Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Death of the Renaissance Man

Renaissance Man Leonardo Da Vinci in his older years

A Renaissance man or a polymath is somebody who is very knowledgeable and has various capacities – a multi-talented person. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci was not just a painter, but he was also a mathematician, engineer, inventor, architect, botanist, musician and a writer, to just name a few.

Nowadays, however, there are very few people who can be considered Renaissance men or women. The problem with the modern world is that it has become and, in fact, insists on and demands specialization. No matter what you do or where you work, it is important to “limit” yourself and become a specialist or expert in one particular field or area.

This applies equally to the McDonald's employee and the university professor. There should be ideally one branch of knowledge that you will know really well, even to the point of exhaustion. A PhD is said to give you the ability to know everything there is about a specific given subject. The fast food chain employee will be trained to become most efficient in a particular area of the restaurant.

Why do we have to specialize then? If we look back in history there has not been the wealth of knowledge there is now. That is essentially a good thing. Philosophy in its earlier stages used to be comprehensive and embraced various disciplines in one. For example, biology and medicine, astrology, psychology and sociology, political science and history, all of these academic disciplines evolved out of philosophy. In other words, a philosopher back then was indeed a prototype of a Renaissance Man.

Today, in order to become “special” one needs to be a specialist. If you are the best source on the subject, all the doors will open for you. People will come to ask you for information. Yes, your knowledge will be not very comprehensive, but there is one subject you are an expert in.

In terms of jobs in the fast food chain, it is a matter of economics. By dividing work in different areas and with distinct responsibilities, the employer saves time, his company becomes more efficient, and as a result, there is more profit to be made. So if your boss realizes that you have a natural talent and make damn good milkshakes, you will be the milkshake expert. People will find out and will want to try your famous drink.

In other areas, it becomes, due to the wealth of knowledge, impossible to know everything. There are some very few exceptions though. I think one can consider Noam Chomsky as one of the traditional Renaissance Men who have managed to break through successfully in various disciplines.

Although I have enormous respect for experts in any field (I'll drink your milkshake anytime), I find it limiting, unfulfilling and - well … boring. It is one of my major obstacles towards getting a PhD degree (incidentally called a “Doctor of Philosophy” no matter what the subject). I have no idea in what to specialize as various fields are of equal interest to me. By accepting one and rejecting another, I would be doing injustice to my overall curiosity for knowledge.

Once a friend of mine told me that it is better to speak one language perfectly than to know several well. It was a kind of unusual comment, especially since I often pride myself on knowing five languages, but I think she made a valid point. She was in tune with the necessity of perfecting one area over the drive for general knowledge in various areas. However, I still think I prefer the multi-talented and widely knowledgeable Renaissance man over the brilliant, but essentially limited, expert.


Dragonblogger said...

A Jack of All Trades is a Master of None was one of my favorite quotes, but a specialist can find themselves out of work.

I am by no means a renaissance man, but try to be versed in as many subjects as possible. I believe in diversifying knowledge and knowing at least a passable amount about everything you can. Who knows who you might have to engage in conversation and I just can't stand to appear ignorant.

Wizard said...

Try to get Universal Theory of Everything as you PhD thesis and if rejected you still write on it disguised under suitable title :)

The Prince of Centraxis said...

Specialisation has always been with us. The old medieval guild systems ensured that children's minds were channelled down specific paths. Children are far more capable of being 'polymaths' and universal people than their ossified elders, who ensure they are trained in specific directions.

Wholistic ideals predicate immersion in as much of life and knowledge as possible - and despite the narrowing of subspecialisations in this post-modern civilization, it's still possible to diversify.

Besides - if you aspire to longevity, a single narrow channel will hardly suffice!


Chandira said...

Absolutely, great post. There's no reason not to be good at several things! It's not impossible. I think the culture says that you can only be good at one thing at a time, isn't that a waste? And completely untrue.

My dad is a master at several things, furniture making and carpentry, car and motorcycle mechanics, clock repair, knowledge of nature, several branches of history, and he taught me to be good at more than one thing too.

I suppose it all depends on what you want from your life, financial success or interest. Both if you're lucky! But how many people sacrifice what they're interested in, for what makes money?

Geri Ohara said...

ove the blog

Buddha said...

Perfection is boring.
There is nothing left to do!

Allen said...

In this awful global economy, both a specialist and a Renaissance man can flourish. Typically a specialist is successful when their trade is very complex but highly sought after. If not, then you'll only be a legend in your own mind.

Lately I meet a lot of so-called "experts" and "specialists" that don't really have the skills to be where they are, and unfortunately they dupe a lot of people who don't know any better. If you learn enough about more than one discipline to be dangerous, but not necessarily an expert, you will eventually find yourself in a position of power. The so-called specialists will be coming to you for the answers.

I think the problem is being able to focus on one subject at a time until you at least master the fundamentals. People don't even master the fundamentals any more.

Anonymous said...

An interesting blog....
Please read "Refuse to Choose!" by psychologist Barbara Sher, who coins the term "Scanners" for Rennaisance people like us, often derided in a world of increasing specialization. It's kind of a survival manual. I'm one of those people with so many interests, I often become paralyzed by all the choices. Her book has helped me to catalog my many and widely varying accomplishments, and has given me personal ammunition to fight our pigeonhole culture. I prefer to be three dimensional (or more!) . I cringe every time someone says "just pick something and stick with it!"