A true polymath is someone who possesses three components of knowledge: breadth, depth, and integration. This is also known as cross-pollination. Such a person has acquired expertise in at least a few different domains, and can successfully integrate those domains together instead of treating them as unrelated and distinct subjects or skills. So a scientist who is also artistically inclined can use the latter to aid his research in ways that will make him more successful than the average member of his field.
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Michael Araki is one of the few theorists who has attempted to create a system that exactly describes what components go into being a polymath. Generally, the word polymath refers to someone who is intellectually oriented, or someone who is simply good at many different things, and even as an ideal that should be pursued but can never actually be reached.
The problem with definitions like these is that they don’t illustrate degrees well. Exactly how intellectually bent does a polymath need to be? How many different things do I need to be good at, and how can I measure how good I am at those things? Problems like these can make achieving the goal of polymathy harder, but Araki poses a neat solution to them.
According to Araki, there are three main components of being a polymath: breadth, depth, and integration.
Breadth is the largest category of the three, and consists of the knowledge you have of different subjects or skills. Often this is considered to be the only important component of polymathy, but Araki warns against making such an inference. Breadth only includes the superficial knowledge you have of certain areas. So if you’ve slightly familiar with Freudian theory, your knowledge of psychology along with other areas of interest forms a part of your breadth.
Depth refers to the vertical accumulation of knowledge in specific fields. This, combined with breadth, makes up the store of your total knowledge across various disciplines and topics. However, these two factors aren’t enough to make you a polymath. You could be incredibly knowledgeable about psychology, philosophy, and political theory, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re adept at using your knowledge in one field across the others.
This is where integration comes in. The final piece of the polymath puzzle rests in your ability to connect, articulate, and synthesize disparate disciplines together to be creative in novel ways. This combination of depth, breadth, and integration is very similar to the cross-pollination theory outlined above. The latter involves taking two divergent types of pollen and bringing them together to create something altogether new, and that’s exactly what Araki’s theory of polymathy states.
You take at least three different, disparate disciplines or skills, get to know them sufficiently well, and combine them instead of using individual skills separately. To take the example of Leonardo da Vinci, he wouldn’t be a polymath if he were just good at drawing, efficient at doing math, and possessed the ability to invent things. He’s considered a polymath because he used mathematical principles in his artwork, which he in turn employed to come up with inventions. He cross-pollinated (or integrated) his three skills in ways few else have been able to.
Araki’s theory of polymathy solves all of the problems we highlighted with alternative definitions earlier. It gives you an idea of how to measure your expertise in a given field and also tells you how skilled you need to be to qualify as a polymath. Both of these functions are served by the integration component.
If you don’t know enough about your chosen topics, you will likely fail to integrate them together. Likewise, if you are successful in integrating them, you can safely conclude that you’ve sufficiently mastered the topics you’re trying to integrate.
Guidelines and a Plan
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with what a polymath is and how anyone can become one, it’s time to put all the concepts to use and formulate actual guidelines for achieving polymathy. These guidelines rely on your ability to cross-pollinate different subjects and then integrate them in efficient and creative ways. Here’s how you can do that:
Choose the different areas you want to achieve expertise in. You should pick a minimum of three that are sufficiently distinct from each other. For example, learning about Freudian theory and Jungian psychology wouldn’t count since they are both subsets of the same subject. Instead choose a combination like psychology, philosophy, and political theory. Even better if these areas or fields have some relevance to your work.
Start by establishing some breadth, which involves gaining some superficial knowledge about the areas of interest you’ve chosen. The citations on Wikipedia pages for your topics are often a great place to start. You can also simply read the first five to ten articles that show up on rudimentary Google searches. At this stage, all you’re trying to do is get to know your topics on a basic level.
This is where we add some depth, and there are several ways you can do this. Depending on the type of media you prefer, you can approach learning about your topics in different ways. If you prefer reading, look for some books on Amazon.
Alternatively, you can search for introductory, intermediate, and advanced online courses if you prefer a more audio-visual method of learning. If your topics are academic disciplines like in our example, this should be fairly simplistic. However, in some cases you might need to use a combination of different resources like books, podcasts, YouTube, online courses, etc.
While performing the previous step, you’ll likely discover that your topics of interest are far too broad, and that you need to choose subtopics within them in order to gain a better understanding of the topic as a whole. So you might choose particular fields within philosophy like ethics or metaphysics along with, say, liberalism and totalitarian movements within political theory.
You don’t need to learn everything, so pick your subtopics depending on what interests you and focus on them. The more subtopics you choose the better, but at the same time, your choices need to be practical and manageable so that you can complete your studies and master the topics.
Now comes the trickiest step, which is integrating everything you’ve learned together. Let’s say you know some Freudian psychology, a little about totalitarian movements, and ethics. One good way to combine all of this is to study the totalitarian governments like the Nazis, their use of psychological repression as a tool to control their citizens and the morality of such tactics. This is close to the way the Frankfurt School investigated phenomena like the rise of the Nazi party.
Depending on which topics you’ve chosen, the best way to integrate them is to try and find points of convergence. In this example, totalitarian governments are by definition oppressive, and so we look at the psychological ways in which this oppression plays out. Oppression carries with it strong ethical undertones, but who exactly is morally responsible for the rise of the Nazis? Is it Hitler alone, his cabinet, the entire Nazi party, or Germany as a whole? One can always find areas of convergence; you only need to look diligently enough.
Let’s consider another example of how you can go about becoming a polymath.
Pick another set of three disciplines or skills you want to learn. This time, let’s assume that your interests are theology, philosophy, and logic.
Familiarize yourself with these three topics individually. Start with the basics. Since you’ve chosen theology and philosophy, you can study the problem of evil from the latter and the ways God’s existence would address that problem. The question here is, if God is supposed to be perfect and completely good, how can he allow evil to exist? Regarding logic, you’d need to study deductive argumentation to be able to assess whether claims related to God and evil are valid, sound, true, false, etc.
Once you’ve developed some breadth, establish depth. Go deeper into the areas of your study. Get to know the two major paradigms of evil, those espoused by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Hannah Arendt. Then dig deeper into the various theological arguments that might help you answer why these forms of evil exist. Lastly, use your enquiries into logic to evaluate the validity of these arguments.
We’ve already completed step four because we chose our subtopics early based on possible connections between these three disparate disciplines. The problem of evil is a major subtopic in both theology and philosophy, while deductive argumentation is one of three methods of arguing for or against a claim.
Lastly, integrate these three categories together. Use your knowledge of the three disciplines to ascertain whether there is any way of reconciling the existence of evil and God together based on logic.