A note from Bob Ladd:
Yesterday I received a complimentary copy of Intelligent Life, the Economist's foray into general magazine publishing. One of the feature articles was entitled "The last days of the polymath?", with profiles of a few people who "know a lot about a lot" and ruminations on the age of specialisation. The article includes a little box entitled "Living polymaths: who qualifies?", which lists about twenty people who were regarded as qualifying for that title in an informal office poll of staffers at the Economist and Intelligent Life. The list includes a number of names that LL readers might have been expected to come up with, including Jared Diamond, Douglas Hofstadter, and Noam Chomsky (no Daniel Dennett, though).
For each person listed, the box shows their name, age, and nationality, as well as up to five "strings" (presumably as in "another string to his bow"). The strings are ordered by their importance in the individual's intellectual and career profile – so Hofstadter is listed as a mathematician first, then an aesthetic theorist, then an author. Here, too, not a lot of surprises.
However, LL readers may be interested to learn of Chomsky's list of "strings". He's listed first as a philosopher, second as a cognitive scientist, third as a political activist, and fourth as an author. What, you might well ask, happened to "linguist"? The fact that the Economist feels it appropriate to label Chomsky a philosopher is about as clear an indication as one could ask for that linguistics as a field remains invisible.