A polymath : πολυμαθής,, polymathēs, "having learned much"; Latin: homo universalis, "universal man") is an individual whose knowledge spans a significant number of subjects, known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems. The term entered the lexicon in the 20th century and has now been applied to great thinkers living before and after the Renaissance.(Greek
Greek is an independent branch of the Indo-European family of languages, native to Greece, Cyprus and other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. It has the longest documented history of any living Indo-European language, spanning at least 3500 years of written records. Its writing system has been the Greek alphabet for the major part of its history; other systems, such as Linear B and the Cypriot syllabary, were used previously. The alphabet arose from the Phoenician script and was in turn the basis of the Latin, Cyrillic, Armenian, Coptic, Gothic, and many other writing systems.
Latin is a classical language belonging to the Italic branch of the Indo-European languages. The Latin alphabet is derived from the Etruscan and Greek alphabets and ultimately from the Phoenician alphabet.
A lexicon, word-hoard, wordbook, or word-stock is the vocabulary of a person, language, or branch of knowledge. In linguistics, a lexicon is a language's inventory of lexemes. The word "lexicon" derives from the Greek λεξικόν (lexicon), neuter of λεξικός (lexikos) meaning "of or for words."
In Western Europe, the first work to use polymathy in its title (De Polymathia tractatio: integri operis de studiis veterum) was published in 1603 by Johann von Wowern (de), a Hamburg philosopher.Von Wowern defined polymathy as "knowledge of various matters, drawn from all kinds of studies [...] ranging freely through all the fields of the disciplines, as far as the human mind, with unwearied industry, is able to pursue them". Von Wowern lists erudition, literature, philology, philomathy and polyhistory as synonyms. The related term polyhistor is an ancient term with similar meaning.
The word erudition came into Middle English from Latin. A scholar is erudite when instruction and reading followed by digestion and contemplation have effaced all rudeness, that is to say smoothed away all raw, untrained incivility. Common usage has blurred the distinction from "learned" but the two terms are quite different.
Philology is the study of language in oral and written historical sources; it is the intersection of textual criticism, literary criticism, history, and linguistics. Philology is more commonly defined as the study of literary texts as well as oral and written records, the establishment of their authenticity and their original form, and the determination of their meaning. A person who pursues this kind of study is known as a philologist.
Polymaths include the great thinkers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, who excelled at several fields in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and the arts. In the Italian Renaissance, the idea of the polymath was expressed by Leon Battista Alberti (1404–1472) in the statement that "a man can do all things if he will".
The Renaissance was a period in European history marking the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity and covering the 15th and 16th centuries. In addition to the standard periodization, proponents of a long Renaissance put its beginning in the 14th century and its end in the 17th century. The traditional view focuses more on the early modern aspects of the Renaissance and argues that it was a break from the past, but many historians today focus more on its medieval aspects and argue that it was an extension of the Middle Ages.
The Age of Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the 18th century, the "Century of Philosophy".
The Italian Renaissance was a period of Italian history that began in the 14th century (Trecento) and lasted until the 17th century (Seicento). It peaked during the 15th (Quattrocento) and 16th (Cinquecento) centuries, spreading across Europe and marking the transition from the Middle Ages to Modernity. The French word renaissance means "rebirth" and defines the period as one of cultural revival and renewed interest in classical antiquity after the centuries labeled the Dark Ages by Renaissance humanists. The Renaissance author Giorgio Vasari used the term "Rebirth" in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects but the concept became widespread only in the 19th century, after the works of scholars such as Jules Michelet and Jacob Burckhardt.
Embodying a basic tenet of Renaissance humanism that humans are limitless in their capacity for development, the concept led to the notion that people should embrace all knowledge and develop their capacities as fully as possible. This is expressed in the term Renaissance man, often applied to the gifted people of that age who sought to develop their abilities in all areas of accomplishment: intellectual, artistic, social and physical.
Renaissance humanism was a revival in the study of classical antiquity, at first in Italy and then spreading across Western Europe in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. The term humanism is contemporary to that period, while Renaissance humanism is a retronym used to distinguish it from later humanist developments.
Intellectual giftedness is an intellectual ability significantly higher than average. It is a characteristic of children, variously defined, that motivates differences in school programming. It is thought to persist as a trait into adult life, with various consequences studied in longitudinal studies of giftedness over the last century. There is no generally agreed definition of giftedness for either children or adults, but most school placement decisions and most longitudinal studies over the course of individual lives have followed people with IQs in the top two percent of the population—that is, IQs above 130. Definitions of giftedness also vary across cultures.
"Renaissance man" was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century.It is now used to refer to great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, a man of "unquenchable curiosity" and "feverishly inventive imagination". Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century that began in Italy in the Late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal.
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, known as Leonardo da Vinci, was an Italian polymath of the Renaissance whose areas of interest included invention, drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, paleontology, and cartography. He is widely considered one of the greatest painters of all time, despite perhaps only 15 of his paintings having survived. The Mona Lisa is the most famous of his works and the most popular portrait ever made. The Last Supper is the most reproduced religious painting of all time and his Vitruvian Man drawing is regarded as a cultural icon as well. Leonardo's paintings and preparatory drawings—together with his notebooks, which contain sketches, scientific diagrams, and his thoughts on the nature of painting—compose a contribution to later generations of artists rivalled only by that of his contemporary Michelangelo.
The Late Middle Ages or Late Medieval Period was the period of European history lasting from 1250 to 1500 AD. The Late Middle Ages followed the High Middle Ages and preceded the onset of the early modern period.
In modern parlance, a gentleman is any man of good, courteous conduct. Originally, a gentleman was a man of the lowest rank of the English gentry, standing below an esquire and above a yeoman. By definition, this category included the younger sons of the younger sons of peers and the younger sons of baronets, knights, and esquires in perpetual succession, and thus the term captures the common denominator of gentility shared by both constituents of the English aristocracy: the peerage and the gentry. In this sense, gentleman corresponds to the French gentilhomme ("nobleman"), which in Great Britain, has long meant only the peerage. In this context, Maurice Keen points to the category of "gentlemen" as thus constituting "the nearest contemporary English equivalent of the noblesse of France". The notion of "gentlemen" as encapsulating the members of the hereditary ruling class was what the rebels under John Ball in the 14th century meant when they repeated:
When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who was then the gentleman?
The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time, universities did not specialize in specific areas, but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a master of a specific field.
A university is an institution of higher education and research which awards academic degrees in various academic disciplines. Universities typically provide undergraduate education and postgraduate education.
Master is an English honorific for boys and young men.
When someone is called a "Renaissance man" today, it is meant that rather than simply having broad interests or superficial knowledge in several fields, the individual possesses a more profound knowledge and a proficiency, or even an expertise, in at least some of those fields.
Some dictionaries use the term "Renaissance man" to describe someone with many interests or talents,while others give a meaning restricted to the Renaissance and more closely related to Renaissance ideals.
Although polymathy and similar constructs like multipotentiality and multiple talents have gained wider coverage in the popular domain, polymathy, as a field of scientific study, is still at an early stage of development, with some researchers calling for more studies to further advance this construct and shed new light on topics such as creativity and education (e.g., Shavinina, 2013; Sriraman, 2009). At present, researchers studying this topic come from backgrounds as diverse as psychology, physiology, mathematics, management and education. Although incipient, the extant studies can already demonstrate the importance of polymathy as a concept that can help enhance our understanding of human diversity and of the elements that underlie one of the most human of traits: creativity. This section presents an overview of the contributions of six contemporary scholarly authors to the understanding of the phenomenon of polymathy. The criterion to choose the authors included in this article was the existence of publications in academic outlets focusing on the concept of polymathy itself (and not, for instance, on the biographies of specific polymaths).
Robert Root-Bernstein is considered the principal responsible for rekindling the interest on polymathy in the scientific community.He is a professor of physiology at Michigan State University and has been awarded the MacArthur Fellowship.
Robert Root-Bernstein emphasizes the contrast between the polymath and both the specialist and the dilettante. While the specialist demonstrates depth but not breadth of knowledge, the dilettante demonstrates breadth but without depth. Thus, both of them lack the active engagement in multiple domains and the conjugation of avocations and vocations found in polymaths.
A key point in the work of Root-Bernstein and colleagues is the argument in favor of the universality of the creative process. That is, although creative products, such as a painting, a mathematical model or a poem, can be domain-specific, at the level of the creative process, the mental tools that lead to the generation of creative ideas are the same, be it in the arts or science.These mental tools are sometimes called intuitive tools of thinking. It is therefore not surprising that many of the most innovative scientists have serious hobbies or interests in artistic activities, and that some of the most innovative artists have an interest or hobbies in the sciences.
His research is an important counterpoint to the claim by some psychologists that creativity is domain-specific. Through his research, Root-Bernstein concludes that there are certain comprehensive thinking skills and tools that cross the barrier of different domains and can foster creative thinking: “[creativity researchers] who discuss integrating ideas from diverse fields as the basis of creative giftedness ask not “who is creative?” but “what is the basis of creative thinking?” From the polymathy perspective, giftedness is the ability to combine disparate (or even apparently contradictory) ideas, sets of problems, skills, talents, and knowledge in novel and useful ways. Polymathy is therefore the main source of any individual's creative potential.” (R. Root-Bernstein, 2009, p. 854). In “Life Stages of Creativity”, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein suggest six typologies of creative life stages. These typologies based on real creative production records first published by Root-Bernstein, Bernstein, and Garnier (1993).
Finally, his studies suggest that understanding polymathy and learning from polymathic exemplars can help structure a new model of education that better promotes creativity and innovation: “we must focus education on principles, methods, and skills that will serve them [students] in learning and creating across many disciplines, multiple careers, and succeeding life stages” (R. Root-Bernstein & M. Root-Bernstein, 2017, p. 161).
Peter Burke, Professor Emeritus of Cultural History and Fellow of Emmanuel College at Cambridge, discussed the theme of polymathy in some of his works. He has presented a comprehensive historical overview of the ascension and decline of the polymath as, what he calls, an “intellectual species” (see Burke, 2012; 2010).
He observes that in ancient and medieval times, scholars did not have to specialize. However, from the 17th century on, the rapid rise of new knowledge in the Western world—both from the systematic investigation of the natural world and from the flow of information coming from other parts of the world—was making it increasingly difficult for individual scholars to master as many disciplines as before. Thus, an intellectual retreat of the polymath species occurred: “from knowledge in every [academic] field to knowledge in several fields, and from making original contributions in many fields to a more passive consumption of what has been contributed by others” (Burke, 2010, p. 72).
Given this change in the intellectual climate, it has since then been more common to find “passive polymaths”, who consume knowledge in various domains but make their reputation in one single discipline, than “proper polymaths”, who—through a feat of “intellectual heroism”—manage to make serious contributions to several disciplines.
However, Burke warns that in the age of specialization, polymathic people are more necessary than ever, both for synthesis—to paint the big picture—and for analysis. He says: “It takes a polymath to ‘mind the gap’ and draw attention to the knowledges that may otherwise disappear into the spaces between disciplines, as they are currently defined and organized” (Burke, 2012, p. 183).
Finally, he suggests that governments and universities should nurture a habitat in which this “endangered species” can survive, offering students and scholars the possibility of interdisciplinary work.
James C. Kaufman, from the Neag School of Education at the University of Connecticut, and Ronald A. Beghetto, from the same university, investigated the possibility that everyone could have the potential for polymathy as well as the issue of the domain-generality or domain-specificity of creativity.
Based on their earlier four-c model of creativity, Beghetto & Kaufmanproposed a typology of polymathy, ranging from the ubiquitous mini-c polymathy to the eminent but rare Big-C polymathy, as well as a model with some requirements for a person (polymath or not) to be able to reach the highest levels of creative accomplishment. They account for three general requirements—intelligence, motivation to be creative and an environment that allows creative expression—that are needed for any attempt at creativity to succeed. Then, depending on the domain of choice, more specific abilities will be required. The more that one's abilities and interests match the requirements of a domain, the better. While some will develop their specific skills and motivations for specific domains, polymathic people will display intrinsic motivation (and the ability) to pursue a variety of subject matters across different domains.
Regarding the interplay of polymathy and education, they suggest that rather than asking whether every student has multicreative potential, educators might more actively nurture the multicreative potential of their students. As an example, the authors cite that teachers should encourage students to make connections across disciplines use different forms of media to express their reasoning and understanding (e.g., drawings, movies, and other forms of visual media).
Bharath Sriraman, of the University of Montana, also investigated the role of polymathy in education. He poses that an ideal education should nurture talent in the classroom and enable individuals to pursue multiple fields of research and appreciate both the aesthetic and structural/scientific connections between mathematics, arts and the sciences.
In 2009, Sriraman published a paper reporting a 3-year study with 120 pre-service mathematics teachers and derived several implications for mathematics pre-service education as well as interdisciplinary education.He utilized a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach to recreate the emotions, voices and struggles of students as they tried to unravel Russell's paradox presented in its linguistic form. They found that those more engaged in solving the paradox also displayed more polymathic thinking traits. He concludes by suggesting that fostering polymathy in the classroom may help students change beliefs, discover structures and open new avenues for interdisciplinary pedagogy.
Michael Araki is a professor at Universidade Federal Fluminense in Brazil. He sought to formalize in a general model how the development of polymathy takes place. His Developmental Model of Polymathy (DMP) is presented in a 2018 article with two main objectives: (i) organize the elements involved in the process of polymathy development into a structure of relationships that is wed to the approach of polymathy as a life project, and (ii) provide an articulation with other well-developed constructs, theories and models, especially from the fields of giftedness and education.The model, which was designed to reflect a structural model, has five major components: (1) polymathic antecedents, (2) polymathic mediators, (3) polymathic achievements, (4) intrapersonal moderators, and (5) environmental moderators.
Regarding the definition of the term polymathy, the researcher, through an analysis of the extant literature, concluded that although there are a multitude of perspectives on polymathy, most of them ascertain that polymathy entails three core elements: breadth, depth and integration.
Breadth refers to comprehensiveness, extension and diversity of knowledge. It is contrasted with the idea of narrowness, specialization, and the restriction of one's expertise to a limited domain. The possession of comprehensive knowledge at very disparate areas is a hallmark of the greatest polymaths.
Depth refers to the vertical accumulation of knowledge and the degree of elaboration or sophistication of one's sets of one's conceptual network. Like Robert Root-Bernstein, Araki uses the concept of dilettancy as a contrast to the idea of profound learning that polymathy entails.
Integration, although not explicit in most definitions of polymathy, is also a core component of polymathy according to the author. Integration involves the capacity of connecting, articulating, concatenating or synthesizing different conceptual networks, which in non-polymathic persons might be segregated. In addition, integration can happen at the personality level, when the person is able to integrate his or her diverse activities in a synergic whole, which can also mean a psychic (motivational, emotional and cognitive) integration.
Finally, the author also suggests that, via a psychoeconomic approach, polymathy can be seen as a “life project”. That is, depending on a person's temperament, endowments, personality, social situation and opportunities (or lack thereof), the project of a polymathic self-formation may present itself to the person as more or less alluring and more or less feasible to be pursued.
One of the most recent studies on the subject is Angela Cotellessa's doctoral Dissertation at George Washington University.In this work, she conducts a phenomenological study focusing on the life experiences of modern-day polymaths. Her investigation focused on accomplished polymaths with careers spanning both the arts and sciences. The participants provided insights regarding their development and lives as polymaths (Cotellessa, 2018). Seven conclusions were drawn from her research: (1) to be a polymath, one must accept seeming unusual and sometimes contradictory; polymaths are intra-personally diverse—in other words, they have diversity within their own personhood (2) polymaths have a broad pool of experience, think both creatively and analytically, and juggle their many vocations and avocations by effectively managing their time; (3) being a polymath can be difficult but rewarding; (4) polymaths are analytically creative; (5) polymathy cannot be said to develop exclusively due to either nature nor nurture, and its continued expression throughout adulthood demands strong commitment to self-development; (6) polymathy distinguishes the individual from their peers from an early age often making them feel misunderstood; (7) family and financial resources influence the emergence of polymathy.
Aside from "Renaissance man" as mentioned above, similar terms in use are homo universalis (Latin) and uomo universale (Italian), which translate to "universal man".The related term "generalist"—contrasted with a "specialist"—is used to describe a person with a general approach to knowledge.
The term "universal genius" or "versatile genius" is also used, with Leonardo da Vinci as the prime example again. The term is used especially for people who made lasting contributions in at least one of the fields in which they were actively involved and when they took a universality of approach.
When a person is described as having encyclopedic knowledge, they exhibit a vast scope of knowledge. However, this designation may be anachronistic in the case of persons such as Eratosthenes, whose reputation for having encyclopedic knowledge predates the existence of any encyclopedic object.
An expert is someone who has a broad and deep competence in terms of knowledge, skill and experience through practice and education in a particular field. Informally, an expert is someone widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill whose faculty for judging or deciding rightly, justly, or wisely is accorded authority and status by peers or the public in a specific well-distinguished domain. An expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability based on research, experience, or occupation and in a particular area of study. Experts are called in for advice on their respective subject, but they do not always agree on the particulars of a field of study. An expert can be believed, by virtue of credentials, training, education, profession, publication or experience, to have special knowledge of a subject beyond that of the average person, sufficient that others may officially rely upon the individual's opinion on that topic. Historically, an expert was referred to as a sage (Sophos). The individual was usually a profound thinker distinguished for wisdom and sound judgment.
A genius is a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, creative productivity, universality in genres or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge. Despite the presence of scholars in many subjects throughout history, many geniuses have shown high achievements in only a single kind of activity.
Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed. The created item may be intangible or a physical object.
A child prodigy is defined in psychology research literature as a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert.
Bloom's taxonomy is a set of three hierarchical models used to classify educational learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity. The three lists cover the learning objectives in cognitive, affective and sensory domains. The cognitive domain list has been the primary focus of most traditional education and is frequently used to structure curriculum learning objectives, assessments and activities.
A paracosm is a detailed imaginary world. Paracosms are thought generally to originate in childhood and to have one or numerous creators. The creator of a paracosm has a complex and deeply felt relationship with this subjective universe, which may incorporate real-world or imaginary characters and conventions. Commonly having its own geography, history, and language, it is an experience that is often developed during childhood and continues over a long period of time, months or even years, as a sophisticated reality that can last into adulthood.
Robert J. Sternberg is an American psychologist and psychometrician. He is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. Prior to joining Cornell, Sternberg was president of the University of Wyoming. He has been Provost and Professor at Oklahoma State University, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University. He is a member of the editorial boards of numerous journals, including American Psychologist. He was the past President for the American Psychological Association.
The Triarchic Theory of Intelligence or Three Forms of Intelligence was formulated by Robert J. Sternberg, a prominent figure in research of human intelligence. The theory by itself was among the first to go against the psychometric approach to intelligence and take a more cognitive approach. The three meta components are also called triarchic components.
Robert Root-Bernstein is a professor of physiology at Michigan State University. In 1981, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as a "genius grant."
James C. Kaufman is an American psychologist known for his research on creativity. He is a Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. Previously, he taught at the California State University, San Bernardino, where he directed the Learning Research Institute. He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in Cognitive Psychology, where he worked with Robert J. Sternberg.
General knowledge is information that has been accumulated over time through various mediums. It excludes highly specialized learning that can only be obtained with extensive training and information confined to a single medium. General knowledge is an important component of crystallized intelligence. It is strongly associated with general intelligence and with openness to experience.
This glossary of education-related terms is based on how they commonly are used in Wikipedia articles. This page contains terms starting with G – L. Select a letter from the table of contents to find terms on other pages.
This glossary of education-related terms is based on how they commonly are used in Wikipedia articles. This page contains terms starting with P – R. Select a letter from the table of contents to find terms on other pages.
The ways in which societies have perceived the concept of creativity have changed throughout history, as has the term itself. The ancient Greek concept of art, with the exception of poetry, involved not freedom of action but subjection to rules. In Rome, the Greek concept was partly shaken, and visual artists were viewed as sharing, with poets, imagination and inspiration.
Multipotentiality is an educational and psychological term referring to the ability and preference of a person, particularly one of strong intellectual or artistic curiosity, to excel in two or more different fields.
Bharath Sriraman is an Indian-born mathematician, educator and academic editor, known for his interdisciplinary contributions at the nexus of math-science-arts, theory development in mathematics education, creativity research, and alternative education.
Founded in 1954, CEF is a non profit US-American membership organization based in Buffalo.
John Baer is a Professor of Educational Psychology at Rider University in New Jersey. He earned his B.A. from Yale University and his Ph.D. in cognitive and developmental psychology from Rutgers University.