Eclectic Curiosity

Polymath Probability

Posted on December 27th, 2008, by Steve Hardy in Archives, Miscellany. No Comments

An interesting thread at Ask Metafilter pondering the question, “Is it possible to be a polymath these days?“.

I especially like this particular response:

Aristotle and DaVinci were incredible, but they didn’t know everything. People are (rightly) so impressed with them, they base “what one should know” on what they knew. So of course it seems like they knew everything.

What did Aristotle know about cooking? Did he know how to make a sculpture? How much did DaVinci know about Africa?

There have been times when the topics studied at universities (or through other formal methods of teaching and learning) were relatively small compared to how many there are now. So if you define Renaissance Man as someone who is an expert on all the major topics taught today at, say, Harvard, then no there are no more Renaissance men.

But if you’re asking if there are people who know an impressive amount about subjects in many fields than of course such people exist. I was in college with a guy who was getting his Phd in Comp Lit while also studying advanced biology. And he was also a first-rate athlete and a gourmet chef. I think most people who know him would be comfortable describing him as a Renaissance Man.

I think Douglas Hofstadter fits the bill. He’s a Cognitive Scientist but also a gifted writer. He wrote “Gödel, Escher, Bach” but he also wrote a translation of Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin.” He’s a composer and he speaks and writes knowledgeably and provocatively about many topics. Paul (“Hackers and Painters”) Graham might fit the bill, too.

It’s also possible to be a dilettante, which is what I am. I would never call myself a Renaissance Man, because I haven’t mastered most of the things I dabble in, but I write books, program computers, draw pictures and direct plays.

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