The Last Days of the Polymath

An earlier post kicked off an interesting conversation on the meaning of the word ‘culture’.

Dev, Lichanos, Andreas Kluth, the Commentator, Paul Costopoulos, sledpress, Rosaria, zeusiswatching – all were so nice to participate.

Being ‘cultured’ – we discussed – does it make any sense today? Why does it call up “stuffy, out-of-date rich people in drawing rooms?” in the English-speaking countries (Lichanos,) while it is still (a bit) appreciated in Italy France or Germany?

Apart from any possible European snobbery, elitism – being a ‘man of culture’ is not bad in my view and it is not elitist in that it can now be extended to the great number, this great number now watching realities – while they could buy a library only kings could afford in the past: something like a failure to me, not many doubts about it.

Only less than a century ago the Marxists, in their utopian folly, desired the totally developed man for everybody, which Antonio Gramsci adapted with his mass Leonardo da Vinci concept, that I always found fascinating.

The problem now is that a modern (mass or non mass) Leonardo is less viable because we know a lot more in so many more fields.

So the big gurus or maîtres à penser, providing the big picture people are so hungry for, are disappearing. Void is advancing and people, more and more confused, fall into the hands of organizations like Scientology and similar.

However, is this trend really inevitable, one may wonder?

Here is a conversation over at Lichanos’ – Journey to Perplexity.

It is about the death of the polymath and it started around Lichanos’ excellent review of “2001 a Space Odyssey” by Stanley Kubrick.

Lichanos. Dev, thanks for the kind words, and I am very happy that you find my reviews interesting! I am a civil engineer – no connection to the film industry at all, but I came to my profession by way of studying philosophy and art history, so I am not, so I am told, a “typical” engineer.

Such a background used to be unremarkable for engineers, say, 60 or 100 years ago, but today, at least in the USA, it is unusual.

Dev. I know what you mean. I think that’s unusual every where in the world nowadays. Even considering the fact that all science and engineering had it’s foundation in philosophy earlier. I mean many scientists in the earlier times were originally philosophers.
But, I’m sure you are a very good civil engineer too.
Should I tell you that I studied Electronics Engineering in my undergrad too. :)
But I never worked as an engineer..
Anyways, I look forward to go through many of your earlier posts -especially the film/literature related ones- in the coming days.

Man of Roma. Lichanos, you are definitely not a ‘typical’ engineer. Dev, I don’t know you enough to say something.

We are shifting from Kubrick, but you are both evoking the polymath, he who knows a lot about a lot. This essay The Last Days of the Polymath is a good read (though Western-centric) and describes how the polymath is disappearing.

We Europeans had always the impression that this prevalence of specialization is due to America and her big influence. Although it may be simply necessary, with a corpus of knowledge so greatly expanding.

It seems clear, Dev, that by today’s standards many scientists of the past were polymaths.

Polymath is an English term. In Italy we say ‘tuttologo’ etc. Polymathy is still a bit ingrained in the Latin countries curricula. The ‘Liceo classico’ in Italy still educates the young in this way, probably because the universal-man ideal, the ‘homo universalis’, was developed during the Italian Renaissance – one example, I like to think, where being provincial could be an advantage.

ψ

I was hit in fact some time ago by a review on a book, Genes, Peoples, and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. The review was written by Jared Diamond, an American I think. Cavalli-Sforza is an Italian who started at Stanford a revolution in human genetics from the 1960s onward and basically proved that ‘races’ do not exist.

“It would be a slight exaggeration – argues Jared Diamond – to say that L.L. Cavalli-Sforza studies everything about everybody, because actually he is ‘only’ interested in what genes, languages, archaeology, and culture can teach us about the history and migrations of everybody for the last several hundred thousand years.”

The Indians should be naturally born polymaths, due to their holistic approach, although today, with the speed of their economic development, they seem somewhat obliged to imitate the Westerners and be monomaths as well. But there are so many polymaths over there!

Man of Roma. My comment was not a paean to my country. It was a paean to the Greek Paideia and the Roman Humanitas, where the Renaissance man comes from.

Polymathy as a tendency is also dangerous, it encourages flitting around, dabbling, people who cannot stick at anything (I know it too well), Giacomo Casanova (mentioned in the essay) being a high-level example of it: he was good in mathematics, in philosophy and theology, but not too good.

A metaphor in the said essay that I liked: flirting, promiscuity – they are no good. It’s the real polygamy, the numerous & deeply lived marriages that make a real polymath.

I digressed. I’ll then add Kubrick was a genius and had a tendency towards polymathy, as the amazing variety of his films attests – Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove, 2001, A Clockwork Orange etc. – as well as his passion for music, photography, he also being a great producer & marketing man (I heard at the radio he used to commercialize all the gadgets of his movies by himself, the heart-shaped glasses Sue Lyon wore, for example.)

Lichanos. Dev, MoR: No need to apologize for digressing here! If not here, where can we let our minds and conversation wander?

I love that word tuttologo!! Better than polymath, which sounds so dry to my ear. As for being spread too thinly, comme une dilettante, in English there is a saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none…” Still, the culture of the amateur and the dilettante are attractive to me as long as there is not too much superficiality.

I recall reading a critique of Voltaire once, I forget by whom, that railed against him: “The man has opinions on everything!” The implication was that he was flippant and felt the need to pronounce on all topics, even if he was formulaic. The size of his collected works was presented as evidence. Perhaps something there, but he was quite deep enough of the time to redeem himself, perhaps.

Regarding the engineering profession, I must say, 1st: I never could understand electrical circuits beyond the most basic. I understand water systems, and everyone says that they are similar, but not for me! 2nd: My father, retired, is an electrical engineer. He once drove me past an old industrial building in downtown Brooklyn where he said he worked at one of his first jobs after WWII. They build a computer there and had to knock down an exterior wall to get it out!

Louvre Pyramid, Paris, by architect I. M. Pei. Click to enlarge and for credits

In the pre-WWII days, “patrician” familes were happy to send their sons to engineering school. Now they only become lawyers or MBAs. It was a status profession. Some say that the dominance of corporate industry after WWII succeeded in capturing the educational institutions and molding them to its own ends, i.e., the production of ready-made technicians in large supply to keep wages lower. There is something to it. Within my sort of engineering, there is still a sort of envy of doctors and lawyers who used to be seen as gods, and are still, on TV at least, seen as worthy of celebrity and dramatic presentation. They tend to earn a lot more too! On the other hand, architects, a definite prestige profession here, get paid much less than engineers and always cut each other’s throats competing for business. I think the solution to this economic, status “problem” is to make it harder to become an engineer, to require additional liberal arts training in addition to the technical curriculum. This would restrict supply, but this is not popular position. Thus, the griping about “low status” and complaints that “nobody really knows what engineers do,” go on.

I conclude with a favorite quote of mine from volume I of the Gulag Archipelago:

An engineer? I had grown up among engineers,and I could remember the engineers of the
twenties very well indeed: their open shining intellects, their free and gentle humor, their
agility and breadth of thought, the ease with which they shifted from one engineering field
to another, and, for that matter, from technology to social concerns and art. Then,
too, they personified good manners and delicacy of taste; well-bred speech that flowed evenly
and was free of uncultured words; one of them might play a musical instrument, another dabble
in painting; and their faces always bore a spiritual imprint.

Dev. MoR and Lichanos, wow, what a discussion and exchange of thoughts going on!

MoR: Thanks for sharing your views on polymaths. I agree with you that for most people trying to be polymaths is not a good idea. I mean one life is hardly long enough to do one thing properly, so dabbling in various things is never easy. But then, the best of the people have been, in some ways, polymaths. You are very right that Kubrick was in a sense a polymath. Each of his films were so different from each other in terms of genre, treatment etc. What made him special was that he was a chameleon. Nobody could really guess what to expect from his films. He was an excellent photographer and editor too. Plus, as you mentioned, he took great interest in the marketing of his films, even designing the promos and posters.

Lichanos: Nice to read your views. My father is a civil engineer and was a good one. Well, understanding circuits was never easy for me either. I guess I concluded it years back when I finished my engineering that most people are not ready to become an engineer at the tender age of 18. I somehow finished my degree in time and tried to get away from the engineering side of things as soon I got an opportunity. Not because I looked down at engineering, rather I thought it deserved so much respect and discipline that I’m not ready for it. Sadly, most engineering schools across the world just make assembly line engineers who can get decent jobs and raise a family. But, not really nurturing questioning/scientific minds.

Similar to what you quoted in the end, even when my father graduated in the late 60’s in India, they used to be proud of their engineering degrees; even more than the doctors or even the bureaucrats of those times. This is not really true anymore.

Man of Roma. Dev and Lichanos: you both then confirm that engineers are declining socially. Damn. My youngest daughter is graduating in civil engineering! ;-)

Lichanos. Dev: On Engineers – yes, I think you hit it right on the head. BTW, I didn’t go to school to get an engineering degree until I was 23 or so. I NEVER could have made it at 18, even if I’d wanted to!!
MoR: I’m sure your daughter will do just fine. Everyone wants things built right! If she works in the field, on-site, it’s very much in demand, but a very demanding job! I could not stand it, I’m sure. I look out my window at the World Trade Center site and think, “How the HELL do they get everything to come together on time?” I’d have a nervous breakdown.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Previous installment:

Culture, Kultur, Paideia

Related posts:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People

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  1. I attend the McGill Institute for Learning in Retirement (MILR). It seems to me that 3 out of every five members were some kind of engineers. Those guys are the most inquisitive minds I’ve ever met. They tackle any subject coming up and generally do it well.
    They would seem to be the last people with a general culture worth mentioning.
    I’m not an engineer but I can detct “une tête bien faicte” (Montaigne) when I see one.

    • I have to be careful here. I know lichanos is an engineer and three of my dearest friends are engineers – each of staggering intelligence; one being hard headed – and not Calabrese!

      BUT, in my experience as a stock broker, they were stubborn and sometimes had a little too much faith in their abilities. One guy was convinced he figured out a way to profit off options. I told him if that were the case he had to write and book because he’d be the greatest financial wizard in history. As a lowly advisor, I couldn’t convince him of the abstract, psychological aspect of the markets.

      Needless to say, he lost cash.

      We used to have special meetings on how to deal with difficult clients and engineers were the profile we worked off.

      Quick shout out to Dev, I read your reply to my comment and agree with you. Montreal has a special thing going. Too bad the absurdity of language politics always lurks not too far behind. The folks in Quebec City, I think, I fighting a losing battle when it comes to Montreal. A city that willingly embraces being cosmopolitan.

      When I think of Montreal I think of what it must have been like in Lebanon pre-civil war and before that what Spain must have been under the Moors. There were many nationalities living in harmony there much like in Sicily over the centuries.

      Sorry for the delay in my responses as I’ve been sick, preparing for parties and engaged in a little exercise with a friend examining all the great North American pro sports teams.

      I mentioned in a reply on this thread that people don’t see the purpose in such things. Here I am reading all the great baseball teams since 1901 and figuring out which among them were the greatest. Guys at ESPN make hundreds of thousands of dollars doing this meanwhile I do it out of love.

      My interests are so wide and varied it’s made it difficult for me to zero in on a career. That’s why I always knew I had to own a business and I’m family getting a break.

      If I had someone help direct me earlier in my life, I would have definitely worked on a writing career and specifically in writing scripts – since I’ve written one and working on a second.

    • @Paul

      Those guys [the engineers] are the most inquisitive minds I’ve ever met. They tackle any subject coming up and generally do it well.

      I wonder why Paul. A terribly trained mind probably (engineer coming from ‘ingenium’- to Cicero ‘vis ingenii’ in fact meant ‘sharpness of mind’).

      I mean, these guys have received such tough scientific training -in order to be able to solve problems both concrete and complex- that I usually recognize an engineer when I meet him /her.

      I am a computer systems engineer. I passed dozens of nightmarish exams at an age between 45-50 – we needed more cash – BUT such an engineer belongs to a lower world.

      I asked my daughter why engineers are so inquisitive – she’s about to graduate as a civil engineer (the real thing then). Preferring her guitar rather than helping her dad, she mumbled:

      “WE are much better than physicists who – even when ‘applied’ – cannot keep their feet on the ground.”

      ____________

      @Commentator

      [engineers] were stubborn and sometimes had a little too much faith in their abilities.

      [We had to] to deal with difficult clients and engineers were the profile we worked off.

      Well, as we were saying with Paul, if it is true they are so mentally trained, it is no wonder. A mentally tough person is a tough client, so I’m wondering how your engineer client profile was structured.

      My interests are so wide and varied it’s made it difficult for me to zero in on a career.

      I understand. It can be a problem in North America, where companies need a totally specialised person. Here instead they receive only dementedly universal – so to say – persons THEY have to train at their own expenses.

      For example, I am graduated in arts and humanities but as a MCSE (Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer) I am / was more specialised and ready for the market than most computer techs from most Italian IT engineering universities, where students receive ‘principia universalia’ but zero knowledge of what is going on in the real world.

      I mentioned in a reply on this thread that people don’t see the purpose in such things. Here I am reading all the great baseball teams since 1901 …

      Baseball, Star Trek, they can provide joy, who’s against them? I have been -and still am- a great fan of Superman, I kept the ENTIRE collection bound with amore on my shelves. One day my sister out of rage ripped them ALL! Roman-like, I couldn’t but burn most of her skirts in the bathtub :-)

      Alessandro, it’s when the great number of people are 1) uniquely specialised (good chemists, good marketing people, good accountants etc.) and outside their profession 2) they only care about Star Trek and pop culture – that, to me, is tragedy, self-annihilation, you name it. It’s a world-wide trend now, ok, but it is possibly derived from America. Pls try to understand this is not European snobbery, or so at least it seems to me.

      • I don’t see it as snobbery.

        I have to find the time to properly convey the “structure” of our discussions.

  2. I don’t think there were ever a huge number of polymaths is one equates this with the definition of “Renaissance Man” e.g. Leonardo, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin (to a lesser extent), or Theodore Roosevelt. I’m sure we could add dozens of names to this list, but overall the list would be a tiny percentage of humanity.

    Certainly, the specialization of labor in the post industrial world (and it was already becoming specialized in the industrial era), has blunted the impetus for people to become simultaneously expert in multiple disciplines, often with an over-arching integrative perspective rather than just “cross trained” in multiple areas of a broader field. A “multi-disciplinary approach” is often heard of, and even attempted in University settings, but often abandoned in the work force as a matter of expediency.

    It is a trend that leaves the polymath actually suspect. To be an accountant or a computer tech, or a high school history teacher and “striving to be the best at whatever one does” has been an objective and a battle cry for the bourgeois for a long time. With only a small percentage of most nation’s populations involved in farming, where a broader set of skills is essential, the polymath is often seen as unstable or eccentric rather than learned and capable. That’s unfortunate.

    I think that situations will arise over time that will favor the return of the polymath, not as a dominant figure in the sense of an overlord, but to better direct or coordinate developments that go beyond just technological or political advances. For the time, the polymath (perhaps a truly “cultured” person in a sense)is an oft contemned figure.

    • You know what, Zeus? I never thought I’d read someone express how I see it so accurately.

      We do tend to look down on polymaths. If you’re a polymath and unemployed, you’re of little use to modern society. The accountant who knows of little else rakes in the money and is seen as professional. I worked ten years in the bank and was thoroughly annoyed at the lack of intellectual curiosity exhibited by superiors. In my mind, they weren’t “superiors.” They just knew how to play the game and this cause problems for me.

      I’m often told by friends and family, why do you read and write so much if it doesn’t bring you income?

      I like to try and balance and challenge myself. It comes in waves. One year I buy a guitar, the next I let it go. I’m athletic, but injuries have slowed me down – and so on. I could never really be a true polymath because my math skills are average.

      Baldassare Castiglione and Leon Alberti Batista may get the last laugh after all – l’uomo unuversali as it were.

    • @zeusiswatching

      I don’t think there were ever a huge number of polymaths if one equates this with the definition of “Renaissance Man”

      Yeah, the real ones are few. We don’t have in the 21rst century many Michelangelo, Tagore, Goethe or Stephen Fry.

      ________

      I feel providing feedback to you via a RANT, pls allow me Zeus, this being my kingdom after all :-)

      1) We should have more polymaths (we both agree). ‘Connections’ are even more needed with a knowledge base become too big.

      2) Outside ‘them’ there’s a medium polymathy to be developed, as the spine of a society in my opinion.

      The great number (the spine) should in fact be made of sound specialists + ‘men of general culture’ (as non superficial dilettanti).

      This, ehm, piece of advice from MoR, you know, it doesn’t come from modernity …

      the specialization of labor in the post industrial world (and it was already becoming specialized in the industrial era …

      … it’s the anachronistic social structure of South Europe that favours this polymath tradition, I’m afraid (I’m using *Magister’s* words,) while the big industrial development in the Anglo-Saxon countries has determined the need of a new type of man – the specialized man, as you said.

      What I mean is that the more historic a nation the more burdensome its sediments – idle people for ex. with no need to work because of their ancestral patrimonies, and their disinterested culture, their otium (snobbish; or honest, pure) like at the times of the Greco-Romans, elitist times indeed.

      Outdated view, for sure, since Italy is one of the big industrialized countries. But Sicily and the South haven’t changed much, and their influence is big, since they are part of our deepest soul.

      And, it’s not I don’t see the downside of a ‘high culture’ notion.

      As I said *here* at Lichanos’ the US “have this crush on pop culture” while here “it took Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco and other semioticians for the European intellectuals to become (slightly) aware of it. And they did it in such a sophisticated way, similar to the way jazz is regarded over here – mindless of its origins, like the gift of a supercilious God!”

      ________

      But great discoveries were made in otium and in polymathy, nonetheless, in my opinion, and almost all great ground breakers were polymaths who were given the possibility of being otiosi, either for their social belonging or for cultural institutions that paid for their idleness (institutions they of course entered as members of a caste mostly, let’s not forget.)

      So we agree we have a big problem, this extreme specialization.

      There are ‘scientists who write’, which is no Third Culture, this American great ideal. “These days you count as a polymath if you excel at one thing and go on to write a decent book about another” – they commented on the said essay on polymathy

      It is a trend that leaves the polymath actually suspect.

      It doesn’t pay to be a polymath in the States. Plus there is this corporative defence mechanism, I also read in the said *article* & its debate. The monomaths, “they don’t like people invading their turf, especially outsiders criticizing insiders. … In the current academic climate, a polymath is out.”

      Interesting but complicated.

      As for Italy, we still have medium (and some high) polymaths.
      Not that it does us any good! The gang of the mediocre is too strong, so the talented polymaths get isolated and migrate.

      Cavalli-Sforza reached fame at Stanford. Umberto Eco was accepted in his own country only after big international appreciation.

  3. What a truly interesting discussion! Similar topics have come up among my friends and I. I’ll be finishing up my chemical engineering degree next semester.

    While I think specialization, to a degree, is advantageous in today’s world with the amount of knowledge we now have in every field, it is also important to have some depth and breath beyond. So many new ideas and perspectives that come from varying fields are necessary for progress. While a team of specialists will eventually make progress on a subject, it won’t be nearly as easy as one man (or a team of men) who understand all aspects and the intricacies of their relationships.

    Engineers seem to have a higher chance of becoming polymaths, but the reason isn’t immediately apparent. Doctors, lawyers, and so forth can be just as intelligent, so what is it that makes engies special? I think, most likely, what sets engineers apart, and consequently fosters their ability and propensity to expand to other fields, is the thought process. When studying engineering, while there are equations and derivations specific to the field, what’s really being taught and nurtured is an ability to approach problems and information, from the familiar to the completely alien. I can’t really describe what exactly it is, but it’s there. This is why engineers can switch fields and succeed in completely different industries with relative ease, converse on any number of topics, have a range of hobbies, et cetera.

    • Welcome to my blog Brian!

      Thanks for your insights. I have unknowingly interacted with them in my comment to Paul Costopoulos, above.

      While a team of specialists will eventually make progress on a subject, it won’t be nearly as easy as one man (or a team of men) who understand all aspects and the intricacies of their relationships.

      I totally agree. Our brain has in my opinion superior ‘dialectic’ (=processing) power than any possible team-work interaction among specialists. One ‘great’ polymath seems clearly superior to any team of specialists. And a team of big polymaths? Wow, that would be a real Platonic symposium!

      It’d be interesting to know about the members of some of the most important think-tanks, whether they are more momomath- or polymath- oriented.

      Brian, you say what sets engineers apart is the thought process, their being taught to approach problems and information in a special way. Intriguing. Wonder if you could make an effort at describing it a little bit further (big request, I know) for us all (tho not via math formulas, please!) :-)

      Glad you came over.

  4. Hi everybody. I’m now leaving for Sicily for 3-4 days so my feedback might arrive only after this trip. Pls feel free to continue the conv if you like.

    Happy New Year to all of you!

  5. Perhaps engineering is a thought system which transfers well to various disciplines. Instinct is needed to cut to the essence in a subject and get to what matters and schools do little to nurture that instinct.

    • I think the greatest instinctual and knowledgeable persons are writers. I also feel doctors, speaking of culture, are the most natural of polymaths. My friend is a pediatrician and I don’t understand have the things he says and his knowledge on culture and life is stunning.

      Lawyers, engineers, doctors, writers – in each there are good and bad.

      • @Commentator, thanks for your reply. Yes, Montreal has it’s own spirit and I hope nothing will beat down that in the future too.
        I can understand what you mean by being interested in many things just for the sake/love of them rather than making any career out of them. I think very few people are lucky enough to do what they really want to do, without ever worrying about the career, finances and social standing or what people/family thinks or says. Especially in the creative/innovative fields such as writing, filmmaking, research or, even to an extent, entrepreneurship. I guess this has been never easy in any time or any place in the world. But, this is also true that people who really need to follow their hearts and aspirations without caring much for the diktats of our world, sooner or later, do find their way with different levels of success. Because, more you suppress these urges to learn, to explore, to express, more your chances of ending up with frustration, I suspect.

        @MOR: I completely agree that we need much more polymaths, or men of culture as you put, than what we possibly have now. I mean if everybody becomes a specialist in one thing or another, who will really understand the importance of each subject or field and harness the collective effort/intelligence in a constructive way? It will be more like chaos otherwise..something already happening, I guess. In today’s world, where access to superficial information is available to most people,this will be particularly dangerous because many pseudo polymaths will emerge/are emerging and not many can tell if they have true wisdom or just databases of information.
        Btw, I was thinking that can we call somebody like Obama a polymath to an extent? I mean considering his achievements as a very good lawyer, humanitarian and now a confidence inspiring politician (or not yet?) Also, I guess he has good taste in art and literature too.

        • @Dev

          I think Obama is a polymath to a certain extent. I don’t in fact understand why a person like Stephen Fry should be considered a genuine polymath, while Obama should not. Unless one deeply dislikes Obama and his policy. America is very polarized. And Italy too.

  6. Many engineers in the US have been incubated with the space age or cold war model. The engineer or scientist was created as one might create a machine tool – to solve a problem. For the world of nails, We make hammers – not polymaths. Someone else – ‘a manager’ creates a virtual polymath, bringing together the knowledge of many people to solve a problem. Perhaps the polymath will return to the workplace out of economic necessity. Or, maybe not.

    As we saw from Sir Ken Robinson by way of the Hannibal Blog (http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html) on TED, the nature of the knowledge worker is changing. Furthermore, an engineer educated in the U.S. must compete with those educated in India for a fraction of the cost. The hope of getting a lucrative, lifetime career as an engineer in the US has waned. Students I see entering engineering and science are in some ways more comparable to the undergraduate ‘poets’ of 1985. They are engineering or science students because they like it. Money won’t fully compensate for dissatisfaction. This might bode well for future polymaths.

    • Hi Mr. Crotchety, welcome here.

      Many engineers in the US have been incubated with the space age or cold war model. The engineer or scientist was created as one might create a machine tool – to solve a problem. For the world of nails, We make hammers – not polymaths.

      Excellent. Was also impressed by Sir Ken Robinson’s vision of intelligence & the type of education he sees as apt today (had to watch the movie twice, his British accent being too … tight, closed, for a non mother-tongue)

      ‘Men as machine tools’ – no good any more, beyond any doubt. A space age or cold war thing, yes, with roots in the needs of the old “Fordised” industries.

      I’m happy we agree about polymathy and hope it will come back.

      After all (pls allow my mania) the Greco-Romans conceived intelligence /education more or less like Sir Robinson does:

      1) diversity (visual, acoustic, kinetic – dance etc. – intelligence: Plato and Socrates loved for ex that every ‘cultured’ man could dance with grace; Plato added wine was good to old people also because it allowed them to desire dancing again),

      2) dynamicism and interactivity

      3) distincitveness – we cannot be moulded for just making nails, everyone having different talents: poets, mathematicians, warriors, musicians, politicians, philosophers, dancers, (lap-dancers) and so on.

      Thanks for the great stimuli.

  7. @ Mr. Crotchety:

    “…the nature of the knowledge worker is changing.”

    I always chuckle at this phrase. As a student of the humanities cast adrift in the work world of the 1980s, I first heard it applied by people like Lester Thurow, talkinga bout MBA’s, lawyers, accountants…and maybe engineers. Yeah, I thought, a knowledge worker, that’s what I should be!! And there I was mopping floors and planning to study civil engineering!

    Yep, I got with the program, so now I don’t design anything, nothing real, that is. I work with computers to make virtual maps, virtual structures. I’ve reached my professional goal: I only deal with DATA!

    Sometimes when people ask me just what I do, when I’m working, that is, I tell them that “I move numbers around to give people the illusion of posessing knowledge.” That’s what being a knowledge worker feels like to me much of the time.

    A young fellow I worked with years ago used to refer to his job as “going to work in the data mines.” Didn’t John Lennon say, “But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see!”

    • John Lennon was a genius and a polymath in his own way. That’s way he was killed.It was a plot, almost darn sure (tho no evidence of course). A plot justified by some realpolitik, I can understand, but not that much justified. I’m digressing.

  8. Funny how words can be used to mean just anything. “Knowledge worker”, for instance. I feel that phrase was highjacked by pseudointellectuals to describe people out of sophisticated academia. Aren’t we all knowledge workers? Have you ever tried doing something you knew absolutely nothing about? Even mopping floors to be done well requires knowledge about the type of flooring and the instruments suited to that flooring.
    Carpentry, in my book, is just as knowledge intensive as anything else; a good carpenter is not just anybody and not everyone can master the trade.
    That middle ages cathedral sculptor working at a figure that nobody would see where it was and strove to make it perfect because he “was building a cathedral” was just as much a humanist and a philosopher as the Sorbonne professor trying to mould students with “une tête bien faicte”.
    Since any endeavor calls for some knowledge…we are all “knowledge workers” regardless of our academic background.
    Those guys driving eighteen wheelers in a n out of trafic and through narrow streets and sharp curves are professionals and I respect their knowledge of geometry and their acute concept of space, I could not do it.
    OK, enough ruffled feathers for now.

    • @Paul:

      Uhh…just want to clarify here: I agree with his skewering of the term “knowledge worker.” Hope he, and others, didn’t think I was endorsing it!

      • No, no Lichanos, I was just expressing my thoughts about the question.

  9. @Lichanos
    @Paul

    Didn’t have the time to read carefully your 2 comments [family is chasing me], so I might say a stupidity, but I think the *movie* Mr. Crotchety linked to says exactly what Paul is saying now. Universities created (and praised) a type of man and intelligence that is not apt any more. Not apt …ok, said in the Roman way, fa cacare (ça fait chier). Movie concept too long to tell but as simple as cacca is. Check for yourselves if your will.

  10. I am waiting for you to write about your trip to Syracuse for New Year’s.

  11. Wow! I’m all tuckered out just reading this. Interesting polemic.

    Nobody in this day and age can know everything or has time to keep up with everything the way people could a century ago. Besides, even then, those folks who pursued esoteric studies came from the upper classes.

    They set up experiments in their spare houses with abundant resources and time. Everything else stopped. No children to take care of; no job to go to; no mortgage payment to worry about. Elite and well-to-do enjoyed a freedom very, very few people have these days.

    So, if one were to pursue knowledge for knowledge sake, an eternal student state, someone else would have to support him/her.

    Even our best fellowships/grants/honoraria at the University level, are granted with strings attached, with deadlines, specific objectives, often related to the objectives promoting products or services connected to the sponsorships.

    My husband was a scientist at Caltech, a premier research institution in California, where more Nobel Prize Winners in all areas grace the halls. Research was defined and outlined by pharmaceuticals and military projects more often than not. If a scientist wanted to run experiments in an esoteric field, he had to find his own funding.

    These days, the interests of commercial producers are superimposed on the interests of pure research, those things that add up slowly, or never.

    Polymaths are on their own.

    Ah, the good old times!

    • Well, they might come back, one never knows. Watch the movie, if you have time and will, I was indicating to Lichanos and Paul. It is time for me to go to bed dear Rosaria. It is 1 am in the morning. Buonanotte! (Buonasera!)

  12. [...] I didn’t though focus on erotic art only (of which I know so little). I am a dilettante polymath, after all. That is why I am afraid I totally confused (or disappointed) [...]

  13. [...] The Last Days of the Polymath [...]

  14. [...] with my commentators (among other themes) at the time of Culture, Kultur, Paideia and The Last Days of the Polymath. As for culture (in the sense of individual general knowledge & refinement) Lichanos had [...]

  15. [...] Note. I had discussed ‘West and US Seduction’ with my commentators (among other themes) at the time of Culture, Kultur, Paideia and The Last Days of the Polymath. [...]

  16. […] and not ALL of them?” Manius: “Because Sir Rabindranath Tagore is Bengali: a genius (and polymath) shedding light, among the rest, on Love in His sublime way. And MoR knows only two Bengali […]

  17. […] Sled has been very much present in almost ALL discussions here and elsewhere, she being a valuable polymath (with high-level musical knowledge also,) capable of talking about everything (as our blogosphere […]


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