AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

31 October 2020

Excellent.

An excellent book ...

Costica Bradatan's reviews ... 

To be a respectable scholar today is to specialize in a well-defined, rather narrow subfield, and to stay away from generalist pronouncements. Someone once observed about Leo Strauss that his knowledge was so extraordinary, and covered so many fields, that his colleagues considered him incompetent. Indeed, a reputation for encyclopedism can ruin one’s career. The credo of today’s academic orthodoxy was formulated more than a century ago by Max Weber: “Limitation to specialized work, with a renunciation of the Faustian universality of man which it involves, is a condition of any valuable work in the modern world”. Ironically, Weber was a compulsively Faustian man himself, shuttling between history, law, sociology, philosophy and political theory, among other fields.

That we recognize ourselves in an ancient dispute pitting specialized knowledge against polymathy is no accident. As Peter Burke shows persuasively in The Polymath, the debate has always been part of the West’s self-representation, recurring and amplifying over the centuries, “always the same in essence yet always different in emphases and circumstances”. Whenever we oppose experts to amateurs, theory to practice, pure to applied knowledge, detail to the big picture, we partake in an argument that started in archaic Greece. Burke uses Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between “the fox”, who “knows many things”, and the “hedgehog”, who “knows one great thing”, to emphasize what it is fundamentally at stake.

What has kept the debate alive is that, just as the West has typically valued rigour and expertise, it has at the same time been awed by an ideal of universal knowledge. Heraclitus may have poked fun at the polymath Pythagoras, but his fellow Greeks revered a muse called Polymatheia. A good education in antiquity was enkyklios paideia (which gave us our “encyclopedia”), an ambitious project that demanded the student go through the whole circle of knowledge. Much of our own “liberal arts” education runs along similar lines. People during the Renaissance may have occasionally smiled at Leonardo da Vinci’s unrealistic projects, but they admired him all the same. They could not help recognizing in him the embodiment of an ideal that was only too dear to them, just as it is to us. Dr Faustus was meant to be a dark, repellant figure (“Doctor Fausto, that great sodomite and nigromancer”, noted the deputy Bürgermeister of Nuremberg, in 1532, as he denied the scholar entry to the city), yet he has become one of our paradigmatic heroes. When, about a hundred years ago, Oswald Spengler needed a name to describe what modern Western civilization was essentially about, he came up with the term “Faustian”. We have been calling polymaths names (“amateurs” and “frauds” and worse), and yet we’ve never wanted to be without them.

Polymathy has played such an important part in the West’s intellectual and cultural history that Burke can only afford to cover the past six centuries. He works with a list of 500 polymaths, ranging from Filippo Brunelleschi and Nicholas of Cusa to Umberto Eco, Oliver Sacks, Susan Sontag and Tzvetan Todorov. In the first part of the book, Burke discusses his polymaths chronologically, grouping them under a specific zeitgeist (“The Age of the ‘Renaissance Man’, 1400–1600”; “The Age of ‘Monsters of Erudition’, 1600–1700”; “The Age of the ‘Man of Letters’, 1700–1850”; “The Age of Territoriality, 1850–2000”). What Burke seeks to provide here, however, is more than a collection of individual portraits of polymaths, picturesque, inspiring or influential as they may have been. One of the book’s major ambitions is to describe “some intellectual and social trends and so to answer general questions about forms of social organization and climates of opinion that are favorable or unfavorable to polymathic endeavors”.

In an important sense, polymathy is boundlessness in action; it is part of the polymath’s job description to disregard disciplinary boundaries and conventions, labels and classifications. There is something rebellious and anti-establishment at the core of any polymathic project. That is why polymathy, as a cultural and historical phenomenon, is difficult to systematize and to study with any degree of thoroughness. How is one to map out an insurrection against, say, the dominion of maps? That makes Burke’s efforts all the more remarkable. 

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