the emerging social sciences.

  • Examples given are Frederic Le Play in France who was an engineer before sociology, Adolphe Quételet who was a mathematician before social statistics, Paul Lazarsfeld who brought statistical methods to American sociology.

  • Émile Durkheim began in philosophy/education, Gabriel Tarde was a magistrate. Georg Simmel had extensive knowledge across many fields.

  • In the US, Lester Ward worked in many sciences before becoming a sociology professor.

  • Norbert Elias similarly studied many disciplines including medicine, history, philosophy, and psychoanalysis which influenced his social theory.

  • Psychologists like Wundt, James, and Le Bon also came from medicine originally. Freud’s work was influenced by his background in neurology, biology, literature, and other fields.

  • Early anthropologists came from diverse backgrounds as well, like medicine, zoology, classics, theology, oriental studies, etc.

So in many early founders, their diverse educational and intellectual backgrounds enriched the emerging social sciences. A theme of polymaths contributing across disciplines.

Here is a summary of the provided text:

In the middle of the 20th century, several influential polymaths worked in the emerging fields of computer science and artificial intelligence. This included Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and Claude Shannon. All had diverse intellectual backgrounds and made significant contributions across disciplines.

Wiener’s work bridging mathematics, engineering, and cybernetics helped establish the field of cybernetics. Von Neumann contributed to mathematics, economics, game theory, and early computer development. Turing invented the conceptual “Turing machine” and worked on codebreaking and artificial intelligence. Shannon founded information theory while also working in codebreaking and invention.

Their interdisciplinary careers demonstrate how new fields can attract diverse thinkers and how those trained in one area can innovatively approach problems in another. Their interactions also stimulated work bridging computers and fields like neuroscience, as with von Neumann’s work on the brain. More broadly, polymaths played influential roles in developing general systems theory across biology, engineering, and the social sciences, and establishing the interdisciplinary field of semiotics spanning linguistics, anthropology, and structural approaches.

The passage discusses six polymaths from the 20th century with diverse interests and intellectual journeys.

Pavel Florensky was a Russian priest who studied mathematics, philosophy, theology, and also conducted research in electrodynamics and studied popular songs.

Michael Polanyi was originally trained in medicine and chemistry but later became a philosopher in his 50s, studying the nature of scientific knowledge and implicit knowledge.

Joseph Needham was originally a biochemist but found his passion in the history of Chinese science, producing a massive work in progress on the topic over many decades.

Gregory Bateson studied zoology but later switched to anthropology, conducting fieldwork in places like New Guinea and Bali. He introduced ideas like “double bind” and studied communication in fields like ecology, ethology, and cybernetics.

Herbert Simon had a broad education across various fields at the University of Chicago and made contributions in political science, computer science, and economics.

Michel de Certeau was a Jesuit priest as well as a historian and semiotician who studied everyday life and consumer behavior. He had wide-ranging interests across various academic disciplines.

  • The political scientist was particularly interested in the process of making decisions and turned to fields like public administration, business administration, and economics to study decision-making and behavior.

  • He won the Nobel Prize in economics but considered himself a behavioral scientist first. His focus was on behavioral economics and linking it to his earlier work on decisions.

  • In the mid-1950s, he saw a transformation in his work where he became more focused on cognitive psychology and computer science. He helped set up an artificial intelligence lab to study problem-solving using computer simulations.

  • He studied the concept of “bounded rationality” which he saw as between the poles of conventional rationality and irrationality. He had broad intellectual interests and read widely in many fields and languages.

  • In summarizing his career characteristics, he had a strong interest in decision-making and behavior that led him to draw from multiple fields like economics, psychology, and computer science to study human problem-solving and cognition. He took an interdisciplinary approach and considered himself first a behavioral scientist rather than belonging strictly to any one academic field.

  • Curiosity is often described as a defining characteristic of polymaths, with terms like “omnivorous”, “passionate”, “obsessive” used. Many polymaths described themselves as having an “insatiable thirst for knowledge”.

  • Concentration is also important, with some polymaths said to be able to work and think even in noisy environments without distraction. This concentration was sometimes seen as absent-mindedness by others.

  • Memory was another key advantage for polymaths, with many noted as having extraordinary memories able to recall information read or learned verbatim.

  • Speed of learning new topics was possessed by some polymaths, described as being able to rapidly master new subjects just by briefly studying textbooks.

  • Curiosity, concentration, memory and speed of learning were abilities that allowed polymaths to assimilate large amounts of information across many fields of interest in pursuit of their “insatiable curiosity”.

  • Marvin Minsky, a pioneer of artificial intelligence, declared in an interview that he liked “learning new things”, unlike “most people” who don’t enjoy learning something new each year.

  • A vivid imagination is an important part of a polymath’s psychological profile. Charles Darwin and Herbert Simon both described themselves as “daydreamers” who made connections between ideas. Polymaths perceive connections that others miss through daydreaming and unconscious association of ideas.

  • Polymaths draw analogies between different fields, engaging in what Aristotle called “the perception of the similarity in dissimilars”. Examples include Leonardo da Vinci comparing wings to machines and Thomas Young comparing light and sound waves.

  • Comparative methods like comparative mythology, linguistics, law and religion were developed by polymaths seeking similarities and differences across disciplines.

  • Polymaths need mental energy and physical stamina to employ their imagination and make connections between fields. Many were described as “indefatigable”, “tireless workers” who could work for long hours each day. Some like Buffon and Morris were able to multitask.

  • A surplus of energy sometimes led to restlessness, with some polymaths like von Humboldt and Morris being described as restless. Others embraced nomadism, moving constantly between different interests and locations. Serial polymaths move from one field to another over time.

  • The passage discusses several polymaths from history who pursued wide-ranging interests across multiple fields such as science, arts, humanities, and more.

  • Several polymaths got drawn into different disciplines due to personal circumstances, like eye problems forcing them out of their original fields. Others tried different occupations before settling on academic careers.

  • Many leading polymaths in the 20th century were also involved in the international peace movement, indicating a possible link between supporting internationalism and interdisciplinarity.

  • Success as a polymath required incredibly long hours of work, with many figures working 16-hour days or getting by on just a few hours of sleep each night in order to have more time for study across various topics.

  • Specific polymaths mentioned include Leonardo da Vinci, Nicolaus Copernicus, Gottfried Leibniz, Madame de Staël, Voltaire and Émilie du Châtelet, John Herschel, Alexander von Humboldt, and Mary Somerville.

  • Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was a Scottish scientist and polymath. She concentrated on synthesizing knowledge from different fields and published her major work “On the Connection of the Physical Sciences” in 1834.

  • She is regarded as one of the first female scientists. Somerville College at Oxford University is named in her honor.

Here is a summary of the provided text:

  • Several early computer scientists and scientists seemed to enjoy playful and games in their work, such as constructing chess-playing machines or inventing word games. Figures like Shannon, Turing, McCulloch, Pitts, and von Neumann enjoyed different forms of games.

  • Solving scientific problems was akin to a relaxing activity for some, like solving puzzles. Herbert Simon wrote scientific articles as a form of relaxation along with other hobbies.

  • While some polymaths embraced their wide range of interests and saw connections between different fields, others were concerned about being spread too thin. Some polymaths saw themselves falling somewhere along the spectrum between hedgehogs with a unified vision and foxes with diverse interests.

  • Even those seen as extremely diverse like Humboldt still believed in underlying connections between their areas of study. Others like Certeau used consistent concepts and approaches across different disciplines they engaged with.

  • A common theme for polymaths was not fully completing or publishing some of their ambitious projects due to their wide array of interests, in what could be called the “Leonardo syndrome”. Figures like Leonardo, Holstenius, Peiresc, Leibniz, Young, Huxley, and Marx all faced this challenge to some degree.

  • The introduction discusses factors related to where polymaths originated geographically and the environments that fostered polymathy.

  • Many prominent polymaths came from Germany, Britain, France, and North America. Other regions produced fewer polymaths, likely due to factors like literacy rates and access to education.

  • Cities with universities, libraries, and intellectual communities provided good habitats for polymaths. Several Dutch polymaths flourished in 17th century Amsterdam’s dense, urban environment with strong institutions of learning.

  • The potential influence of Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” is discussed, though it must be qualified and not applied to all Protestants or Catholics. Having a background as a Protestant minister may have encouraged certain work habits and industry in some polymaths.

  • Access to knowledge, opportunities for specialization, and remnants of the “man of letters” ideal helped foster polymathy in Latin America according to some theories presented. Two scholars highlighted for developing “Southern Theory” were Fernando Ortiz and Gilberto Freyre.

  • The passage discusses cultural and educational backgrounds that may have encouraged polymathy (being highly knowledgeable in multiple fields).

  • It notes that many prominent polymaths were from clerical or religious families, carrying on an intellectual tradition. Figures discussed include Nietzsche, Habermas, Weber, and Keynes.

  • Thorstein Veblen is referenced for his argument about Jews having a disproportionate role in modern science due to their hybrid culture between communities.

  • Homeschooling rather than formal schooling may have allowed more freedom across disciplines for some polymaths like Wren, Mill, and Russell.

  • Several polymaths exhibited early intellectual gifts as “child prodigies.” Education was very directed for some by intellectual fathers.

  • Self-education through reading and access to libraries was important for figures like Huygens, Vico, Johnson, Young, Wells, Homans, and Borges.

  • Dropping out of or avoiding university was a path for some like Hooke, Diderot, Hume, De Quincey, and Wells. A few like Priestley, Spencer, and Borges never attended.

  • Significant obstacles historically faced female scholars, but a few notable polymaths emerged from the 1500s-1800s, with somewhat more in the 19th century as opportunities expanded.

This passage discusses the phenomenon of polymaths, or highly knowledgeable individuals, across different disciplines and fields of study, in the 20th and 21st centuries. It notes that a larger cluster of versatile scholars emerged in this period, taking advantage of expanded access to female education and career opportunities for educated women.

Some key polymaths mentioned include Susan Sontag, Clara Gallini, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Luce Iragiray, Hélène Cixous, Juliet Mitchell, Julia Kristeva, Griselda Pollock, Aleida Assmann, Judith Butler, Margaret Boden, Mieke Bal and Jacqueline Rose. The passage asserts that independence, curiosity, and a drive to learn were crucial for polymaths, and some found independence through positions in religious orders or universities, inheritance of wealth, or remaining unmarried. Networks of friends and family members also seemed to support the development of polymaths over multiple generations in some cases.

  • C.K. Ogden later invented and advocated Basic English. He studied ‘moral sciences’, taught philosophy and English literature, and became a professor of education.

  • In Germany, the Frankfurt School included friends Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Siegfried Kracauer who knew each other from school.

  • In France, Georges Bataille and Roger Caillois were friends who founded the College of Sociology together. They shared literary interests but were also known for ambitious interdisciplinary studies. Another productive friendship was between Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

  • The relationship between William Robertson Smith and James Frazer can be described as master and disciple, a recurring theme in polymath histories. Karl Pearson was a disciple of Francis Galton. Lewis Mumford saw Patrick Geddes as a rebellious mentor. Networks of correspondents connected many polymaths over long periods as well.

  • Physician Ole Worm and Irishman Hans Sloane were early polymaths who moved between disciplines like medicine and anthropology.

  • Later, others like Paul Broca, Gustave Le Bon and Paul Rivet migrated from medicine to anthropology.

  • In the 19th-20th centuries, many engineers also became polymaths by moving into fields like economics, sociology, agriculture, computer science, biology, linguistics and more. Their engineering training helped with adaptation to other disciplines.

  • New disciplines emerged and provided opportunities for polymaths as the first generation of teachers had training in other areas, like Freud moving from medicine to psychoanalysis.

  • Anthropology also attracted migrants from geography, zoology and psychology. Sociology attracted people from engineering, philosophy, law, journalism and geology.

  • Libraries, museums, encyclopedias and journals provided habitats for many polymaths to pursue wide-ranging interests through roles like librarian, curator, editor and contributor.

  • Later polymaths often collaborated more as mastering many disciplines grew more difficult. Notable collaborations included Ogden with Richards, von Neumann with Wiener and Morgenstern, and Shannon with Weaver.

  • Throughout history, teams drawing expertise from different disciplines have been important for large scientific expeditions, industrial research labs, and projects funded by governments.

  • However, the explosion of knowledge has made it impossible for individuals to keep up with even a few disciplines. This has led to collective attempts to address specialization through general education and problem-oriented research.

  • Semi-formal discussion groups outside of academic departments, like clubs and cafes, helped encourage interdisciplinarity in an informal way from the mid-19th century onward. Examples of such groups are provided.

  • Over time, approaches to addressing specialization evolved from informal discussion groups to established interdisciplinary centers, area studies programs, new universities committed to interdisciplinarity, and interdisciplinary journals. This represented a shift from an age of institutionalized specialization to one of institutionalized anti-specialization.

  • Critics of specialization have used metaphors like fences between disciplines and calls to open doors between them through cooperation. The aims have ranged from pragmatic to ambitious visions of uniting knowledge.

  • The passage discusses several intellectual circles and groups from the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries that brought together scholars from different disciplines to discuss topics at their intersections.

  • Some of the key groups mentioned include the Berlin Circle in Germany, which included philosophers, historians, economists, and more; the Sunday Circle in Budapest, which included critics, sociologists, chemists, and others; the Prague Circle and Vienna Circle, composed of philosophers, linguists, and scientists.

  • Later interdisciplinary groups that emerged in the English-speaking world included the History of Ideas Club at Johns Hopkins University, the Pareto Circle at Harvard, and the Ratio Club in London.

  • These circles encouraged open discussion and exposed members to new ideas from different fields, illustrating the benefits of “cognitive diversity.” However, they tended to only last around 10 years on average before dissolving.

  • The passage also discusses broader attempts to unify knowledge through movements and organized projects, such as the work of Otto Neurath and the Society for the Advancement of General Systems Theory founded by Ludwig von Bertalanffy.

  • One of the earliest and most famous collective interdisciplinary research projects was the Institute for Social Research established in Frankfurt in 1923, directed by Max Horkheimer and involving scholars like Theodor Adorno.

Here is a summary of the key points about the study “The Authoritarian Personality”:

  • The study was published in 1949 and examined the formation of the authoritarian personality type from sociological, political, and psychological perspectives.

  • It was conducted by the Frankfurt School, an interdisciplinary research institute founded in Frankfurt, Germany in 1923.

  • The Frankfurt School returned to Frankfurt after World War 2 in 1945. In its second generation, it was led by Jürgen Habermas, a polymath who could be described as either a philosopher or sociologist.

  • The study took an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing and understanding the authoritarian personality, drawing on concepts and theories from sociology, politics, and psychology.

  • It represented an early example of using multiple disciplinary lenses to examine a complex social/psychological phenomenon in a more comprehensive way.

So in summary, the study applied an interdisciplinary analysis to the topic of authoritarianism, combining insights from sociology, political science, and psychology to provide a more nuanced understanding of the formation of the authoritarian personality type. It was a flagship project of the influential Frankfurt School.

  • Area studies programs emerged in the early 20th century motivated both by scholarly interest in other parts of the world as well as geopolitical concerns during times of war and conflict. Schools focusing on regions like East Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East were established in the UK and US.

  • During the Cold War, US government and foundations increasingly supported area studies programs, seeing them as a way to gain intelligence and understanding of other countries and ideologies. Programs on Russia, China, Latin America, and elsewhere received major funding. However, many resulted in disciplinary specialization within regional focuses rather than broader interdisciplinarity.

  • Some new universities founded in the post-WWII period, like Keele University in the UK and the University of Sussex, pioneered more integrative, interdisciplinary approaches in their structures and curriculums. Other new universities on the continent and in Australia also emphasized interdisciplinarity. However, some of these ventures also struggled with implementation or maintaining their original interdisciplinary visions over time.

  • Beginning in the 1960s, more traditional universities also began establishing new interdisciplinary programs focused on areas like African American studies, women’s studies, and ethnic studies that had previously been neglected in academia. These programs arose both organically and in some cases from student activism.

  • The passage discusses the rise of interdisciplinary fields of study, sometimes called “area studies” or “studies” programs, such as Women’s Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, Urban Studies, etc.

  • Many of these programs focus on topics that don’t fit neatly into a single discipline. They encourage an interdisciplinary approach by combining disciplines.

  • It mentions some examples like Cultural Studies combining literature, history, and sociology. Urban Studies involves many disciplines like anthropology, geography, economics, etc.

  • Journals in these interdisciplinary fields have proliferated to support the academic community working in them.

  • Research institutes also often employ interdisciplinarity, combining scholars from different disciplines to foster collaboration. Examples of prominent institutes from the 20th century are discussed.

  • History is highlighted as a discipline that has incorporated ideas from other fields over time, with examples like cultural historians drawing from anthropology and sociology since the 1960s.

So in summary, it outlines the rise of interdisciplinary academic fields and programs and discusses how journals, institutes, and disciplines like history have supported greater interdisciplinarity.

  • The passage discusses engagement between history and other disciplines like economics, sociology, geography, etc. It notes examples like the Annales School in France and historians like Asa Briggs who drew on multiple disciplines.

  • In more recent times, environmental history requires knowledge of sciences like geology and climatology. Historians of human-animal coevolution study biology. Some historians of emotions have incorporated neuroscience.

  • However, few historians can achieve the “total history” approach of Fernand Braudel who integrated many disciplines. The main result has been hybrid fields like historical anthropology rather than full interdisciplinarity.

  • It suggests more modest collaborations on specific topics have had more success than ambitious aims for a unified or post-disciplinary approach to knowledge. Today there is coexistence of disciplines and some interdisciplinary work.

  • It then shifts to discussing the current “digital age” as a potential third crisis of knowledge, with concerns about impacts of the internet and digitization on reading, attention, information overload, and the challenge of transforming data into knowledge.

Here is a summary of the key points in the passage:

  • The passage discusses the issue of bias in search engines and how companies like Google collect data on users’ search habits, known as “surveillance capitalism.” This raises challenges around data storage, analysis, privacy and verifi cation.

  • There is turbulence in the shift from print to online information. Some fear the “skill of slow reading” may be lost as people skim and scan online rather than reading linearly. However, skimming has co-existed with close reading for a long time.

  • We may be entering a “post-disciplinary” era where divisions between knowledge are less clear. However, specialization continues to progress as fields produce new areas of study.

  • Traditional roles for polymaths who had wide-ranging interests are under threat. Universities and cultural journals now favor narrower fields of expertise over generalists.

  • A few living polymaths are identified who cross multiple disciplines, including George Steiner, Bruno Latour and Edward O. Wilson. The passage wonders if polymaths will survive or become extinct given current trends toward specialization and digital changes since 1950.

  • Optimistically, the passage argues we still need generalists who can see connections between fields, and hopes the digital generation may produce new types of polymaths to fulfill this role.

  • The list includes various types of polymaths across different eras and from different parts of Europe. They are classified based on different criteria.

  • Many made original contributions to multiple disciplines like Brunelleschi, da Vinci, etc. Some like Huxley and Borges were more passive polymaths with a broad range of knowledge but no major contributions.

  • Encyclopedists like Alsted, Diderot, and Febvre who aimed to systematically compile all knowledge.

  • Classifiers of knowledge like Bacon, Comte, and Dewey who developed frameworks to organize disciplines.

  • Managers of knowledge like Weaver who helped disseminate information across fields.

  • Polyglots with expertise in many languages like Hervas are also included.

  • The list covers a wide range of fields from arts and architecture to sciences, philosophy, theology, and more. It highlights influential thinkers from the 15th-17th centuries who had expertise and interests spanning disciplinary boundaries.

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