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A polymath (a term originated in the early 17th century  from the Greek roots polymathēs, πολυμαθής, meaning "knowing, understanding, or having learnt in quantity," compounded from πολυ- "much, many," and the root μαθ-, meaning "learning, understanding") is a person well educated in a wide variety of subjects or fields. Polymaths are also described as persons with encyclopaedic or broad or varied knowledge or learning  (See  for examples of actual use). The term is obscure enough to be included in dictionaries of obscure words . The meaning of the term in dictionaries seems consistent with the actual and more common and informal use, according to which someone very knowledgeable could be easily described as a polymath or polymathic, especially if his knowledge is not restricted to one subject.
In other cases, polymath is used to describe a meaning in a continuum of concepts, ranging from the person who knows a lot about several fields of study or has a varied or encylopaedic knowledge (which will be called the first meaning in this article) to the person who has proficiency and competence in multiple fields or even to the person who has excelled in multiple fields (which will be called the second meaning). However, this distinction between the first and second meanings of the word might be subjective and even artificial since the existence of the last sense is only justified by those people who use the word polymath, in a more selective way, to denote someone with a verifiable proficiency in multiple fields, or, in an even more selective way, to denote someone with verifiable excellence or accomplishments in multiple fields (see the Etymological differentiation between Polymath and Polyhistor for an example of this distinction).
A more specific term for the second meaning is Renaissance man (a term originated in the early 20th century), and also in use are Homo universalis and Uomo Universale, which in Latin and Italian, respectively, translate as "universal person" or "universal man". These expressions derived from the ideal in Renaissance Humanism that it was possible to acquire a universal learning  in order to develop one's potential, (covering both the arts and the sciences  and without necessarily restricting this learning to the academic fields). When someone is called a Renaissance man today, it is meant that he does not just have broad interests or a superficial knowledge of several fields, but better that his knowledge is rather profound, and often that he also has proficiency or accomplishments  in (at least some of) these fields, and in some cases even at a level comparable to the proficiency or the accomplishments of an expert. The related term generalist  is used to contrast this general approach to knowledge to that of the specialist. (The expression Renaissance man today commonly implies only intellectual or scholastic proficiency and knowledge and not necessarily the more universal sense of "learning" implied by the Renaissance Humanism). It is important to note, however, that some dictionaries use the term Renaissance man as roughly synonym of polymath in the first meaning, to describe someone versatile with many interests or talents , while others recognize a meaning which is restricted to the Renaissance era and more closely related to the Renaissance ideals.
The term Universal genius is also used, taking Leonardo da Vinci or Johann Wolfgang Goethe as prime examples. The term seems to be used especially when a Renaissance man has made historical or lasting contributions in at least one of the fields in which he was actively involved and when he had a universality of approach. Despite the existence of this term, a polymath may not necessarily be classed as a genius; and certainly a genius may not display the breadth of knowledge to qualify as a polymath. Albert Einstein is an example of a person widely viewed as a "genius" but who was not generally considered a polymath.
"Polymath" is not synonymous with "philomath," a seeker of knowledge; a polymath is someone who is already in possession of great knowledge. The word "pantomath" has been used to describe a person who knows everything.
The Renaissance ideal[edit | edit source]
Many notable polymaths lived during the European Renaissance period, and a rounded approach to education was typical of 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. During the Renaissance, Baldassare Castiglione, in his The Book of the Courtier, wrote a guide to being a polymath.
The Renaissance Ideal differs slightly from the "Polymath" in that it involved more than just intellectual advancement. Historically (roughly 1450-1600) it represents a person who endeavors to "develop his capacities as fully as possible" (Britannica, "Renaissance Man") both mentally and physically. Being an accomplished athlete was considered integral and not separate from education and learning of the highest order. Example: Leon Battista Alberti, who was an architect, painter, poet, scientist, mathematician, and was also a skilled horseman. This section is a stub. You can help by .
The Renaissance ideal today[edit | edit source]
During the Renaissance, the ideal of Renaissance humanism may often include to acquire almost all available important knowledge, and since knowledge was limited, several universal geniuses seem to have come close to that ideal, with actual achievements in multiple fields. With the passage of time, universal learning began to appear ever more self-contradictory. For example, a famous dispute between "Jacob Burckhardt (whose Die Kultur der Renaissance in Italien of 1860 established Alberti as the prototype of the Renaissance Man) and Julius von Schlosser (whose Die Kunstliteratur of 1924 expresses discontent with Burckhardt's assessments on several counts)" deals with the issue if Alberti was indeed a wikt:dilettante or an actual Universal Man ; while a 1863 article about rethoric said, for instance: "an universal genius is not likely to attain to distinction and to eminence in any thing [sic]. To achieve her best results, and to produce her most matured fruit, Genius must bend all her energies in one direction ; strive for one object ; keep her brain and hand upon one desired purpose and aim." .
Today, since it is considered extremely difficult to genuinely acquire an encyclopaedic knowledge, and even more to be proficient in several fields at the level of an expert (see expertise about research in this area), not to mention to achieve excellence or recognition in multiple fields, the word polymath, in both senses, may also be used, often ironically, with a potentially negative connotation as well. Under this connotation, by sacrificing depth for breadth, the polymath becomes a "jack of all trades, master of none". For many specialists, in the context of today's hyperspecialization, the ideal of a Renaissance man cannot be judged but as an anacronism, since it is not uncommon that a specialist can barely dominate the accumulated knowledge of more than just one restricted subfield in his whole life, and many renowned experts have been made famous only for dominating different subfields or traditions or for being able to integrate the knowledge of different subfields or traditions.
However, those supporting the ideal of the Renaissance man today would say that the specialist's understanding of the interrelation of knowledge from different fields is too narrow and that a synthetic comprehension of different fields is unavailable to him, or, if they embrace the Renaissance ideal even more deeply, that the human development of the specialist is truncated by the narrowness of his view. What is much more common today than the universal approach to knowledge from a single polymath, is the multidisciplinary approach to knowledge which derives from several experts in different fields. This section is a stub. You can help by .
Etymological differentiation between Polymath and Polyhistor[edit | edit source]
Many dictionaries of word origins list these words as synonyms. Thus today, regardless of any differentiation they may have had when originally coined, they are often taken to mean the same thing (except when used by specialists).
The root terms histor and math have similar meanings in their etymological antecedents (to learn, learned, knowledge), though with some initial and ancillarily added differing qualities.
Innate in historíā (Greek and Latin) is that the learning takes place via inquiry and narrative. Hístōr also implies that the polyhistor displays erudition and wisdom. From Proto-Indo-European it shares a root with the word "wit". Inquiry and narrative are specific sets of pedagogical and research heuristics.
Here are two conceivable definitions of polymath. First, the overt 'greatly learned,' which would be inclusive of polyhistor (though not all polymaths would be polyhistors, all polyhistors would be polymaths). Another definition would include the adjunct of science, with the Greek mathēmatikè téchnē implying that the knowledge and learning are specifically about sciences or have been gained through scientific inquiry or, more broadly, are based in mathematical logic. Science is a somewhat different set of specific research heuristics.
List of some polymaths[edit | edit source]
The following list provides examples of notable polymaths (in the second meaning only, that is, Renaissance men). Caution is necessary when interpreting the word polymath (in the second meaning or any of its synonyms) in a source, since there's always ambiguity of what the word denotes. Also, when a list of subjects in relation to the polymath is given, such lists often seem to imply that the notable polymath was reputable in all fields, but the most common case is that the polymath made his reputation in one or two main fields where he had widely recognized achievements, and that he was merely proficient or actively involved in other fields, but, once again, not necessarily with achievements comparable to those of renowned experts of his time in these fields. The list does not attempt to be comprehensive or authoritative in any way.
The following people represent prime examples of "renaissance men" and "universal geniuses", so to say "polymaths" in the strictest second meaning of the word.
- Johann Wolfgang Goethe "Germany's greatest man of letters—poet, critic, playwright, and novelist—and the last true polymath to walk the earth" "Goethe comes as close to deserving the title of a universal genius as any man who has ever lived".  "He was essentially the last great European Renaissance man" 
- Gottfried Leibniz "Leibniz was a polymath who made significant contributions in many areas of physics, logic, history, librarianship, and of course philosophy and theology, while also working on ideal languages, mechanical clocks, mining machinery..." "A universal genius if ever there was one, and an inexhaustible source of original and fertile ideas, Leibniz was all the more interested in logic because it ..."  "Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz was maybe the last Universal Genius incessantly active in the fields of theology, philosophy, mathematics, physics, ...."  "Leibniz was perhaps the last great Renaissance man who in Bacon's words took all knowledge to be his province."
- Leonardo da Vinci "prodigious polymath.... Painter, sculptor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist, architect, philosopher, humanist." "Leonardo may be described as the most Universal Genius of Christian Times."  "He was a univeral genius whose outlines can only be surmised, -never defined"".  "In Leonardo da Vinci, of course, he had as his subject not just an ordinary Italian painter, but the prototype of the universal genius, the "Renaissance man," ..."
The following people have been described as "polymaths" by several sources, although there may not be expert consensus that they are prime examples of "polymaths" in the strictest second meaning (as "renaissance men" and "universal geniuses").
- Aristotle "He was a remarkable polymath. He made major contributions to logic, metaphysics, the natural sciences (above all biology), psychology, ethics, literary criticism..."; "Aristotle was an extraordinary polymath..."
- Benjamin Franklin "The ultimate creole intellectual... A true polymath of the Enlightenment style, he distinguished himself on both sides of the Atlantic by researches in natural sciences as well as politics and literature."
- Thomas Jefferson; some sources describe him as "polymath and President," putting "polymath" first; John F. Kennedy famously commented, addressing a group of Nobel laureates, that it was "the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House—except when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
- Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680): "a 'polymath' if there ever was one. He studied a variety of subjects including... music, Egyptology, Sinology, botany, magnetism."; Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (book title)
- Mikhail Lomonosov "Lomonosov was a true polymath—physicist, chemist, natural scientist, poet and linguist...."
- José Rizal (1861-1896): "Jose Rizal, the 19th-century polymath celebrated as the father of Philippine independence..."
- Herbert Simon: "Simon is a very distinguished polymath, famous for work in psychology and computer science, philosophy of science, a leader in artificial intelligence, and a Nobel Prize winner in Economics."
- Mary Somerville: Scottish polymath and "Queen of Nineteenth Century Science", Somerville mastered algebra on her own; studied mathematics, astronomy, and the physical sciences; and was known for the lucidity of her writings and translations in the physical sciences, including physics, geography, and astronomy.
- H. G. Wells "Fifty years ago, the British polymath and amateur historian was able to compress the history of the world up to 1920 into one volume..."
"Polymath sportsmen"[edit | edit source]
In Britain, phrases such as "polymath sportsman," "sporting polymath," or simply "polymath" are occasionally used in a restricted sense to refer to athletes that have performed at a high level in several very different sports. (One whose accomplishments are limited to athletics would not be considered to be a "polymath" in the usual sense of the word). Examples would include:
- Howard Baker – "Similar claims to the title of sporting polymath could be made for Howard Baker" (who won high jump titles, and played cricket, football, and water polo): 
- Maxwell Woosnam - "Sporting polymath is a full-time post..."
- Lionel Conacher
Nonstandard usage in commercial product names[edit | edit source]
Sometimes, the names of commercial products and services use the word "polymath" in a nonstandard way for mathematics-related products and services: "Polymath Software" offers mathematics software, "Polymath Tutoring" tutoring in mathematics, "Polymath Research" is a scientific consulting firm, and so forth. 
References and notes[edit | edit source]
- Eliot, George  (2004). Gregory Maertz (ed.) Middlemarch, Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55111-233-7. Note by editor of 2004 edition, Gregory Maertz, p. 710
- Shand, John (2006). Central Works of Philosophy, Volume 2: Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century, McGill-Queen's Press. ISBN 0-7735-3018-5., ch. 3, "G. W. Leibnitz: Monadology," by Douglas Burnham; p. 61
- Elmer, Peter; Nicholas Webb, Roberta Wood (2000). The Renaissance in Europe: An Anthology, Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08222-3. "The following selection... shows why this famous Renaissance polymath considered painting to be a science..."p. 180
- Johnston, Robert K.; J Walker Smith (2003). Life Is Not Work, Work Is Not Life: Simple Reminders for Finding Balance in a 24-7 World, Council Oak Books. ISBN 1-885171-54-4. "...the prodigious polymath of the Italian Renaissance. Painter, sculptor, engineer, astronomer, anatomist, biologist, geologist, physicist, architect, philosopher, humanist."p. 1
- Moore, A. W. (2001). The Infinite, Routledge. ISBN 0-415-25285-7. p. 34
- Heater, Derek (2004). A Brief History Of Citizenship, New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-3672-6., "Aristotle was an extraordinary polymath, although only two of his great range of works, which were probably in origin lectures, interest us here."p. 16
- Brand, Peter; Lino Pertile (1999). The Cambridge History of Italian Literature, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-66622-8. "Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), more versatile than Bruni, is often considered the archetype of the Renaissance polymath." p. 138
- Newsome, David (1999). The Victorian World Picture, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2758-9. "Coleridge was unquestionably a polymath, with a universal knowledge unequalled by any thinker of his day." p. 259
- Jehlen, Myra; Michael Warner (1997). The English Literatures of America, 1500-1800, Routledge. ISBN 0-415-90873-6. p. 667
- Steer, Duncan (2003). Cricket: The Golden Age, Cassell illustrated. ISBN 1-64403-237 - K. "Footballer, cricketer, politician and polymath C.B. Fry, now commander of a Royal Navy training ship" p.51
- Holloway, Sarah; Stephen Rice, Gill Valentine (2003). Key Concepts in Geography, Sage Publications, Inc.. ISBN 0-7619-7389-3. "The new Enlightment geography was probably best exemplified by Alexander von Humboldt, the Prussian polymath.... An inveterate explorer and a prolific author, von Humboldt was a complex figure: the archetypic modern, rational, and international scientist, his ideas were also shaped by the flowering of European romanticism and German classicism." p. 27
- Kennedy, Barbara A. (2006). Inventing the Earth: Ideas on Landscape Development Since 1740, Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-4051-0187-3. "Jefferson, Thomas (1743-1826). Polymath and third President of the USA."p. 132
- Rees, Nigel (2003). Cassell's Humorous Quotations, Sterling Publishing Company. ISBN 0-304-36588-2. p. 392. Note that Jefferson is identified as "American Polymath and President."
- Barfield, Owen A. (1999). A Barfield Reader, Wesleyan University Press., p. 47
- Findlen (ed), Paula (2004). Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Routledge (U. K.). ISBN 0-415-94016-8., p. 209: "the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher"
- Chorley, Richard J.; Robert P Beckinsale (1991). The History of the Study of Landforms Or the Development of Geomorphology, Routledge. ISBN 0-415-05626 - 8.: "Lomonosov was a true polymath—physicist, chemist, natural scientist, poet and linguist...."p. 169
- Euronet website
- Steve Trautlein. Work hard, play hard (review of Double Lives by David Heenan). Japan Today. URL accessed on 2006-10-25.
- Brown, James Robert (1999). Philosophy of Mathematics: An Introduction to a World of Proofs and Pictures, Routledge. ISBN 0-415-12275-9., p. 51
- Whitman, Alden (1972): "A World History by 42 Professors," The New York Times, July 18, 1972, p. 23: "Fifty years ago, the British polymath and amateur historian was able to compress the history of the world up to 1920 into one volume of 1171 pages weighing 3 pounds 3 ounces.... Now a somewhat similar book, concededly inspired by Well's, has been published. It is the work not of one man, but of 42."
- Cox, Richard (2002). Encyclopedia of British Football, Routledge. ISBN 0-7146-5249-0. p. 15
- Brian Viner. Sporting polymath is a full-time post for which only obsessives need apply: It is hard to get the head round the idea that one man excelled in so many sports. The Independent. URL accessed on 2006-10-12.: "I read a book by Mick Collins called All-Round Genius: The Unknown Story of Britain's Greatest Sportsman. It is about a man called Max Woosnam, who...toured Brazil with the famous Corinthians football team in 1913... won an Olympic gold medal for tennis, played golf off scratch, scored a century at Lord's, and made a 147 break on the snooker table."
- Polymath Software, Polymath Research, Polymath Tutoring
Further reading[edit | edit source]
- Polymath: A Renaissance Man
- "History", "Mathematics", "Polymath" and "Polyhistor" in one or more of: Chamber's Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, The Cassell Dictionary of Word Histories
See also[edit | edit source]
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