Ethan Fast

The Aspirational Polymath

09 March, 2012 -- Menlo Park, CA

These days, fields of study specialize intensely. It’s hard to achieve mastery in one field, let alone others. I’ve worked with professors at some of the best universities in the world, and even these successful academics will quickly acknowledge ignorance with respect to sub-disciplines of their chosen fields.

Knowledge has also fragmented within a field’s sub-disciplines. While in grad school, one of my research areas was Programming Languages (PL), and Stanford recruits brilliant PL faculty. Yet I had a conversation the other day, wherein one such professor admitted that it’s “hard to know what he doesn’t know,” about some other subset of programming language research.

Human knowledge has expanded so much, it’s impossible to keep up with the whole of one’s sub-discipline. To academics, this is hardly a revelation — things have been this way for some time.

Yet, a polymath is traditionally defined as an expert in many distinct disciplines. Perhaps like me, you aspire to be one? Well, good luck1. The traditional polymath is dead, and in the romantic sense, that’s a shame. Pragmatically of course, it’s quite the opposite. Specialization is a side-effect of the growth of human knowledge, and by most standards that’s an unequivocal good.

As a result, the modern meaning of polymath has devolved into something like, “jack of all trades,” a role decidedly less appealing. This sort of generalist still does important work, and often bridges the chasm between unrelated disciplines. But it’s not exactly a satisfying aesthetic. Maybe in modern times no one can embody the old meaning of polymath, but I can’t help but wonder: are all aspiring polymaths fated to become generalists? I don’t know.

The best we can do is strive for excellence in all that we do. Even if we do many, many things. So, perhaps the polymath is dead.

But long live the polymath.

  1. Singularity-era technology might put this ack within reach.