Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz: changed minds and designed mines

The polymath myth

Polymaths don't need to know everything
December 9, 2020

Who was the last person to know everything? Was it Thomas Young, 19th-century linguist, physician and physicist; or philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; or Joseph Leidy, American palaeontologist and anatomist?

Peter Burke, emeritus professor of cultural history at Cambridge, immediately dismisses such questions as an exercise in facile myth-making. For Burke, a polymath is a person who has contributed to several distinct academic fields. This frees polymaths from having to “know everything,” and allows Burke to build a case for restive curiosity, intellectual imagination and cerebral eccentricity.

Academic achievements, according to Burke, are helped by a promiscuous attitude towards knowledge. Pierre Bourdieu borrowed from economics to theorise “social capital,” Max Weber took the idea of charisma from theology and Leonardo da Vinci considered flying machines in terms of ecology. We discover the intellectual alter-egos of well-loved thinkers—for instance, Margaret Cavendish studied anatomy and Leibniz designed mines, and was in his time the west’s foremost authority on China.

The author delights in pulling at the stranger strands of his polymaths’ lives: we follow Olof Rudbeck the Elder, who dissected 400 animals to discover the lymphatic system, built aqueducts and tried to prove the capital of Plato’s Atlantis was located in his hometown of Uppsala, Sweden. Polymathy here is less an arrogant greed for knowledge (although that’s present at the extremes), but instead a benevolent habit of mind that spurns specialisation.

Our time is sceptical of polymathy. Academia is divided into myriad departments, each competing for relevance. And yet, it’s hard not to be won over by the foibles and ideals of men and women who tried to contain all within themselves. As Samuel Johnson said, “All knowledge is of itself of some value. There is nothing so minute or inconsiderable, that I would not rather know it than not.” ThePolymath dares us to follow Johnson’s optimism, making serendipitous connections as we go.

The Polymath: A Cultural History from  Leonardo da Vinci to Susan Sontag

by Peter Burke (Yale, £20)