Back in ancient Greece it was clear when you would become a polymath. You would either go to Plato’s academy or Aristotle’s lyceum. These were like the first universities. And there you would study pretty much everything that was known at the time, about mathematics, astronomy, natural science, and much more. You would gain universal knowledge, and that is what used to be the point of a university. It is called university because you would learn universal knowledge.
But times have changed. Between the 16th and 18th century the scientific revolution occurred and this would drastically change the way we organize our knowledge. The scientific revolution was a great time, many researchers thought of new ideas about the world and the universe, so many new inventions were made like telescopes and industrial machines, and our knowledge was expanding drastically as philosophers and scientists were writing many books about the things they discovered.
This was all great and it paved the way for modern society as we know it today. There would be no internet, beautiful architecture or even televisions without these advances in our knowledge. But, we need to become aware that something drastically changed here. Our knowledge became so vast that it became increasingly difficult to know everything. So, universities started to specialize. You would go to university and learn one subject really well, instead of learning about multiple fields all at once.
So, universities aren’t even real universities anymore. The point was that you would gather universal knowledge, but now all you get is specialized knowledge. That’s not necessarily bad, it’s understandable that universities do that. There is just so much knowledge out there that it is impossible to teach everything. But we need to realize that this limitation of the university exists, and that we need organizations that can fill in this gap.
Where Did The Polymaths Go?
So, right now there is not really an organization out there which can help guide you to become a polymath. It used to be the university, but it stopped after the scientific revolution. And people sort of just forgot about this. They thought that if everyone would just specialize, all would be good, and the world can keep progressing like it did in the past.
But there are two reasons why this is not going fully in the right direction. First of all, it has become increasingly difficult for scientists of different specializations to communicate with each other. They all have their own particular terms and language, and it is often difficult or even impossible to bring their viewpoints together.
That is how fragmented science has become. Scientists are just living in their own specialized bubble, and it is hard to figure out wat their findings mean in relation to other aspects of the world, let alone the world as a whole. We need polymaths to figure this out.
This brings us to the second problem of the fragmentation of the sciences, and this is that some important questions fundamentally cannot be answered by specialization. Some questions are just so broad that they need the perspective of someone that has knowledge in multiple fields. For example, a friend of mine asked the question the other day, is Spinoza’s concept of conatus in violation of the second law of thermodynamics? And I thought to myself, this is exactly the type of question someone who is knowledgeable in philosophy and physics could answer. You need expertise in both fields to answer this question.
This is an example of a question that requires expertise of two different fields, but there are also questions that require knowledge of many more. For example, if you would ever want to answer a question like, what is reality? Like what is it actually. Is it a simulation? Is it just a bunch of particles floating around? Is it something made by god with a divine purpose that we just can’t understand? I think that providing a satisfying answer to this question will require bringing together knowledge from many different areas. A specialized perspective is only part of the answer, and it is not enough.
We need polymaths to answer questions like these and related ones. What is the best way to organize society? What is good and what is bad? What is human nature? Etcetera. These questions are too broad to be answered by a specialized person, who can only give a partial answer from their own point of view. Polymaths can answer these questions with a much more complete perspective.