Public Intellectuals as Polymaths: The Limits to Expertise

Spencer Caron ’20

Opinions Editor

One is rightly in awe when considering Aristotle’s breadth and depth of knowledge. It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that Aristotle wrote about everything that matters: chemistry, physics, ethics, botany, the afterlife, so on and so forth. In many cases, Aristotle proved to be uncannily accurate in his hypotheses. One need only read his description of how sound is produced in book two of “On the Soul” to appreciate the astuteness of his scientific claims. Is there something arrogant in the sheer pursuit of knowledge of all things? Today, certainly. But one can argue that–surely, the time period during which this is even tenable is debatable–until relatively recently, near comprehensive knowledge of one’s own field was possible for the dedicated scholar, and for the once-a-generation genius, his field and the fields of others were possible to understand comprehensively. In other words, some intellectuals of antiquity doubled as polymaths in the true sense.

Now consider the question proposed above in light of modern scholarship. Specifically, can claims of polymathy be taken seriously, and should one who claims to be an expert across disciplines be considered arrogant, if not dangerous? One is wise to refrain from immediate condemnation of such claims; for one thing, it cannot be convincingly argued that general levels of intelligence have declined since the time of Aristotle. Equally true, perhaps, is that intelligence levels are the same, all things considered, which still does nothing to facially invalidate any modern scholar’s claim of comprehensive knowledge across discrete disciplines.

Another broad consideration to factor in before focusing on individual cases of potential polymaths is the vastly different nature of scholarship of modernity in comparison to any time period pre-Enlightenment era. Put briefly, one need only consider the path to a PhD as evidence for the inherently narrow field of expertise a modern scholar can claim. Take one example of the title of a doctoral philosophy thesis: “The Opacity of Renunciation in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” by Shawn Normandin of Boston University. One should not question the brilliance of the thesis’ findings; however, this scholar’s hallmark academic achievement will not be a mastery of the entire work, much less Chaucer’s bibliography, but one literary approach regarding thematic element in some of Chaucer’s work. Again, and importantly, this is not to criticize the scholarship, but instead point out the inherent narrowness of the scholar’s, and perhaps soon-to-be public intellectuals’, academic road.

These two considerations in mind, it is most helpful now to take a pragmatic approach and examine whether there are any particularly striking examples of public intellectuals who defy odds and prove that polymathy is possible amidst infinite information and academic hyper-specialization. No stranger to the public sphere, Jordan Peterson, PhD, is a germane figure from whom to begin this analysis. Jordan Peterson need not have declared that he is in fact an expert in many fields. One can imply, no doubt with good-will, that Peterson at least finds himself to be knowledgeable about the following fields: theology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, history, linguistics, myth/folklore, and to a lesser extent, nutrition. As somewhat of a fan of Peterson’s academic work in the field of psychology, the field in which he is indeed an expert, this list simply reflects topics he has discussed in forums that connote seriousness; in other words not tweeted about, discussed informally with friends and recorded by an onlooker, and so forth.

Peterson is certainly allowed to speak on any issue he so chooses. This ability is legally protected and further, Peterson has gained a public platform that awards him the possibility to speak outside of his field without fear of losing his teaching job and therefore livelihood. The far more interesting and important question is whether Peterson and other similarly situated public intellectuals (Dawkins, Nye, Steinem, and others) are benefited by speaking formally across disciplines. Keeping with Peterson as an example, he has undoubtedly become more well known, wealthier, and is often credited as being the catalyst for important conversations–all good things by most measures. Conversely, one is hard pressed to argue that his reputation as a clinical psychologist has improved, or that his additions to debates in the arena of theology and sociology have been more productive than they have been detrimental.

Crucially, this argument ought not to be conflated with that which says that person A with immutable characteristic X cannot speak about topic Y. Put another way, a measured critique of Peterson talking across disciplines without being formally trained in said disciplines is categorically different than saying a woman cannot speak about ways in which men could be better parents, or some analog of this example. The latter in most cases results in an ad hominem attack based on a faulty premise–that one cannot comment on a social phenomenon unless one possesses a certain discrete list of physical characteristics.

With this distinction in mind, one can argue that Peterson’s specific public daringness to address multiple disciplines has resulted in three concrete injuries to his reputation as a scholar. First, his public career has revealed quite explicitly his political and religious leanings, which at the very least introduce an additional variable when examining his academic work. This injury is perhaps the least grave, as Peterson could be seen to have left his academic work behind in exchange for the life of a lecturing intellectual. Peterson’s entire body of academic work is on YouTube, so one is free to search for biased teaching if one so chooses. Second, his comments pertaining to fields of which he is not an expert have been sounded at times absurd. For instance, Peterson claims on a popular podcast show that apple cider caused him to lie sleepless for 25 consecutive nights. In a similar vein, he has endorsed a nearly carnivorous diet as a way to better one’s health holistically. One begins to wonder why exactly a psychology professor is commenting publicly on his personal opinions regarding food. Finally, and one might say most troubling for Peterson, is the seemingly hypocritical implication of his polymath-esque proclivities. In his best-selling book “Twelve Rules for Life” Peterson implores one to one’s room before making suggestions to the world. The point is not lost on one, but would not this same logic apply to Peterson’s academic work? Namely, master one’s own vast and complex field before offering a comprehensive theological framework? And this is perhaps the main reason why claims of modern polymathy ring absurd from the outset. It is no longer tenable to assume that one is able to become competent in, much less master, more than one field in a career’s time. Peterson is free to speak widely, but his progression seems less professor turned polymath than professor turned jack of all trades (and master of none).


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