Specialisation vs. Polymathy: which drives progress more?
A common theme throughout humanity’s existence is the nature of progress and how it manifests. This is doubtless visible in science and technology, moderate in institutional matters and may even perhaps extend to ethics. Interdisciplinary questions arise over the lifeblood of this moment, and the way this progress is gained. One narrative applauds the unique occupations that people select. Through experience, workers accrue more knowledge and skills, passing them onto more junior workers. This is the specialisation narrative. However, there is also a more heroic ideal, one that appeals more to the psyche. That is, individual men, through their talents & diverse capabilities, orchestrate brilliant actions or create works of genius. Such output, the story argues, ultimately allows for civilisations to move to a higher level of sophistication. Perhaps, Alberti’s quotation summarises this sentiment best: Man can do all things if he but wills them. The challenge with such a question, that subsequent enquiry cannot shirk, is the diverging approaches one takes in searching for answers. Indeed, polymathy requires one to be anecdotal but not general; specialisation — quantitative but impersonal.
Beginning with specialisation, economic systems rely heavily on this phenomenon, even in command economies. Most young people are directed to training schemes and universities, through which they are prepared for a profession. These schemes not only provide specialists, which are much needed in the workforce, but also offers participants direction, when much of youth lacks it. The argument for specialisation is intuitive and is perhaps best provided in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Beyond the individual, extended benefits arise from groups of people specialising, such as firms (like through the cost-cutting yielded by vertical and horizontal integration) or certain geographic locales (profitting from external economies of scale). Surprisingly, such arguments can extend to entire nations, with Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage illustrating why nations’ specialisation leads to welfare gains through trade.
Progress, in its speed, preserves different forms. A slow and steady rate of innovation, seems to be the preserve of the specialised approaches. However, there have been moments historically where, courtesy of industry and fortune, sweeping paradigm shifts occur, spanning various fields. Sometimes these are confined to certain settings (like the court at Urbino), less to extraordinarily productive individuals. It is easy to descend into Golden Age or heroic narratives when formulating these postulates, and although one may revel in the glory of discovery and scholarship, we must remain faithful to objectivity in our quest for the truth. Indeed, who can deny the breakthroughs of Leonardo, sweeping from art to arms? Or of Franklin, furthering science and practising statesmanship? Certain people have succeeded in making discoveries across many different, and sometimes uncomplementary fields. These thoughts are evident in our lives as well: we know people who are both fine sportsmen and academically accomplished. These term used for such individually is Renaissance men. The term is a misnomer, not only because of sex, but also through the era invoked. The Renaissance was in fact filled with a disproportionately high number of polymaths, even though this may only persist through the extensive documentation in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Nonetheless, we still see such talented individuals past that era, and even in the present day.
Progress is just a word if we do not look at its effects. By and large, it occurs through gradual finetuning and discovering new techniques, rather than through singular works of genius. The metrics which one uses to measure progress are also unclear, even though at its base, one progresses when one acquires more of what one desires. In this essay, it seems as if I have been discussing 2 different visions of progress: the first is where radical innovation occurs, and the second is the gradual improvement and growth of existing systems. Contrasting aesthetics emerge in light of this: the former captures the idea of knowledge emanating from a single fountainhead; and the latter present a system working together in appropriate synchronicity.
It seems we then have an answer to our question. Polymaths drive progress only in the creation of individual masterpieces; & are unlikely to do so in the creation of vast numbers of output. Perhaps, a more interesting idea to explore in future is why polymathy persists through the ages, despite changes in economic systems. There are certain constants to the human condition, and polymathy may be one of them. An interesting pattern to note is the upbringing of many. Many polymaths were born into middle-class familites, giving the children the materials for educational exploration.