Ambling around the house the other morning with the radio on, I heard a trailer for a documentary about Denis Diderot, the French Enlightenment philosopher, writer, and general all-round expert on everything. Indeed, the trailer described him as a “true polymath”, an expert at any field he turned his hand to.
Which set me thinking: is it possible to be a polymath any more? Can you really be an expert in a huge range of fields any more, or is the field of human knowledge just too wide? If you want to be a real in-depth expert in anything, it can be a full-time job just keeping up with everybody else. You might be able to skim the surface of another field, but how can you find the time to probe it deeply? Two hundred years ago, even, it was probably barely possible. Today, it’s not – the best you can do is know how to learn things quickly.
Then again, was it possible two hundred years ago? Was Diderot himself really a polymath? A philosopher and a writer, an art critic, but a polymath? How much did he know about science? He edited an encyclopedia, but didn’t write it all. From the point of view of someone whose main field of interest is philosophy or politics, or literature, he might seem like a polymath, just because he knew more than one of those fields; but he wasn’t an expert at everything. Was being a polymath ever possible? Could you ever be a master of all trades? How far back do you have to go?