I’ve always wanted to be a polymath -you know, a person of great and varied learning- but for some reason, it has escaped me. I’m okay for a few things, I guess, although never enough to brag about, but any real multiplicity seems to elude me. I suppose if there weren’t a time limit on knowledge and a need to retain it for long periods -more than a day or two, say- I might just squeak in. I mean, I read a lot, but the details don’t stick around when something new comes along.
For years I’ve comforted myself with the thought that what I’ve learned is still in there somewhere -filed like recipes on an inner shelf- and that maybe they incrementally affect the next thing I learn: a sort of Hunter’s stew to which stuff is continually being added as it gets older.
I’m not so sure anymore, though -everything is beginning to taste the same, no matter how much I stir. I am, I fear, more a serial monomath. And even that label, as aspirational as it seems, is still a touch derivative in light of a neologism I discovered from someone who has, in all likelihood attained polymathism. His word, ‘monopath’, is nonetheless disappointing however. I found it in an essay by Robert Twigger, a British poet among other things. He was writing an article for Aeon entitled Master of Many Trades. https://aeon.co/essays/we-live-in-a-one-track-world-but-anyone-can-become-a-polymath
He used the word monopath to contrast with polymath, and intended it to mean someone like a super-specialist who had great depth of knowledge about one subject, but was abysmally ignorant of anything else. Uhmm, I have not yet risen to the heights of monopathy in any particular domain, but with a bit of luck, I suppose it could be a consolation prize within my reach.
Monopathy, he feels, is a useful attribute for success in business and he quotes the 18th century polymath Adam Smith, who noted that ‘the division of labour was the engine of capitalism. His famous example was the way in which pin-making could be broken down into its component parts, greatly increasing the overall efficiency of the production process.’ -at the expense, he adds of ‘mental mutilation’ with too-strict a division of labour. Boredom, in other words -and a failure to appreciate (or care) how the work performed contributes to the business as a whole.
My serial monomathy, however, is an ever-changing series of challenges. In fact, it’s not that I don’t see the larger picture that the polys apprehend, but more that I only get to see fragments, and yet can’t get into the theatre to watch the entire movie.
Take biology, for example. The issue of agency and self-awareness has always fascinated me. I mean, how would you know if your dog was aware of itself? They don’t talk about it much, and you never see them preening in front of mirrors or anything.
At any rate, I gave up on that question until I read about the Mirror Test years later. It was invented by Gordon Gallup, now an emeritus professor at the University at Albany in New York. It’s where you put a mirror in a chimpanzee enclosure and then somehow paint a red dot on its forehead without it knowing (a feat that in itself suggests a fair degree of polymathy) and see if the chimp notices the dot on its forehead. They do; dogs don’t.
A great test! Even knowing about it made me think I was being auditioned for polymathhood, or whatever. But then, perhaps a little too proud of my admittedly arcane knowledge (I think it has to be a bit esoteric to qualify for the position) I discovered that the Mirror Test unduly privileges species that depend heavily on eyesight. Dogs don’t; their domain is weighted towards smell by and large.
I saw one of those hairy-faced dogs with a red thing on its forehead the other day on a trail, and on a whim, I asked the owner whether he was conducting a Mirror Test on it. Turns out he had simply used one of his wife’s red barrettes to keep the hair out of its eyes for the walk. When I explained the test to him, he just sighed and backed away.
Anyway, a true polymathist wouldn’t have tried a Mirror Test on a dog. They would have tried something involving smell. And it turns out that someone did just that. An animal cognition scientist at Barnard College in New York named Alexandra Horowitz, decided to try urine: https://aeon.co/essays/what-can-the-mirror-test-say-about-self-awareness-in-animals ‘Her ‘sniff test of self-recognition’ used ‘olfactory mirrors’ to see if dogs recognised themselves. In this test, dogs were allowed to sniff urine placed in containers. Some containers held only the dog’s own urine; others had that dog’s urine mixed with another’s. Dogs spent more time sniffing the mixtures – a sign, Horowitz says, that they knew what they should smell like, just as we know what we should look like when we gaze in a mirror.’ I suppose…
Oh yes, and then there was the agency-thing. What does it mean to have agency and what determines if it exists? There are times when I wish I had been able to stay awake in those philosophy lectures in first year university. I mean, pinning down its definition seemed to be like trying to bring a snowflake into the house to show your mother.
But I was really confused about what agency entailed, and who -or what– could exhibit it, because I was wondering about trees. Of course I’ve always had an uneasy feeling about trees -they seem so big and, well, alive. I know they don’t wander around through the forest, or anything, but so what? Some things are just content to stay where they are -I had an uncle who lived in the same house all his life. He was maybe a bit odd in his later years, but he took the garbage out regularly, so I think everybody figured he still had agency -well, at least until he stopped mowing the lawn.
Anyway, if agency is merely the ability of something to react purposefully to a stimulus that is external to itself, then where does that get us? Does an agent have to possess consciousness to be able to make a decision about the stimulus: be aware of options, say, and choose the response -a kind of nepotistic hubris?
It was probably unwise for a non-academic like me to venture into the philosophy of anything, but it seems there’s a competitive edge to agency that resents challengers, and the possibility of having to relinquish anything to new members is almost anathema -especially if they are trees.
Everybody I talked to about my idea thought I was a little bent, too -in fact, the guys I meet with on Wednesdays in MacDonald’s used another word; it was neither ‘polymath’ nor even ‘monomath’ however -although admittedly our conversations rarely rose to the level of etymological, let alone neologistical discussions. So I’ve decided to put my hopes for a career in ‘mathy’ with my friends on hold for now.
Still, other than at MacDonald’s, I’m pretty confident I’ve attained serial monomathy, even if it requires the covert use of Google’s little blue pill from time to time.