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October 06, 2009


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As an aspiring law-prof-polymath, I think specialization should be a great thing for polymathy! As everyone gets more and more specialized, nobody takes the time to look at links between fields. Take, e.g., evolutionary psychology; or econophysics -- a group of economists and physicists who said 'economics basically uses the math of classical mechanics, but what would happen if we applied quantum mechanics to economics?' Within natural science, take e.g. Edward O. Wilson's "Consilience" and other books. And distinctive, overarching ideas can emerge from work across related fields over time, e.g. Martha Nussbaum's cosmopolitanism, which is far richer and more attractive than its Stoic roots precisely because it's grounded in more diverse ground, reaching across a variety of humanistic and social-scientific disciplines.

Invest yourself fully in one discipline, make some small but important contributions, then move on to 'master' another. Advancing one little bit in a field from within could take a lifetime, but the polymath arbitraging on their knowledge of different fields can be just as iconoclastic, important, and prominent as ever. Even though they may not make conventional 'X's theory of Y' contributions to multiple fields, it's the modern polymath who is best poised to reorient the discussion within various fields.

Today's polymath may not be like Galileo and Goethe, making distinct contributions to the basic or 'pure' theory of various fields. But merely being literate at a very high level in several fields, and making convincing links between them, can offer a perspective that can influence the work of those who are producing (and not just consuming) the basic or core work in multiple fields.

Kim Krawiec

Thanks for this very thoughtful comment, Daniel. Yours is a nice -- and counterintuitive -- theory for why there is hope for the polymath going forward. More arbitrage opportunities in the face of increased specialization, no? My post tomorrow will address this a bit, as well as the opposite: the fear that specialists will attempt to exclude polymaths as outsiders. The trick, it seems to me, is how to structure institutions to get the best of both worlds -- the expertise of the specialist and the insight of the polymath. Probably easier said than done, but worth working toward, I think.

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