JOURNAL OF GENIUS AND EMINENCE, 3(1), 66-82, 2018
Issue Copyright 2018 International Center for Studies in Creativity
Article Copyright 2018 Michael Espindola Araki
ISSN: 2334-1130 print/2334-1149 online
Polymathy: A New Outlook
Michael Espindola Araki
Pontical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro
is article aims to contribute to the study of polymathy by introducing novel perspectives
on the phenomenon and by advancing a new model that systematizes the dierent variables
involved in its development. e article is divided into four sections. e rst section involves
a reection about the nature of polymathy; the term mathema is presented as the unit that
underpins the development of polymathic knowledge, and the elements that constitute the
fundamental qualities of polymathy are identied and discussed. In the second section, the
novel conceptualization of polymathy as a life project is introduced; it builds upon previous
psychoeconomic approaches to oer a new perspective on the phenomenon. In the third sec-
tion, a developmental model of polymathy is suggested; it organizes the dierent constructs
involved in the development of polymathy into a framework that can serve as basis for future
studies. Finally, implications for research, practice and policy are discussed.
Correspondence for this article should be addressed to
Michael E. Araki, Department of Business Administration,
Pontical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. E-mail: michael.
It is the ultimate task of our existence to achieve
as much substance as possible for the concept of
humanity in our person, both during the span of our
life and beyond it, through the traces we leave by
means of our vital activity. is can be fullled only
by the linking of the self to the world to achieve the
most general, most animated, and most unrestrained
interplay. (Humboldt, 2012, p. 58)
Concepts such as multidisciplinarity, multipotentiality,
multiskilling and cross-training have been the subject of
interest in several mediums. Publications on these issues span
over scholarly (e.g., Alves, Marques, Saur, & Marques, 2007;
Marks, Sabella, Burke, & Zaccaro, 2002; Zaman & Goschin,
2010), and popular/executive literature (e.g., Horbury &
Wright, 2001; Triepke, 2015; Zenger, Folkman, & Edinger,
2011). Nonetheless, those themes often appear in a scattered
fashion, without a unied theoretical base. In this work, I
examine a concept that can oer a new way to comprehend
the underpinnings of such phenomena and synthesize
fragmented ndings into a single theme: polymathy.
Polymathy traditionally means learning in many elds or
expertise in multiple areas. It is formed from the junction of
two Greek radicals, πολυ (polys; meaning ‘much’, or ‘various’)
and μάθημα (mathema; meaning knowledge or skills acquired
through experience, study, or by being taught; Harper,
n.d.). Polymathy is used in the popular domain as a label
for eminent scientists, artists, creators and performers who
display a signicant amount of knowledge in many elds.
However, the concept is still largely unknown and scarcely
explored in academia, despite its richness of meaning and
the contributions it can oer to current discussions in several
For the advancement of the systematic study of
polymathy, two issues are particularly relevant. First, the
conceptual domain of the phenomenon is not clearly
delineated in the literature. Polymathy has been conceived
and described in distinct ways, but those conceptualizations
still lack articulation with each other and a unifying
theoretical framework. For instance, polymathy has been
viewed as a label for an intellectual type (e.g. Burke, 2011;
2014); as a label for creative individuals in multiple domains
(e.g., Kaufman, Beghetto, Baer, & Ivcevic, 2010; R. Root-
Bernstein & M. Root-Bernstein, 2011); as a thinking
ability or thinking trait (e.g., Sriraman, 2009); and as a
worldview or an ideal to be pursued (e.g., Murphy, 2014).
Second, the construct of polymathy still lacks a consolidated
operationalization strategy. To the best of the author’s
knowledge, polymathy has been assessed as an operational
construct in less than a handful of works. Root-Bernstein
and colleagues utilized collections of surveys, interviews
POLYMATHY: A NEW OUTLOOK 67
and biographical data to assess the degree of polymathy and
scientic success of individuals, nding compelling evidence
for a correlation between broad avocational interests (a proxy
for polymathy) and scientic eminence (R. Root‐Bernstein,
Bernstein & Gamier, 1993, 1995; R. Root‐Bernstein et al.,
2008). Besides that, Sriraman (2009) utilized a hermeneutic-
phenomenological approach to identify polymathic
thinking traits while his subjects attempted to unravel a
given mathematical paradox; he discovered that polymathic
thinking was associated with the successful identication of
e scant number of systematic studies on polymathy
leaves entire avenues of research unexplored. Many questions
are still unanswered: what is the nature of polymathy and
what are its components? How is polymathy linked to other
important constructs in the psychological and educational
literature? What kind of nomological relations are expected?
How can the construct of polymathy be systematized in a
way that it can inform research and give rise to generalizable
With that in mind, this article is an eort to systematize
the phenomenon of polymathy, aiming to pave the ground
for future research. It takes a detailed look into the concept
and seeks to articulate it with other well-developed concepts,
weaving knowledge from areas such as education, psychology
and economics. e paper is organized into four sections. In
the rst section, the Ancient Greek term mathema is revisited
and redened as the unit that underpins the construction
of personal knowledge. is leads to the identication and
discussion of the necessary elements to qualify a person’s
store of knowledge as polymathic. e second section
introduces the novel conceptualization of polymathy as a life
project. It builds upon previous psychoeconomic approaches
to creativity and lifelong learning (e.g., Lubart & Sternberg,
1995; Rubenson & Runco, 1992; Sternberg & Lubart, 1991;
Walberg, H. J., & Stariha, 1992) to oer a novel perspective
that integrates aspects of personality (e.g., personal values and
life goals) with decision-making based on valuations of net
gains and costs. e third section advances the developmental
model of polymathy. e model organizes the dierent ideas
and constructs presented in this paper into a framework that
can serve as a basis for future studies. Finally, implications for
research, practice and policy-making are discussed.
The Fundamental Ideas Behind
is section employs an analytical approach with the aim
to unravel the nature of polymathy and its fundamental
components. e strategy is to break the term polymathy into
two parts (the nominative part and the adjective part). First,
the nominative part is examined. e focus is on the word
mathema and its signication as the basic unit of personal
knowledge. en, attention is turned to the adjective part—
that is, what qualities underpin the concept of polymathy? It
is proposed that polymathy as a quality concatenates three
fundamental elements: breadth, depth, and integration.
Mathema:The Basic Unit of Knowledge
Mathema is a word from Ancient Greek whose root appears in
the formation of the word polymathy. Most of the denitions
of mathema available in the English language come from
works of the Classical era, from etymological dictionaries
or from biblical studies. A mathema can mean “science,
knowledge, mathematical knowledge, a lesson, or something
that is learnt” (Harper, n. d., para. 1). It can also designate
the “mental eort needed to think something through” (Hill,
2011a, para. 2), and “fact-knowledge as someone learns from
experience, often with the implication of reection” (Hill,
2011b, para. 2).
Based on the denitions, usage and descriptions of the
term, one can derive that the concept of mathema represents
a cognitive structure that stems from a deliberate eort to
encode, organize and systematize sets of information. us,
it is possible to dene mathema as a mental array, fruit of the
combination of information in a purposeful and reective
way, which can be stored, manipulated, and retrieved for later
usage. In this approach, mathema represents the smallest
unit of systematic knowledge. It is both the basis for the
construction of one’s sets of knowledge and the medium
whereby personal experiences can be transformed into
e denition of mathema advanced here purposely
resembles the well-developed concept of schema (Bartlett,
1932; Piaget & Cook, 1952). In fact, a mathema refers to a sub-
type of schema; what dierentiates them is the utilization (or
lack thereof) of deliberate mental eort in their formation.
While a mathema requires the intentional expenditure of
mental energy (for instance, it may be constructed through
the exercise of critical examination and reective thinking), a
schema may be formed through a passive, or quasi-automatic
process, dispensing the employment of active thought. An
illustrative example is the belief that “Brazilians are good at
soccer”. Is it a schema or a mathema? It will depend on how
this belief was formed. If it was constructed without much
critical examination, in a passive way, it is just a schema.
Alternatively, if such belief stems from a deliberate and
somewhat profound investigation, it is a mathema, even if it
turns out to be ultimately false.
e personal store of mathemata. Mathemata (the
plural of mathema) may or may not thrive in a person’s mind
depending on how well they perform on two aspects. First,
a mathema must act as a coherent unit that can serve as a
dependable basis for predictions. Second, a mathema must
successfully t into an already-established environment.
is environment contains other sets of mathemata and is
organized around specic mental procedures, sets of values
and beliefs that may or may not be inviting to dierent types
of mathemata. us, individual dierences on how a person
tends to select, accumulate and organize mathemata will
inuence the quality of their aggregate sets of mathemata.
e summation of all existent mathemata in a person’s
mind, along with their relationships, their relative degree of
prevalence and their accompanying thinking procedures is
called a person’s total store of mathemata.
Breadth, Depth and Integration as the Core
Dimensions of Polymathy
With the nominative part of polymathy dened (mathema),
this section turns the attention to the adjective part of
polymathy; i.e., the qualities that make a person’s total store
of mathemata polymathic. It is proposed that the quality
of being polymathic—or polymathicness—entails three
components: breadth, depth and integration.
Breadth. Breadth refers to a broad range or great
extent of one’s total store of mathemata. Breadth is the most
conspicuous dimension of polymathy; it is intimately tied to
all known denitions of the construct and to the etymological
roots of the term (poly means various). Breadth can be
further divided to into two sub-qualities: comprehensiveness
and diversity. Comprehensiveness entails extension while
diversity entails variety. Although they are not independent
from each other, it is possible to have extensive knowledge
with dierent degrees of variety. An example of both
qualities is the attainment of sophisticated sets of mathema
in domains that are considered “distant”, such as arts, science
and sports. e lack of this dimension is associated with the
idea of narrowness, specialization, and the restriction of one’s
expertise to a limited domain.
Depth. Depth refers to the vertical accumulation of
knowledge and the degree of elaboration or sophistication
of one’s sets of mathemata. Sometimes, breadth is mistakenly
thought to be the only necessary component of polymathy;
that is, the possession of supercial knowledge in many areas
would suce. To avoid this confusion, some authors (e.g.,
Burke, 2011; R. Root-Bernstein, 2009) use the concept of
dilettancy as a contrast to the idea of polymathy. Dilettancy
refers to taking up several activities in a supercial or
desultory way while polymathy entails profound learning in
several elds. Another usage of the term polymathy is to
form the construct called creative polymathy, which refers
to the demonstration of creative abilities in many domains
(see Beghetto & Kaufman, 2009; Kaufman, Beghetto, &
Baer, 2010; Kaufman, Beghetto, Baer, & Ivcevic, 2010; R.
Root-Bernstein, 2003a, 2015; R. Root-Bernstein & M.
Root-Bernstein, 2004, 2011). Like the concept of polymathy
itself, creative polymathy implies the dimension of depth.
A creative product arises from the combination of stores of
mathemata that are expected to possess at least some level of
Integration. Integration involves the capacity of
connecting, articulating, concatenating or synthesizing
dierent sets of mathemata and dierent ways of thinking.
In this work, integration is proposed, along with breadth
and depth, as a fundamental component of polymathy.
Although the dimension of integration is not explicit in
most denitions of polymathy, it has been associated with
the idea of polymathy by several authors. Goodman (2005, p.
103) argued that polymathy relies on three elements: broad
learning, striving to produce new knowledge, and the ability
to synthesize dierent personal research endeavors. e
author also posed that polymaths in Ancient China were
notable for their capacity to cluster along separate “nexuses
of knowledge” in order to nd new meanings and create new
connections (p. 107). Burke (2014, p. 183) characterized
polymaths as people who are especially able to create new
syntheses and perceive gaps and spaces between disciplines
in the present era of fragmented knowledge. Sriraman and
colleagues posited that people with polymathic thinking traits
possess a Gestalt worldview that can work back and forth
between multiple domains; it leads them to solve dicult
problems by connecting notions from dierent areas in novel
and useful ways (Sriraman, 2005, 2009; Sriraman & Dahl,
2009). Kaufman, Beghetto, Baer, & Ivcevic (2010, p. 385)
wrote that polymaths, by seeing connections and synergies
where none existed, can create new work at the intersection of
multiple domains. Finally, R. Root-Bernstein and colleagues
argue in numerous works that polymathy entails not only the
accumulation of broad and profound knowledge but also the
formation of useful connections between dierent bodies of
knowledge (e.g., R. Root-Bernstein et al., 2008, p. 56; and R.
Root-Bernstein, 2009, pp. 855-864).
This section posited that the elements to qualify an object
as polymathic are three: breadth, depth and integration. us,
if the object to be assessed is the person’s knowledge, one can
dene polymathic knowledge as the possession of a personal
store of mathemata that is characterized by the qualities of
breadth, depth and integration. is denition implies that
any kind of systematic knowledge is included (not only
academic knowledge, for instance), as long as it displays
considerable amount of breadth, depth and integration. In
the next section, an approach that aims to integrate a person’s
pursuit of polymathic knowledge with their sets of values,
goals and aspirations in life is explored.
POLYMATHY: A NEW OUTLOOK 69
Polymathy as a Life Project
is section introduces the concept of polymathy as a life
project. A life project refers to a lifelong individual enterprise
that entails the pursuit of specic goals, and that involves a
series of investments and payos. An analogy can be made
with the nancial outlook toward projects. In nance, a
project consists of a series of inows and outows. ese
ows need not be about money—they can refer, for instance,
to psychic costs and gains (e.g., the exertion of one’s mental
energy in the pursuit of a goal, or the feeling of happiness
when some important goal is achieved). Projects are
considered worthwhile if the present value of the benets
surpasses the costs. Nevertheless, while, in nance, the value
of the project’s payos and costs can be objectively assessed
via market prices, in the realm of life projects, the value
of most benets and costs will be subjective. at is, their
valuation will depend on aspects of one’s personality.
The Polymathic Personality
Some people possess a personality, i.e., a set of motivational,
emotional and cognitive patterns, that can be intimately
associated with the undertaking of a polymathic life project.
More specically, this paper poses that one’s values and
lifelong motives are of key relevance.
A person with a polymathic personality places cardinal
value upon and is driven toward two principal goals: (i)
the development of a conscience with as much richness of
knowledge and experience as possible and (ii) exercise one’s
potential agency to enhance and transform the world. e
rst goal is sought through the acquisition of a store of
mathemata with an increasingly polymathic quality, while the
second goal is sought through the generation of increasingly
excellent, surprising and adaptive contributions. ose
pursuits possess a natural interconnection. e achievement
of a highly informed conscience is intertwined with the
awareness of one’s potential of agency in the world (Deimann
& Farrow 2013; Peukert, 2002), which in turn is related to
the development of one’s knowledge and its utilization in
novel and useful ways.
e polymathic qualities outlined above can be
manifested through some specic sets of behaviors. One of
the most conspicuous characteristic of polymathic people
is that they tend to develop multiple avocations (which can
occur simultaneously or sequentially) during their life. is
can be translated as a preference to engage in several types
of structured activities beyond those regarding one’s main
activity. Structured activities (e.g., playing music, practicing
sports, playing a challenging strategy video game) dier
from unstructured ones (e.g., watching television, viewing
pictures on social media) as the former tend to highly
stimulate new encodings of mathemata and require intense
use of attention, whereas the latter tend not to involve the
same level of structured thinking (see also Csikszentmihalyi,
1988). While some people will be drained by engaging in
structured activities in dierent domains, polymathic people
will be exhilarated by it.
Polymathic people also tend to see beyond the vocation-
avocational dichotomy. While some non-polymathic people
may compartmentalize their activities between vocational
and avocational—the former being useful while the latter
being peripheral and alienated from one’s professional realm
—polymathic people will instead seek to integrate their
“bewildering miscellany of activities” (cf. R. Root-Bernstein
et al. 1995, p. 131) into successful and eective “networks of
enterprise” (see Gruber 1988, 1989). Rather than wasteful,
they will see the time and energy spent on diverse activities
as something that can yield a series of positive returns. ese
returns may include personal satisfaction, the opportunity
to broaden one’s life experiences, the opportunity to obtain
ideas and experience that can inform one’s main vocation,
and the opportunity to sharpen domain-general or correlative
talents (see also Kaufman et al. 2010; R. Root-Bernstein &
M. Root-Bernstein, 2004).
In this light, the pursuit of polymathy can be understood
as a unifying factor of one’s personality, whereby the many
dierent facets of a person’s behavior and choices can be
organized and understood under the lens of the polymathic
personality (compare with Young’s (1923) concept of
‘integrated personality’, Allport’s (1955) concept of
‘propriative striving’, and Maslow’s (1965) concept of ‘self-
Benets and Costs of the Polymathic Life
is section examines the benets and costs of undertaking a
given life project. ey are divided into two major categories:
psychological and economic. Each category contains specic
types of benets and costs, which are discussed below.
Psychological benets. It is traditional for psychologists
to partition human consciousness in the domains of
cognition, aection, and conation (or motivation). Likewise,
the psychological benets of a polymathic life project can be
organized into three types: cognitive, emotional, and conative.
Cognitive benets refer to knowledge and intellectual gains;
a person may prize and benet from the acquisition of new
sets of mathemata. Emotional benets involve aective
gains; a person may prize and enjoy positive emotions
from polymathic pursuits. Finally, conative benets refer to
motivational gains; a person may have their willingness to
expend eort renewed by pursuing meaningful objectives.
Economic benets. Economic benets include
productive and eciency gains, and benets that would not
be accessible if not through the undertaking of polymathic
behaviors. e polymathic pursuit entails a constant process
of encodement, re-encodement and sophistication of sets of
mathemata across dierent domains, which contrasts with
the behavior of other types who do not venture much outside
their primary domain (specialists) or who seek breadth but
not so much depth of knowledge (dilettantes). By delving
into diverse elds and making the brain cope with lots of
new information often, polymathic people may have access
to unique opportunities to improve their productivity and
eciency, especially regarding general learning, creativity,
and resource (e.g., time, information) management.
Creative benets. A special type of yield associated
with the polymathic life project are creative benets.
Creativity refers to novel and useful contributions that
originate from the combination and concatenation of ideas,
cognitive categories, or pieces of knowledge (see for example,
Koestler, 1964; Mednick, 1962; Mumford & Gustafson,
1988; Simonton, 2011). If the creative process entails the
articulation of multiple and diverse sets of mathemata to beget
novel and eective results, one can conclude that at least
some polymathy is condicio sine qua non for creativity; that is,
without some degree of breadth, depth and some integrative
capacity one cannot generate creative ideas. ereby, a person
who builds a life project centered on the development of
these very qualities is expected to be in a privileged position
to produce ideas that are original, useful and surprising. e
relationship between polymathy and creativity is explored in
multiple works by R. Root-Bernstein and colleagues (e.g.,
M. Root-Bernstein & R. Root-Bernstein, 2003; R. Root-
Bernstein, 1997, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2009, 2015; R. Root-
Bernstein et al., 1993, 1995, 2008, 2013; R. Root-Bernstein
& M. Root-Bernstein, 2004, 2013).
Psychological costs. Psychological costs are the inverse
of psychological benets. e polymathic life project can
bring not only benets but also psychological distress.
For instance, psychological distress may arise because
the polymathic person may not build a career path that is
considered “traditional”. is can lead to diculties that go
beyond pecuniary issues, aecting one’s process of identity
formation, and one’s feelings of belonging and self-worth.
In addition, the polymathic life entails goals that can be very
demanding, and the achievement striving related to their
pursuit may lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety.
Although there is no literature specically addressing this
issue, it is possible to nd studies linking achievement striving
tendencies and over-extensive job scopes with higher levels
of stress and psychological distress (see Jepson & Forrest,
2006; Jex, Adams, Elacqua & Bachrach, 2002; Xie & Johns,
Economic costs. Economic costs refer to the resources
expended in order to follow a polymathic life project and to
the benets a person foregoes when they commit to a given
course of action. In this paper, two types of economic costs
are explored: psychic energy costs and opportunity costs.
Psychic energy costs. Psychic energy costs refer to the
deployment of information-processing capacity to carry
out mental operations. Authors such as Kahneman (1973)
and Csikszentmihalyi (1988) pose that attention is a scarce
resource—i.e., a person’s supply of psychic energy is limited
and only some bits of information can be processed at any
given time. How a person will deploy their energy is a
determining issue for the kind of life project that they will
Opportunity costs. A cost of opportunity refers to
a benet that a person could have earned but gave up
because they took an alternative course of action. When a
person commits to a certain pursuit, their resources must be
employed in that pursuit to the detriment of all other possible
options. Likewise, when a person undertakes a polymathic
life project, they forego diverse kinds of rewards in favor of
this life project. is is a central concept that will be further
examined in the next sections.
Discussion: Finding One’s Most Valuable
Undertaking a polymathic life project involves devoting
a great deal of one’s resources into the acquisition of a
store of mathemata that qualies as polymathic and the
generation of novel and adaptive contributions stemming
from it. A cardinal element in a polymathic life project is
the drive to seek knowledge, to “search for the living springs
of knowledge”, in a “continuous, indefatigable pursuit of
unshakable truth” (Marrou, 1956, p. 58). However, the
drive toward knowledge may take dierent formats. Some
people may be delighted by drinking from the same spring
of knowledge during their entire career, while for others
this prospect will be disheartening. is section investigates
why a given type of life project can be preferred over others,
considering individual dierences regarding endowments,
personality, values and life goals. First, the polymathic and
the specialist paths are compared, and their benets and costs
are examined accounting for heterogeneous valuations due
to personality aspects. Second, a distinction is made between
individuals based on their degree of creative ambition; the
role of polymathy for achieving dierent kinds of creative
products is then discussed.
Polymathy versus specialism. One of the most
celebrated strategies to achieve success in an era of massive
and fragmented knowledge is to channel one’s time and
POLYMATHY: A NEW OUTLOOK 71
energetic resources into a single area; i.e., taking the specialist
path. is issue is particularly relevant in a context in which
the time and eort to reach the frontier of knowledge is
ever increasing (see also “burden of knowledge”; Jones,
2009). Since one has limited resources, why “waste” them in
multiple pursuits if, alternatively, one can concentrate them
into a narrow area and thus reach the frontier of knowledge
One way to shed light on this issue is by exploring the
idea of individual dierences regarding a person’s breadth-
depth homeostatic drives. e breadth-depth homeostasis
can be thought of as a kind of internal timer or counter
that generates a homeostatic drive or pressure toward the
element (either breadth or depth) that has been neglected
for some time. Some people will be drawn to diverse interests
but will feel comfortable with not developing much depth
in any of them; they are the dilettante type—their breadth-
depth homeostasis leans toward breadth. Some people will
be drawn to a particular subject and will feel comfortable
with not developing much breadth of knowledge; they are
the specialist type—their breadth-depth homeostasis leans
toward depth. Finally, some people will be drawn toward
diverse interests and will also engage in profound learning in
many of them; they are the polymath type—their breadth-
depth homeostasis leans toward a balance of both.
From this perspective, a strategy that might seem
universally advantageous at the surface (e.g., channeling
one’s energy into a narrow area for a long time) may prove
the opposite when dierentiated costs are computed. For
instance, the polymathic person, compared to the specialist
type, may pay higher ongoing costs for suppressing their
breadth drive. Still, a polymathic person can deal with their
seemingly contrarian breadth-depth homeostatic drives
in ways that do not involve the suppression of any of the
two drives. In fact, learning how to deal with these drives in
eective ways is as an essential mark in the development of
First, polymathic people can develop a number of
avocations in parallel with their main pursuit. If one
considers the eects of the “law of diminishing returns”,
it is possible to conclude that a “portfolio” of concurrent
activities may not only be an eective strategy to deal with
the breadth-depth homeostatic drives but also be an optimal
solution in terms of aggregate knowledge acquisition. e
reasoning goes as follows: when the person allocates more
and more resources toward an objective, at some point,
adding even more resources in this task will lead to smaller
and smaller returns per the same unit of resource spent.
us, at that point, allocating the same unit of resources
into other activities would be more advantageous. An
eminent exemplar who utilized this strategy was Vladimir
Nabokov; he intercalated his writing with an intense—and
professional—interest in entomology (Johnson & Coates,
2001). Taking up activities in areas that are considered
“distant”, such as science and arts (as did Nabokov), may be
especially fruitful. Studies about the habits of individuals
with outstanding creative accomplishments also corroborate
this idea. For instance, eminent scientists show much greater
likelihood of developing avocational interests in uncorrelated
areas than their less successful counterparts (see for instance,
R. Root-Bernstein et al., 1993, 1995, 2008).
e second strategy to deal with the breadth-depth
homeostasis is to follow a trajectory that includes the
developments of expertises in a sequential manner. In
some cases, this trajectory can be envisioned beforehand; a
polymathic individual may undertake an “exclusive” pursuit
for some time, and utilize the prospect of developing dierent
expertises in the future as a means to attenuate the breadth
drive in the present. In other cases, the decline in the interest
on one subject may organically coincide with an increase in
the interest on other subjects (see also R. Root-Bernstein
and M. Root-Bernstein, 2011, for an examination of diverse
life trajectories of creative people).
Risks. In nancial projects, the concept of value at risk
estimates how much a set of investments might lose, given
certain conditions, in a given period. Where life projects are
concerned, the notion of risk that implies a loss of investment
has a much more limited usage. In a life project, a person’s
most precious investment is their time and psychic energy.
Unlike money, these resources cannot be hoarded. Since
they will be spent anyway, what a person can do is utilize
them in the most favorable way. In this context, notions such
as commitment, opportunity costs and exibility become
A pivotal issue for polymathy development is dealing with
the commitment-exibility duality. Flexibility is associated
with broadening one’s range of experiences, one’s worldview
and being acquainted with dierent ideas, disciplines and
forms of thinking, which may bring both psychological
and practical benets (Deimann & Farrow, 2013; McCrae,
1987; McCrae & Costa, 1997). However, there is a caveat:
the breadth-seeking person may run the risk of becoming a
dilettante—given that the number of areas of interest today
are countless, one can easily be lost among the bewildering
array of possibilities and end up failing to develop depth in
at least one domain.
Flexibility may also serve to oset risks traditionally
associated with being a narrow specialist. ese risks include
being stuck in a career that one may cease to enjoy, or having
to end a career which represents a great deal of one’s identity
(e.g., athletes whose identity are completely tied to their
sporting careers tend to suer more psychological distress
when they retire; see Grove, Lavallee, & Gordon, 1997).
A polymathic person may oset both kinds of risks by
successfully integrating exibility and commitment, breadth
and depth —be it sequentially or simultaneously—into one’s
life project and therefore into one’s identity.
Experts versus pioneers. Some people place high value
on the attainment of the status of expert in a given area.
After all, the benets are various, ranging from pecuniary
to psychological and social. However, attaining expertise is
not an easy task. For instance, Herling (2000, p. 13) poses
that expertise involves a process of continuous learning
characterized by the constant acquisition of knowledge,
reorganization of information, and progressive problem
solving. In general, expertise entails two elements: (i)
domain-related knowledge and experience, and (ii) problem-
solving ability that qualies as eective in a given domain (see
Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich, & Homan, 2006; Herling,
2000; Homan, 1998; Simonton, 2014; Sternberg, 1997).
In the terminology of this paper, the concept of expertise is
embedded in the idea of ‘depth’, one of the core dimensions
of polymathy. Although both the expertise seeker and the
polymathic person have in common the pursuit for depth
of knowledge, they have fundamental dierences, especially
in regards to their thinking processes and their personal
e polymathic person is not a seeker of expertise or
knowledge per se. Amassing expert knowledge is just one facet
of polymathy. A non-polymathic expert may build an entire
career by using already tested applications of knowledge to
solve problems in a given area. is is far from the idea behind
a polymathic life project. A polymathic life project involves
more than the expert application of extant knowledge; it
entails the constant manipulation of sets of mathemata
from dierent domains in unique ways to generate original
ideas and products. In each step of their development, the
polymathic person will seek to form new and functional
combinations, by taking advantage of their comprehensive
and diverse sets of mathemata and their increased capacity for
the synthetization and integration of ideas. Most of the time,
ideas will be novel and adaptive only to the individual or to a
limited area of application (e.g., one’s job function). However,
the degree of originality and appropriateness of those ideas
and products tends to increase inasmuch as one accumulates
more expertises and renes one’s thinking skills. What, then,
may happen when the person with a polymathic life project
amasses expertise that reaches the frontier of knowledge?
Biographic and historiometric studies show that
outstandingly creative people tend to be also unusually
polymathic (see R. Root-Bernstein et al., 1993, 1995, 2008).
us, it can be posed that polymathic behavior may play a
prominent role for people who pursue particularly disruptive
kinds of goals, such as pioneering a new discipline or
challenging the assumptions of an existing eld.
A very straightforward explanation would be that
the disposition for both the pursuit of polymathy and the
types of behaviors that are propaedeutic for highly creative
outcomes are associated at the personality or genetic level.
us, if opportunities are presented, and if intrapersonal
and environmental variables are favorably aligned, the
polymathic person would be very likely to achieve highly
A more elaborate explanation (which does not rule
out the rst one) is that the dimensions of polymathy
(breadth, depth and integration) may combine themselves in
synergistic ways to generate highly creative outcomes. For
instance, polymathy can act as both an expander and a lter
for creative thinking. On the expansion side, a broad range
of experiences and expertises may extend one’s possibilities
of ideational permutations (cf. Mednick, 1962; Simonton,
2011). On the ltering side, a balanced set of mathemata may
enhance one’s ability to select and retain the ideas that are
appropriate to the detriment of ideas that are just original or
contrarian for their own sake (cf. Sternberg, 2003; Simonton,
Finally, it is informative to explore the possible eects
that the absence of polymathy may have on the disruptive
type of creativity. e lack of engagement in polymathic
behavior may act as an inhibitor of the pursuit of creativity
at the highest levels. For instance, people that do not have
the habit of engaging in polymathic behavior may see the
pursuit of pioneering ideas as something foreign to them. As
remarked by Koestler (1964, p. 44), thinking which remains
conned to a single matrix of thought has its obvious
limitations. A complementary remark is then suggested:
thinking that integrates many matrices of thought can go
beyond obvious limitations.
A Developmental Model of Polymathy
A polymathic personality will propel the person toward
the kinds of pursuits labeled here as polymathic. However,
the complete picture of a person’s engagement and their
persistence in a polymathic life project will depend on a
complex interplay of variables. Some of these will be internal
to the individual, such as genetic endowments, natural
abilities and temperament. Some will be external, such as
one’s educational environment, family background and
In this section, the developmental model of polymathy
(DMP) is presented with two main objectives: (i) organize the
elements involved in the process of polymathy development
into a structure of relationships that is wed to the approach
of polymathy as a life project, and (ii) provide an articulation
with other well-developed constructs, theories and models,
POLYMATHY: A NEW OUTLOOK 73
especially from the elds of giftedness and education (e.g.,
Gagné, 1995; Renzulli, 2016; Subotnik, Olszewski-Kubilius,
& Worrell, 2011; Tannenbaum, 1986).
With the goal to facilitate future research, the DMP
was designed to reect a structural model. e model has
ve major components: (1) polymathic antecedents, (2)
polymathic mediators, (3) polymathic achievements, (4)
intrapersonal moderators, and (5) environmental moderators
(see Figure 1).
At the center of the model, the rst three components
(polymathic antecedents, polymathic mediators and
polymathic achievements) congure the polymathic path.
e polymathic path refers to a sequence of three stages
in which a person is expected to go through during
their developmental process. e rst stage, polymathic
antecedents, refers to personality characteristics, aptitudes,
and behavioral tendencies that are primordial elements
in a polymathic life project. e second stage, polymathic
mediators, refers to stores of mathemata and procedural skills
that are acquired and developed along a person’s life; they
are pivotal for one’s progress toward polymathic goals. e
third stage, polymathic achievements, refers to attainments
and outcomes that represent the pinnacle of the polymathic
development; they include valuable personal achievements as
well as the generation of valuable contributions to society.
It is important to note that, although the elements of
each stage are organized in a sequential order, feedback eects
among them are expected (see also “talent as a retroactive
cause”, Gagné, 2004, p. 134). ese eects are not shown in
the model’s gure for the sake of parsimony.
In addition, the model proposes that the development
of the polymathic path is moderated (i.e., receives positive or
negative interference) by two types of variables: intrapersonal
and environmental moderators. Intrapersonal moderators
refer to individual characteristics, other than those directly
associated with a polymathic personality, which can
aect the development of a polymathic life project (e.g.,
genetic endowments, natural abilities and temperament).
Environmental moderators refer to elements external to
the individual that can also aect the development of a
polymathic life project (e.g., one’s milieu, impactful life
events, the surrounding culture, etc.).
In summary, the developmental model of polymathy
posits that polymathy as a life project: (i) is driven and
propelled by certain personality characteristics and natural
abilities; (ii) is mediated by the cultivation of a polymathic
store of mathemata and polymathic thinking skills; (iii)
is moderated by elements internal and external to the
individual; and (iv) culminates in outcomes concerning one’s
self-formation and the generation of valuable contributions
to society. ese components are examined in detail in the
In this work, polymathic knowledge has been dened as the
possession of a store of mathemata that is characterized by
the qualities of breadth, depth and integration. Polymathic
antecedents refer to the aptitudes and personality traits that
antecede (i.e., precede in a chronological or structural order)
the attainment of such knowledge. us, these aptitudes and
traits can be indicators of the likelihood or the potential to
achieve polymathic knowledge and the objectives linked
with a polymathic life project. In the model, polymathic
antecedents are composed of two constructs: polymathic
giftedness and trait polymathy. e rst refers to abilities or
aptitudes and the latter refers to personality characteristics.
eir dierentiation is due to their contrasting psychometric
measurement strategies. In psychometry, assessment methods
are traditionally divided into the categories of performance-
based measures (e.g., general intelligence; Wechsler, 1955)
and self-report instruments (e.g., e ‘Big-Five’ inventory;
Costa & McCrae, 1992). e model aims to facilitate
future research by tting one construct in the rst category
(polymathic giftedness) and the other (trait polymathy) in
the second category.
Polymathic giftedness. e approach of polymathy as
a life project implies that some people will face diminished
costs in the acquisition of systematic knowledge across
various domains. is can be interpreted as a dierentiated
ability to learn things regardless of the domain they “belong.”
In the literature, the term giftedness is often used to refer to
characteristics such as the potential for superior performance,
natural talent, and the possession of above-average
intellectual abilities (see Gagné, 1985, 2004; Subotnik et al.,
2011). However, giftedness that is polymathic cannot stay
encapsulated in just a single domain.
An extant construct that can serve as a proxy for
polymathic giftedness is multipotentiality. Multipotentiality,
albeit used inconsistently in the literature, refers to the
possession of various natural talents and demonstration of
interests in multiple domains (Rysiew, Shore, & Leeb, 1999).
When multipotentiality is operationalized, researchers tend
to break it into two dimensions: multiple abilities and multiple
vocational interests (see Achter, Lubinski, & Benbow, 1996;
Milgram & Hong, 1999a, 1999b). Multiple abilities are
measured via performance-based measures, such as the SAT
(Scholastic Assessment Test). In contrast, multiple vocational
interests are measured via self-report questionnaires, such
as the Strong-Campbell Interest Inventory (Campbell,
1987), Holland’s Vocational Preference Inventory (Holland,
1978), and the Study of Values (Allport, Vernon, & Lindzey,
1970). As noted earlier, such mixing of psychometric
strategies within a single construct can be confusing.
ereby, this work suggests that only the rst dimension of
multipotentiality (multiple abilities) should be utilized as a
proxy for polymathic giftedness. e second dimension of
multipotentiality (multiple vocational interests) should be
considered part of trait polymathy.
Trait polymathy. In earlier sections, the concept of
polymathic personality was introduced. e construct of
trait polymathy aims to capture the elements that constitute
a polymathic personality in an operationalizable way. In
the literature, the concept of trait traditionally refers to
endogenous basic tendencies, associated with one’s responses
to stimuli, and one’s self-perceptions, preferences and values
(e.g., Allport, 1937; McCrae, 2001). us, the novel construct
of trait polymathy refers to a constellation of individual
characteristics regarding one’s tendency toward the pursuit
of polymathic knowledge and polymathy-related goals.
e full development of this construct falls outside the
scope of this article. However, it is suggested that a suitable
strategy for its operationalization would be the application of
self-reports, possibly conjugated with other-reports, which is
consonant with how other personality measures are assessed
(e.g., the ‘Big Five’ inventory; Costa & McCrae, 1992).
e DMP predicts that polymathy as a life project starts
with a series of individual characteristics related to one’s
aptitudes, values and behavioral tendencies, and peaks at the
attainment of goals related to the individual’s self-formation
and their contributions to society. is process, however, is
mediated by a series of intermediary learnings, competencies
and skill-sets, which represent stores of psychological,
economic and social value that a person develops along the
Polymathic knowledge. Polymathic knowledge, as
dened earlier, refers to the possession of a personal store of
mathemata that is characterized by the qualities of breadth,
depth and integration. As conceptualized in this work,
polymathic knowledge encompasses not only traditional
‘crystallized’ knowledge (i.e., knowledge acquired through
education and acculturation; cf. Cattel, 1971) but also
procedural thinking skills. A polymathic stock of crystallized
knowledge can be interpreted (and assessed) as the
possession of expertise (depth) in many domains (breadth),
while polymathic thinking skills refer to procedural abilities
regarding the generation, organization and concatenation of
sets of mathemata. In particular, these skills encompass the
establishment of ecient networks of thought and of robust
e process of inquiry and its proper conducting are
critical during the progression toward polymathic goals. As
a guide for what constitutes a good process of inquiry, one
can refer to the tenets of philosophical pragmatism. ey
include: (i) perceiving strategic aspects about the object in
debate; (ii) comparing and analyzing the properties of the
object in debate in relation to other objects; (iii) drawing
inferences and predictions from the properties of the object;
and (iv) examining the logical consistency of one’s beliefs
about the object in debate (see Dewey, 1938; Peirce 1878,
Figure 1. The Polymathic Path
POLYMATHY: A NEW OUTLOOK 75
1974; Webb, 2007). ese tenets are very close to what is
popularly understood today as critical or reective thinking.
In addition, it should be noted that a good process of inquiry
is entangled with other important thinking skills for the
development of a polymathic life project. Examples include
time management (i.e., the ability to organize and plan how
to divide one’s time between specic activities) and balanced
processing (i.e., the ability to apply critical thinking and
analyze dierent perspectives and potential consequences
in-depth before making a decision).
Micro-polymathy. e denition of polymathic
knowledge presented earlier implies a quality of a person’s
whole store of knowledge. However, it is possible to assess
one’s degree of polymathy within a given domain. For
instance, people who are able to perform at a high level in
several dierent sports are called sporting polymaths (see
for example, Cox, Russell, & Vamplew, 2002). is kind
of polymathy is also common in other domains: there are
artists who can act, sing, dance and play musical instruments,
scientists who have expertise in dierent scientic methods,
and so on. For a matter of dierentiation, I suggest to use the
term micro-polymathy when referring to polymathy within a
Micro-polymathy can be an important operational
construct, especially where creativity is concerned (the
operationalization can be done in various ways: via
historiometry, performance-based measures, ratings from
peers or supervisor, or consensual assessments). It has been
suggested that the habit of undergoing eld or perspective
changes—even within the same domain—can enhance one’s
creativity (see also Root-Bernstein & M. Root-Bernstein,
e polymathic life project culminates in attainments that
are highly valued by the polymathic person, which are
called polymathic achievements. In the DMP, two types
of interconnected polymathic achievements are proposed:
polymathic self-formation and polymathic eminence.
Polymathic self-formation. Maslow posed that the
formation of the self is a goal that “cannot be reduced to
anything more ultimate” (Maslow, 1965, p. 110). He used
the concept of self-actualization to describe the drive toward
self-fulllment to the highest degree; that is, the achievement
of the most of a person’s capabilities and the becoming of
a more fully functioning person. Likewise, Allport took
special interest in a person’s process of ‘becoming’ and in the
relevance of pursuing one’s most meaningful and propriative
motives in that process (Allport, 1955). Both Allport and
Maslow highlighted the role of a unifying philosophy of life,
organized around some principles, values and purposes in the
constitution of a mature or self-actualizing person (Allport,
1955, 1961; Maslow, 1965). Nonetheless, in the context of
a polymathic life project, what common themes regarding
one’s self-formation could be expected? is work proposes
that a detailed look into the German concept of Bildung can
shed light on this topic.
In the German tradition, Bildung refers to both the
process (Prozess) of formation and the condition (Zustand)
achieved by the wholly formed individual (the gebildete). is
formation involves developing a consciousness constituted
by one’s reective awareness of the self, of their relationship
to others, and of their relationship to the world (Deimann
& Farrow 2013; Fellenz, 2015; Peukert, 2002). In other
words, the result of Bildung is a person that has gone
beyond unreective or simply utilitarian use of knowledge
and competencies. e gebildete must develop a high degree
of consciousness and awareness about their actions, their
relationship to the socio-historical and cultural context, and
their potential agency for changing and transforming the
e processes (and the goals) of Bildung and polymathy
development share an intimate connection. e reective
awareness and critical thinking necessary for a gebildete status
can only be attained if grounded on a plurality of profound
and well-integrated stores of mathemata. A person who is
limited to a single kind of reality can be neither a polymath
nor a gebildete. e same applies for a person with only
supercial knowledge in various domains (the dilettante), or
a person who mastered some skills but is unable to articulate
or work back and forth between them (see also ‘schizoidism’,
Araki, 2015, pp. 79-80). Finally, Bildung entails going “beyond
the present state of aairs” (Peukert, 2002, p. 421); that is,
being able to not only comprehend the world but also—and
especially—mold it in a self-determining fashion. us, the
polymathic self-formation is connected with actions that
entail creation, transformation and the generation of new
and adaptive outcomes, which, in turn, concern the idea of
creativity and eminence.
Polymathic eminence. e term eminence is often
employed in the literature without a denition. Given the
importance of this term, this section starts by delving into
its meanings. Etymologically, eminence means “a projection,
a protuberance” or “a distinctive feature, a conspicuous
part” (Harper, n.d., para. 1). In the literature, sometimes
the distinctiveness aspect of eminence is emphasized.
For instance, Cassandro and Simonton (2003) described
eminent individuals as those “who have established distinct
and enduring reputations in a particular eld” (p. 169).
In other circumstances, the focus is on the projection or
propulsion aspect of eminence. For example, Subotnik et
al. (2011) dened eminent individuals as those “who made
a signicant contribution to improving or enhancing the
human condition” (p. 13). When a polymathic life project
is concerned, the achievement of a distinguished reputation
is just a matter of social recognition; the kind of eminence
intended is the creation of a life opus that enhances the
human condition via the generation of valuable contributions.
Eminence is, in fact, a desirable but not necessary outcome
of the polymathic life project. During the polymathic path,
each individual will compose their unique opus, containing
their unique achievements. However, only some individuals
will generate opuses that will receive the label of ‘eminent’
Eminence may arise from two types of contributions.
e rst type, called here creative eminence, regards novel and
adaptive contributions to the state of knowledge currently
possessed by humankind. As an illustration, if the whole
stock of knowledge accumulated by society would form
a geometric gure, the achievement of creative eminence
would signify the generation of a protrusion in this gure.
e second type, called here excellence eminence, regards
contributions in transcendent ways to making societal
life better and more beautiful via excellent performances
or products, which do not require the creation of new
knowledge. ese two types of eminent contributions
are related to Subotnik et al.’s (2011) distinction between
eminent performers and producers. Performers are mainly
concerned with beauty and excellence; they include singers,
instrumentalists, dancers, actors, and athletes. Producers,
on the other hand, must go beyond excellence to create
products that are original and adaptive; the producer type
includes composers, choreographers, writers, and scholars/
scientists/academics. Each type will have a dierent kind of
relationship with creativity and polymathy.
In the performing elds, it is natural to place towering
value on expertise. at is, on the mastering of the paradigms
and best practices of the eld (Subotnik et al., 2011). For
performers, groundbreaking changes are rarely useful because
the methods and procedural skills that lead to elite level
performance tend to be very well consolidated. Also, in many
elds, aspiring elite performers must start their training at a
very young age. It means that even before they can develop
a mature personality, they will be compelled to allocate most
of their time and psychic energy on the single investment of
becoming an expert in a eld. When this kind of pursuit is
confronted with polymathic personality, a number of results
may occur: (i) the person may successfully integrate some
breadth into their training—e.g., by intercalating avocational
activities with their professional training; (ii) the person
may become a sequential polymath—e.g., by suspending the
breadth drive during some period and retrieving the bond
to it at a later point in life; (iii) the person may re-signify
their breadth impulse—e.g., instead of seeking breadth in
general, they will seek it within a domain and become a
micro-polymath; or (iv) the person may disengage from the
eld—e.g., the training to perform outstandingly in a given
eld may become so psychologically costly that they will opt
to quit that pursuit.
As seen, there are some ways in which a polymathic person
can achieve early expert performance without giving up their
polymathy. For this, intrapersonal factors, environmental
variables and chance will be determining factors (see also
Gagné, 2004; Tannenbaum, 1986). When expertise is seen
as an end in itself, it is easy to argue that polymathy can be
an oppositional force, even detrimental to its achievement:
a polymathic person would become an expert despite their
polymathy. However, when the achievement of expertise is
seen as an element of a person’s whole opus, both expertise
and polymathy are taken into a dierent perspective. In
this perspective, becoming an expert in a domain is just a
milestone on a path that entails larger goals, encompassing
the individual’s self-formation and their potential of agency
in the world.
For eminent producers, creativity is the key element and
requisite. e mere reproduction of what others have done,
even at a highest level of skill, is not sucient. Regarding
their developmental trajectories, producers tend to have
more time than performers before they “must” choose their
careers. at means more opportunities to develop a wide
range of interests before they commit themselves to achieving
expertise in a given domain. Producers will also dier on
their creative ambitions. Some types of producers might, in
fact, be called faux producers. ey include individuals who
would be comfortable with being just experts—they will
generate creative productions incidentally or as a matter of
professional requirements (e.g., for earning a PhD). At the
other end of the spectrum are the producers whose ambition
is to inuence the “agenda of the times” (Sriraman, 2009,
p. 31). ey are characterized by a continuous striving to
innovate, and the refusal to “live by a presented life theme” or
“strive for goals that everyone else accepts” (Csikszentmihalyi,
1985, p. 114). For the latter type of creative ambition (and the
goals that it entails), the pursuit of polymathy may not only
be benecial but also essential (see also R. Root-Bernstein,
2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2009, 2015; R. Root-Bernstein et al.,
1993, 1995, 2008, 2013).
ose propositions can be further examined by
combining Subotnik et al.’s (2011) distinction between
performers and producers with Sternberg’s (2006) typology
of creative contributions. Sternberg outlined three types of
creative contributions: (i) those that accept current paradigms,
(ii) those that reject current paradigms, and (iii) those that
attempt to integrate multiple current paradigms. As seen,
performers tend to be experts who do not greatly deviate from
current paradigms; even the most distinguished performers
tend to fall into this category. Conversely, the most eminent
POLYMATHY: A NEW OUTLOOK 77
producers tend to be pioneers, redirectors or groundbreakers
who signicantly altered the standards of their elds (cf.
Kaufman & Beghetto, 2009; Mumford & Gustafson, 1988;
R. Bernstein et al., 2008). Given the associative nature of
creativity (Koestler 1964; Mednick, 1962; Simonton, 2003,
2011) and given that polymathy entails not only the raw
materials but also the procedural skills that enhance this
capacity, one can conclude that the more a person needs
creativity the more useful it is to being polymathic. is
proposition has been corroborated by the ndings of R. Root
Bernstein and colleagues (1993, 1995, 2008) and Sriraman
(2009). e former using mainly biographical data and the
latter using a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach. It is
posed that the advancement of a psychometric construct for
polymathy (such as trait polymathy proposed in this paper)
would open new avenues of research, thereby collaborating to
increase the level of scientic knowledge on the topic.
Intrapersonal and Environmental Moderators
As discussed, one’s development path is expected to be
inuenced by a series of factors. e DMP divides these
inuences into two categories: intrapersonal moderators and
environmental moderators. Each category encompasses a
constellation of variables that can aect, either positively or
negatively, the development of the polymathic life project.
Although this paper will list some of these elements, an
exhaustive list of moderators and their loads will depend on
empirical testing, which is beyond the scope of this article.
Intrapersonal moderators. Intrapersonal moderators
refer to the intrapersonal variables that exert inuence on
the attainment of polymathic knowledge, thinking skills
and achievements, but which do not fall into the category
of polymathic antecedents. Possible candidates are the four
elements that compose the construct of positive psychological
capital: self-ecacy, hope, optimism, and resilience (Luthans,
Luthans, & Luthans, 2004). Since they are found to have a
positive inuence on one’s psychic state as a whole and help
people achieve their goals (see Avey, Luthans, & Jensen,
2009; Sweetman, Luthans, Avey, & Luthans, 2011 for more
details), it is reasonable to expect that these factors will also
inuence the development of polymathy.
Extrapersonal moderators. Extrapersonal moderators
are environmental factors that exert inuence on the
attainment of polymathic mediators and polymathic
achievements. For instance, the access to opportunities, the
inuence of one’s milieu, the socioeconomic context, and
the actions of important individuals in a person’s life have
been highlighted as pivotal inuences in other models in
the literature (e.g., Gagné, 1995; Renzulli, 2016; Sternberg,
2003; Subotnik et al., 2011). erefore, it is reasonable to
expect that these factors will also aect the developmental
process of polymathy.
Discussions and Implications to Policy
Polymathy is a multifaceted phenomenon whose systematic
study may open new avenues of research. rough the
approach proposed in this work, topics that are normally
disconnected have been brought together for a holistic
understanding that involves the study of developmental
aspects, individual dierences, the economics of choice,
risk, opportunities and investment valuation, as well as the
interplay of a person’s “agenda” with their socio-cultural
context. In the next sections, some important topics for the
progress of polymathy studies are covered and implications
to policy and practice are discussed.
Given that polymathy is still in the early steps of becoming
a systematized scientic construct, there is a panoply of
possibilities for future studies. Some of them are explored
Psychometric polymathy. So far, polymathy has been
mainly assessed either via the biographical analyses or via
a hermeneutic-phenomenological approach. ese methods,
however, have several limitations regarding the production
of generalizable data. For the advancement of scientic
knowledge on polymathy studies, it is pivotal to formulate
a psychometric measure of polymathy. is work proposed
two possible psychometric constructs: polymathic giftedness,
which is ability-based; and trait polymathy, which is
personality-based. While one can nd some valid proxies for
the former construct in the literature (e.g., multipotentiality),
the latter still lacks a scientic formalization. Inspired by
other types of personality assessment (e.g., the ‘Big Five’
inventory, Costa & McCrae, 1992; and the trait emotional
intelligence questionnaire, Petrides & Furnham, 2001),
the author proposes the development of a trait polymathy
questionnaire in future studies. Such an instrument can be
easily applied to a large range of individuals, without the need
of retrospective data, and can lead to generalizable ndings.
Polymathy and the everyday Life. e undertaking
of a life project that qualies as polymathic is intimately
linked to how a person ultimately spends their time and
psychic energy. For instance, polymathic people tend to
devote a larger amount of time and energy into avocational
activities, when compared to specialists. One way to assess
these dierences is via the “Experience Sampling Method”
(Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987). is method is a way to
provide a quantitative measure of psychic energy expenditure
in real time as well as qualitative data regarding one’s aective,
conative and cognitive states during each activity. e study
of how polymathy is manifested in the everyday life may lead
to new insights about the nature of polymathic behavior.
Polymathy and physiology. Polymathy can (and
should) also be assessed at the biological level. In particular,
the study of individual dierences regarding the breadth-
depth homeostasis may be fruitful. Similar to the sleep-wake
homeostasis (Borbély, 1982), in which dierent individuals
display dierent optimum balances between sleep and
wakefulness, the breadth-depth homeostasis posits that the
balance toward seeking breadth or depth of knowledge may
also vary from person to person. at is, dierent individuals
may display dierent levels of pressure toward variety (breadth)
as a function of the time and energy spent in a single pursuit
(depth), and vice versa. is might be assessed with carefully
designed studies taking advantage of modern biological
monitoring methods (e.g., electroencephalography).
Polymathy in the business environment. One of the
constructs that can be readily associated with polymathy
in the business realm is multiskilling. It refers to increasing
the range and depth of people’s skills and competencies, and
enabling them to carry out tasks previously or traditionally
carried out by another function (Horbury & Wright, 2001,
p. 2). Cordery (1995) proposed that multiskilling processes
can occur in three dimensions: horizontal (more breadth),
depth (more profoundness), and vertical (the learning of
supervisory or administrative support tasks). According to the
terminology in this paper, multiskilling can be understood as
a special case of micro-polymathy, which occurs within one’s
professional domain. ereby, it is expected that aptitudes
and personality factors related to polymathy will also play
pivotal roles in the success (or lack thereof) of a person’s
multiskilling process. Nonetheless, there are some important
caveats. For instance, a polymathic person may not engage in
a multiskilling program sponsored by her company if their
values and the rewards are not properly aligned. It might be
even the case that a polymathic person will not engage in
multiskilling because it may get in the way of a person’s self-
directed polymathic pursuits.
Conclusion: Fostering Polymathy
e advancements and the systematization proposed in this
article have the intention to clarify a concept that is rich in
meaning and whose potential to inform research and policy
is currently overlooked. is is especially relevant in the
eld of education and, more specically, gifted education
(see also Shavinina, 2013). e concept of polymathy can be
used to cast new light on major discussions in these elds,
some of these discussions regarding the very ends and the
raison d’etre of gifted education. For instance, Subotnik et al.
(2011) defend that the goal of gifted education should be
the achievement of eminence. However, how can education
practitioners expect to help the development of path-
breaking, eld-altering geniuses if major issues that drive
their personality, their goals, their values, and, therefore,
their motivation are poorly understood? Overlooking the
phenomenon of polymathy, even in areas where it should
be widely acknowledged, may have led to unfortunate (and
unseen) consequences, both for individuals and for society.
In the present situation, people with polymathic
personality characteristics are pursuing their life projects
without much support from science. ese people could (and
should) count on a systematic body of scientic knowledge
that can help them in their personal strivings and in their
identity building. Scientic knowledge should be a source
of information, which people can utilize to improve their
comprehension of dierent phenomena and ultimately
exercise their agency in reective and informed ways. When
a society fails to acknowledge polymathic behavior and does
not provide a conducive environment for its ourishing, this
society is not only alienating individuals but also foregoing
the opportunity of generating more path-breaking creations,
and more original and surprising discoveries that could have
enhanced life for the benet of the whole society.
Recent polymathic educational initiatives. Despite the
long way ahead for polymathy to become a widely adopted
construct, it is the author’s opinion that the general interest
in polymathy is gaining momentum. In recent years, some
educational initiatives with a specic focus on polymathy have
sprouted in major American universities. e University of
Southern California founded the ‘Sidney Harman Academy
for Polymathic Study’, which oers “a series of conversational
encounters intended to intensify integrated interdisciplinary
awareness” (University of Southern California, 2017). e
College of Natural Sciences of the University of Texas at
Austin created an honors community designed for “students
with a commitment to science who also have compelling
interests beyond them”. It involves a certicate program that
gives undergraduates the opportunity to create, rather than
choose, a eld of study. Each student’s own personalized
eld emerges from their interests and is dened by pursuing
questions that require knowledge from more than one branch
of knowledge (University of Texas at Austin, 2017). Finally,
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Harvard
Graduate School of Education have promoted a seminar
called ‘e World in Ten Curves’, which is centered on the
idea of polymathy, its development and its benets (Fadel
& Bosch, 2014). ese initiatives have the aim to synthesize
and integrate dierent matrices of thought, surpassing the
schizoid compartmentalization that is prevalent in the
POLYMATHY: A NEW OUTLOOK 79
traditional educational system (see also ‘schizoidism’, Araki,
2015, pp. 79-80).
In conclusion, this article is a contribution to systematize
polymathy and put it in a more prominent position in the
research agenda. It extends a line of research that articulates
dierent areas of knowledge, such as psychology, education
and economics, constituting another step toward a more
integrative research agenda, seeking to nd synergies among
matrices of thought. Finally, the novel ideas proposed in this
article will hopefully contribute not only to the development
of new research but also to the enhancement of educational
practices, and to the ourishing of individuals and society.
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