Let us now praise famous polymaths

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For anyone who has felt a little bruised by our world’s insistence on specialisation, here’s a powerful antidote in the current issue of More Intelligent Life (a sibling of The Economist), celebrating those of us who like to spread ourselves around, intellectually speaking. Despite its doomsday title (“The Last Days of the Polymath”), the article extolls the benefits to cultural history of those thinkers who are bored by a career-long focus on one field. Playwright/scientist/Paul Klee collector Carl Djerassi puts it this way:

I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity. To me, promiscuity is a way of flitting around. Polygamy, serious polygamy, is where you have various marriages and each of them is important.

I’ve often felt like a freak because of my diverse interests, but I’m convinced it keeps my brain engaged with my environment (social, political, cultural) and helps me connect otherwise disparate or discrete ideas. Writing and editing, philanthropy projects, jazz music reviewer/aficionado, competitive tennis player, pianist; these hardly strike me as an especially eclectic, impressive or unusual collection of interests. At best, I’m told I’m a Renaissance woman; at worst, I continually fail to answer the question that’s most often posed to me: “So what is it that you do?” In Djerassi’s scheme I would be considered more of a dabbler, I guess, but even in my professional life I am always wearing at least two hats – literary and philanthropic – and that causes enough confusion as it is.

The article ends with Isaiah Berlin’s famous quote about the thinkers of the world, which he divided into foxes and hedgehogs:

Foxes, he wrote, know many things; whereas hedgehogs know one big thing. The foxes used to roam free across the hills. Today the hedgehogs rule.

The article in More Intelligent Life led me to Project Polymath, which is a not-for-profit aiming to train a new generation of Renaissance thinkers. I would love to hear from foxes and hedgehogs alike.

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