The dictionary defines a polymath as a:
A person of great or varied learning.
A list from Wikipedia represents some of the most admired individuals in history. Where are they today?
According to a study by the Thomson ISI, a citation management company:
…there are 170 categories of natural science, 54 in the social sciences, and 15 in the formal sciences — not including subdisciplines, which can vary widely. So if someone makes a general claim about science or scientific practice, and wants to check that claim thoroughly, then 239 different categories of scientific activity…
It seems that as thinking cultures we are becoming more and more specilialized not only in science but most other fields. Is this a problem? It might be. What is lost is the ability to integrate the various disciplines into a coherent picture of reality.
As an example William James is one of the individuals in this list of polymaths. He is, without a doubt, one of the most quoted polymaths of the past. A Google search finds 1,750,000 links to his name. But William James was not just a scientist, physician, psychologist, and philosopher, he was also a religious scholar. He felt no bounds to inquiry. His work on religious experience is mandatory reading for those interested in the phenonmenon of religion. He also extensively expored the paranormal. I mention William James because in his day no one would even remotely have entertained sanctioning his broad efforts to explore the truth of things.
Apparently not so today. The academic climate today seems so bent on defending turf that a broad exploration of a disipline is chastized if not persecuted. Is the polymath destined to oblivion?
Today we have a few individuals in academia who do not accept the limitations imposed on them. They apparently have a higher calling than turf and are willing open themselves to whatever presents itself from their observations. They carry the torch for the polymaths of the past. This is not an easy thing. They are, in fact, often ostricised and even persecuted for their persuits, and yet they persist.
Society may not appreciate them at first. Their efforts at integration of the full range of human experience will no doubt be met with strong oppositions from those less gifted. That is the way of things. However, if the past is any indication, their persistance will eventually bear fruit. I, for one, admire those brave polymaths of today who put it on the line for their pursuit of truth.