“Conversations with Living Polymaths
The classic living example of the intellectual polymath is Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics and philosophy at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is one of the most quoted intellectual sources of all time, but most remarkably he is almost equally cited across at least four distinctly separate academic disciplines. He has written over 150 books on a variety of topics ranging from syntactic linguistics and cognitive science to philosophy of the mind, intellectual history, mathematics, sociology and political science. He is considered to be a worldclass authority in each of the topics he has written on. Today, Chomsky is one of the most widely soughtafter public speakers in the world, and while considered politically controversial by some, he is generally respected even by his critics as one of the most important allround public intellectuals alive.
When asked who he considered to be the greatest polymath in history, he did not pick any of the great figures of the European Enlightenment. Instead, he chose an uncle who operated a newsstand and had not passed fourth grade. He was ‘one of the most widely educated people I’ve ever seen’, he said.
I grew up in an immigrant community – Jewish workingclass 1930s, mostly employed, but at a very high cultural level. They were unemployed workers, some never even went beyond primary school, but they were discussing the last concert of the Budapest string quartet, Shakespeare plays, the difference between Freud and Steckel and of course every possible political sect you can imagine. So there was just a lively intellectual life, which was considered normal for working people.
Chomsky says that even in his own lifetime there was a period when exploring, understanding and contributing to various fields was considered normal. Such activity was not confined to high level academia. ‘This was not considered strange, or considered polymathy, just normal educated concerns of an educated person. Now it would have to be broken up into professions’. Ironically encyclopaedic generalists were more common in everyday society decades ago than today even with ‘infinite’ information being at the fingertips of the layman. ‘If you look into the study of reading habits of normal people during Victorian Britain, for example, it’s really quite impressive’, Chomsky said. It was the kind of layman erudition that Jonathan Rose describes in his book The Intellectual Life of the English Working Class.
Chomsky suggests seemingly unrelated disciplines have a ‘point of contact’ associated with creativity and ‘an instinct for freedom’ which ‘in the days prior to specialisation, was pursued and was considered normal’. He says: ‘At the core of language – this is a central part of Cartesian philosophy – is the creative capacity to produce and articulate new thoughts comprehensible to others, not under the control of external or internal stimuli. And that’s at the core of a creative society, and a major criterion for the existence of mind’.
Chomsky explains why certain polymaths were supported by the establishment in the past. ‘There’s no objection to polymaths’, he says, ‘as long as they are obedient to the prevailing doctrine’. The reason why patrons (monarchs, universities) have given a platform to polymaths over history, in the form of a position at court or a professorship at an academic institution, is that they did not disturb the status quo, and in fact usually helped cement it through their work. ‘As long as they conform pretty much to the needs of the dominant ideological system, [the polymath] is not only tolerated, but encouraged. If on the other hand they go beyond it, it’s quite different, then it’s ‘keep to your last, you don’t know what you’re talking about’. This may be why the likes of Leonardo – hired hands with no evidence of contrary opinions – were allowed to thrive by their employers.
Chomsky insists that polymathy has an important value in society today and that the polymathic mindset should be readily adopted for personal and societal advancement. ‘I think it’s extremely important for people not to be restricted to a very narrow craft or concern – whether its carpentry or quantum physics. People should be involved in matters of concern to others and to society. They should both benefit from and contribute to other intellectual and cultural achievements’. And again he reiterates ‘actually that was considered pretty normal not long ago’. Chomsky says curiosity, openmindedness and critical thinking are the timeless attributes necessary for a polymathic mindset. Polymathy is ‘nothing more than an open, enquiring mind … simple virtues: honesty, openmindedness, integrity, hard work … pursue your interests, be openminded enough to question dogma, but serious enough to pay attention to the arguments. That’s always been true, still is. Now it’s called interdisciplinary, two centuries ago it would just be called being a cultured person’.”