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What is polymathy?
Leonardo Da Vinci defined polymathy as "The ability to encompass knowledge about diverse fields in science, art and humanities", and such is the current definition of what a polymath is.
Birth of the polymath concept
The concept of polymathy was born in the Italian Renaissance (uomo universale), with the meanings already known as "Renaissance man" or "scholar", thus collecting the basic principles of humanism of the time: man is an all-powerful being, who due to his unlimited capacities had to cover all fields of knowledge and develop them.
Leon Alberti, one of its highest representatives, stated that:
The artist in this social context must not be a simple craftsman, but an intellectual prepared in all disciplines and in all fields.
Similarly, he expressed that:
A man can do all things if he wants to.
The first written mention of "polymathy"
The first time we see a title that contains the word «polymathy»In Europe was published in the year 1603 by the German philosopher Johann von Wowern, in his work "De Polymathia tractatio: integri operis de studiis veterum".
In his book, von Wowern defines polymathy as:
Knowledge of various subjects, drawn from all kinds of studies that spread freely across all fields of disciplines.
In turn, the philosopher lists erudition, literature, philology, philomaty and polyhistory as synonyms.
We must bear in mind that, although the center is in the Renaissance, polymaths include the great thinkers of that historical period, but also Enlightenment and of the Islamic Golden Age.
The term "Renaissance man"
However, the term "renaissance man”Began to become popular in the 20th century, and applies to thinkers regardless of when they lived (before, during or after the Renaissance).
Polymathy in the scientific community
The professor of physiology Robert Root-Bernstein is considered the main driver of the awakening of polymathy in the scientific community, by signing, together with many colleagues, various works of great importance that focused on the modern study of this aptitude.
In them, Root-Bernstein emphasizes the contrast that exists between the polymath and two other types of people: the specialist and the dilettante.
Difference between polymath, specialist and dilettante
You are a person who is able to devote a significant amount of time and effort to your hobbies, while finding ways to use your multiple interests to support your vocations.
Shows a lot of depth in a given topic, but lacks breadth of knowledge.
It shows superficial breadth, but tends to acquire skills simply out of self-interest, without thinking of broader implications or integrating them.
These concepts can be found in: “Multiple giftedness in adults: The case of polymaths. In International handbook on giftedness ”(pp. 853–870). Root-Bernstein, R. (2009). Springer, Dordrecht.
On the other hand, Cambridge Professor Emeritus of Cultural History, Peter Burke, calls polymaths an "intellectual species", even presenting a full historical account of its rise and fall.
According to Burke, in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, scholars didn't need to specialize, but the changes that occur from the seventeenth century such as the increase in knowledge or systematic investigation of the natural world, made it increasingly difficult for one person to master as many disciplines as it had previously.
Thus, knowledge was passed "from all academic fields, to knowledge in various fields", at the same time that went from making original contributions to mass consumption than others were making.
According to Burke, now it is easier to find “passive polymaths”, that consume a lot of knowledge in multiple disciplines, but that build their reputation in a single discipline, thus adapting to today's world.
Nowadays, a new conceptual movement is emerging that can resemble polymaths: multipotentials, which, according to definition of multipotential that they give us from Moove Magazine:
They are those people who show a constructive, exploratory attitude and in constant active search for the development of their powers, whatever they should be. In addition, they have sufficient aptitude and skills to make such development possible.
So we could say that multipotentials can become polymaths, and in turn all polymaths are multipotentials.
If you want to know more about multipotentials, this article can help you:
List of famous polymaths
We have mentioned some polymaths throughout the article, but the list is quite extensive and without a doubt, many have been left out. But, to get a general idea, famous polymaths were:
|Pythagoras of Samos||580 BC - 495 BC|
|Democritus||460 BC - 370 BC|
|Xenophon||430 BC - 362 BC|
|Aristotle||384 BC - 322 BC|
|Hypatia of Alexandria||355 – 415|
|Isidoro of Seville||560/570 – 636|
|Sylvester II||945/950 – 1003|
|Avicenna (Ibn Sina)||980 – 1037|
|Shen Kuo||1031 – 1095|
|Omar Khayyam||1048 – 1131|
|Hildegard of Bingen||1098 – 1179|
|Averroes||1126 – 1198|
|Ramon Llull||1232 – 1315|
|Nicolas Oresme||1320/22 – 1382|
|Leon Battista Alberti||1404 – 1472|
|Antonio de Nebrija||1444 – 1522|
|Pico de la Mirandola||1463 – 1494|
|Leonardo da Vinci||1452 – 1519|
|Nicolaus Copernicus||1473 – 1543|
|Galileo Galilei||1564 – 1642|
|Miguel Angel||1475 – 1564|
|Matrakçı Nasuh||1480 – 1564|
|Miguel Servet||1509 – 1553|
|Faust Summer||1551 – 1617|
|Jerónimo de Ayanz and Boumont||1553 – 1613|
|Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc||1580 – 1637|
|Marin mersenne||1588 – 1648|
|Rene Descartes||1596 – 1650|
|Samuel Hartlib||1600 – 1662|
|Gabriel Naudé||1600 – 1653|
|Athanasius Kircher||1601 – 1680|
|Pierre de Fermat||1610 – 1665|
|Blaise pascal||1623 – 1662|
|Isaac Newton||1643 – 1727|
|Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz||1646 – 1716|
|Johann kuhnau||1660 – 1722|
|Emanuel Swedenborg||1688 – 1772|
|Benjamin Franklin||1706 – 1790|
|Mikhail Lomonosov||1711 – 1765|
|Ruđer Bošković||1711 – 1787|
|Jean-Jacques Rousseau||1712 – 1778|
|Marie-Geneviève-Charlotte Thiroux d’Arconville||1720 – 1805|
|Jean-Paul Marat||1743 – 1793|
|Johann Wolfgang von Goethe||1749 – 1832|
|Alexander Hamilton||1757 – 1804|
|Alexander von Humboldt||1769 – 1859|
|Thomas young||1773 – 1829|
|Mary Somerville||1780 – 1872|
|Andres Bello||1781 – 1865|
|Charles Babbage||1791 – 1871|
|Domingo Faustino Sarmiento||1811 – 1888|
|Bartolomé Miter||1821 – 1906|
|Richard Francis Burton||1821 – 1890|
|Francis Galton||1822 – 1911|
|José Echegaray and Eizaguirre||1832 – 1916|
|Charles Sanders Peirce||1839 – 1914|
|Henri Poincaré||1854 – 1912|
|Rabindranath Tagore||1861 – 1941|
|Bertrand Russell||1872 – 1970|
|Pavel Florenski||1882 – 1937|
|Karl Jaspers||1883 – 1969|
|Ivan Sollertinsky||1902 – 1944|
|John von Neumann||1903 – 1957|
|Jacob Bronowski||1908 – 1974|
|Isaac asimov||1920 – 1992|
|Hedy Lamarr||1914 – 2000|
|Michel Foucault||1926 – 1984|
|Mario bunge||1919 – 2020|
Images: Public domain.
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