Posted tagged ‘polymath’

How specialised should we be?

July 9, 2008

362 years ago this month saw the birth of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Leibniz was a mathematician, a philosopher, a lawyer, a scientist, an alchemist, a theologian, an inventor, an archivist, an historian and a political scientist – and maybe other things besides. He was German, but he wrote in Latin and French. He strayed across the different disciplines and activities with consummate ease.

But what would we make of Leibniz today? Would we admire his eclectic scholarship, or would we suspect him of dumbing everything down? Would we see him as the typical modularisation project, with all its benefits and risks?

Over recent years it has become much more acceptable in academic circles to pursue interdisciplinary studies and research, and we have come to understand that a good deal of progress for society is achieved not within disciplines, but between them. Whole new subject areas have developed out of this realisation, including biotechnology.

It is of course still true that scholars need to have a good grounding in the disciplines they wish to study. But we need to ensure that specialisation is achieved within a broader context, including an understanding of relevant knowledge from other areas; and not just adjacent areas, but from across the whole spectrum. For example, addressing questions of ethics is becoming increasingly important for leading scientists.

We could therefore do worse than looking again at some of the great polymaths of past ages, including Gottfried von Leibniz. After all, Leibniz has received the ultimate accolade: he has a biscuit named after him.