Definition of polymathy. What is it, characteristics and list of famous polymaths

Definition of polymathy. What is it, characteristics and list of famous polymaths

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What is polymathy?

Leonardo Da Vinci defined polymathy as "The ability to encompass knowledge about diverse fields in science, art and humanities", and such is the current definition of what a polymath is.

Birth of the polymath concept

The concept of polymathy was born in the Italian Renaissance (uomo universale), with the meanings already known as "Renaissance man" or "scholar", thus collecting the basic principles of humanism of the time: man is an all-powerful being, who due to his unlimited capacities had to cover all fields of knowledge and develop them.

Leon Alberti, one of its highest representatives, stated that:

The artist in this social context must not be a simple craftsman, but an intellectual prepared in all disciplines and in all fields.

Similarly, he expressed that:

A man can do all things if he wants to.

The first written mention of "polymathy"

The first time we see a title that contains the word «polymathy»In Europe was published in the year 1603 by the German philosopher Johann von Wowern, in his work "De Polymathia tractatio: integri operis de studiis veterum".

In his book, von Wowern defines polymathy as:

Knowledge of various subjects, drawn from all kinds of studies that spread freely across all fields of disciplines.

In turn, the philosopher lists erudition, literature, philology, philomaty and polyhistory as synonyms.

We must bear in mind that, although the center is in the Renaissance, polymaths include the great thinkers of that historical period, but also Enlightenment and of the Islamic Golden Age.

The term "Renaissance man"

However, the term "renaissance man”Began to become popular in the 20th century, and applies to thinkers regardless of when they lived (before, during or after the Renaissance).

Polymathy in the scientific community

Robert Root-Bernstein

The professor of physiology Robert Root-Bernstein is considered the main driver of the awakening of polymathy in the scientific community, by signing, together with many colleagues, various works of great importance that focused on the modern study of this aptitude.

In them, Root-Bernstein emphasizes the contrast that exists between the polymath and two other types of people: the specialist and the dilettante.

Difference between polymath, specialist and dilettante


You are a person who is able to devote a significant amount of time and effort to your hobbies, while finding ways to use your multiple interests to support your vocations.


Shows a lot of depth in a given topic, but lacks breadth of knowledge.


It shows superficial breadth, but tends to acquire skills simply out of self-interest, without thinking of broader implications or integrating them.

These concepts can be found in: “Multiple giftedness in adults: The case of polymaths. In International handbook on giftedness ”(pp. 853–870). Root-Bernstein, R. (2009). Springer, Dordrecht.

Peter burke

On the other hand, Cambridge Professor Emeritus of Cultural History, Peter Burke, calls polymaths an "intellectual species", even presenting a full historical account of its rise and fall.

According to Burke, in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, scholars didn't need to specialize, but the changes that occur from the seventeenth century such as the increase in knowledge or systematic investigation of the natural world, made it increasingly difficult for one person to master as many disciplines as it had previously.

Thus, knowledge was passed "from all academic fields, to knowledge in various fields", at the same time that went from making original contributions to mass consumption than others were making.

According to Burke, now it is easier to find “passive polymaths”, that consume a lot of knowledge in multiple disciplines, but that build their reputation in a single discipline, thus adapting to today's world.

The multipotentials

Nowadays, a new conceptual movement is emerging that can resemble polymaths: multipotentials, which, according to definition of multipotential that they give us from Moove Magazine:

They are those people who show a constructive, exploratory attitude and in constant active search for the development of their powers, whatever they should be. In addition, they have sufficient aptitude and skills to make such development possible.

So we could say that multipotentials can become polymaths, and in turn all polymaths are multipotentials.

If you want to know more about multipotentials, this article can help you:

List of famous polymaths

We have mentioned some polymaths throughout the article, but the list is quite extensive and without a doubt, many have been left out. But, to get a general idea, famous polymaths were:

Pythagoras of Samos580 BC - 495 BC
Democritus460 BC - 370 BC
Xenophon430 BC - 362 BC
Aristotle384 BC - 322 BC
Hypatia of Alexandria355 – 415
Isidoro of Seville560/570 – 636
Sylvester II945/950 – 1003
Avicenna (Ibn Sina)980 – 1037
Shen Kuo1031 – 1095
Omar Khayyam1048 – 1131
Hildegard of Bingen1098 – 1179
Averroes1126 – 1198
Ramon Llull1232 – 1315
Nicolas Oresme1320/22 – 1382
Leon Battista Alberti1404 – 1472
Antonio de Nebrija1444 – 1522
Pico de la Mirandola1463 – 1494
Leonardo da Vinci1452 – 1519
Nicolaus Copernicus1473 – 1543
Galileo Galilei1564 – 1642
Miguel Angel1475 – 1564
Matrakçı Nasuh1480 – 1564
Miguel Servet1509 – 1553
Faust Summer1551 – 1617
Jerónimo de Ayanz and Boumont1553 – 1613
Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc1580 – 1637
Marin mersenne1588 – 1648
Rene Descartes1596 – 1650
Samuel Hartlib1600 – 1662
Gabriel Naudé1600 – 1653
Athanasius Kircher1601 – 1680
Pierre de Fermat1610 – 1665
Blaise pascal1623 – 1662
Isaac Newton1643 – 1727
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz1646 – 1716
Johann kuhnau1660 – 1722
Emanuel Swedenborg1688 – 1772
Benjamin Franklin1706 – 1790
Mikhail Lomonosov1711 – 1765
Ruđer Bošković1711 – 1787
Jean-Jacques Rousseau1712 – 1778
Marie-Geneviève-Charlotte Thiroux d’Arconville1720 – 1805
Jean-Paul Marat1743 – 1793
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe1749 – 1832
Alexander Hamilton1757 – 1804
Alexander von Humboldt1769 – 1859
Thomas young1773 – 1829
Mary Somerville1780 – 1872
Andres Bello1781 – 1865
Charles Babbage1791 – 1871
Domingo Faustino Sarmiento1811 – 1888
Bartolomé Miter1821 – 1906
Richard Francis Burton1821 – 1890
Francis Galton1822 – 1911
José Echegaray and Eizaguirre1832 – 1916
Charles Sanders Peirce1839 – 1914
Henri Poincaré1854 – 1912
Rabindranath Tagore1861 – 1941
Bertrand Russell1872 – 1970
Pavel Florenski1882 – 1937
Karl Jaspers1883 – 1969
Ivan Sollertinsky1902 – 1944
John von Neumann1903 – 1957
Jacob Bronowski1908 – 1974
Isaac asimov1920 – 1992
Hedy Lamarr1914 – 2000
Michel Foucault1926 – 1984
Mario bunge1919 – 2020

Images: Public domain.

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Video: Polymath: A Definition