No respect

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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.


  1. Brett R said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 9:50 am

    How about Mark Liberman? Not so famous, perhaps, but certainly broadly brilliant.

  2. Nick Lamb said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 10:35 am

    “Hofstadter is listed as a mathematician first, then an aesthetic theorist, then an author.”

    So, Chomsky is a "cognitive scientist" but Hofstadter isn't. I don't think the Economist put very much thought into this list.

  3. Adam Watkins said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 10:44 am

    It does seem odd, but it's possible that there was a concious attempt on the part of the writer to avoid listing their actual professions. This seems at odds with 'career profile' but I can't think of any other explanation.

  4. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Yeah, Hofstadter being listed as a mathematician first is a bit of a surprise for me (and maybe for Hofstadter too). I would have thought cognitive scientist first for him.

  5. Janice Huth Byer said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    Upon linking, I enjoyed the article but failed to locate the little box featuring Chomsky et al. Has the Economist perhaps removed it? If so, rightly so, I'd say, considering the glaring omission of "linguist" renders it rather too illustrative of the author's central thesis that successful polymaths are an increasingly rare breed.

  6. James said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    Remember that Chomsky resides in the world's only Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.

  7. Karen said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    The University College Dublin online paper ( ran this headline recently:

    Famed anarchist Chomsky to return to UCD

    At least they mentioned linguist in the story (and hat tip to Mr Verb)

  8. Bob Ladd said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

    @Janice Huth Byer: I think it's simply that the box wasn't included in the online edition. It's definitely there in the paper edition.

  9. Sili said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 2:39 pm

    I, for one, is glad to learn that the world at large is starting to ignore Chomsky's claim to being the be all, end all of linguistics.

  10. Karen said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Does Chomsky actually claim that?

  11. marie-lucie said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    Does Chomsky actually claim that?

    Not in so many words, but that is one impression one gets.


    The online article does not discuss or picture Hofstader, Diamond, Chomsky, etc. Those people must be mentioned in the paper version.

    I have only encountered the word "polymath" in reference to a person who writes about all sorts of subjects, not necessarily someone who has achieved brilliantly in several areas. At one time there was less specialized knowledge to learn, and also fewer people who had access to specialized knowledge. There were, however, large numbers of people who were literate but (especially women) had had limited access to further formal education, and who were thirsty for more knowledge: those were the members of the public who bought or borrowed books which surveyed major topics, in literature, history, science, etc. People described in their biographies as polymaths were the ones who provided such books, compiled from a variety of sources. Some of them also gave public lectures, like Thomas Young, attended by the same sort of people (and especially by women), in the days before everyone was encouraged to attend university.

  12. Janice Huth Byer said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 5:22 pm

    Bob Ladd, thanks. That makes sense. [Slaps own forehead.]

  13. Chris said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 7:10 pm

    This may sound rather anti-descriptivist and peevish, but I can't help getting really riled by the use of the word 'writer', perfectly exemplified in this article, to mean not someone whose living (partly) depends on publishing prose of any sort, but specifically someone who produces literary fiction. I recognise that this use of the term is widespread and I wouldn't for a moment try to make any of the usual foolish prescriptivist arguments against it: that it's 'illogical', 'imprecise' etc. However, I can't help deriving from a writer (in the ordinary sense)'s use of 'writer' instead of, say, 'novelist' implicatures along the lines of: producing literary fiction is a contribution to knowledge in the same way as academic work is; and: there is something tawdry and second-rate about non-fiction, whereas writers of fiction are participating in something which is of inestimable value to society. Now, I may be being paranoid in imputing these views to writers who use 'writer' in the sense of 'novelist', but I think these views are out there, and boy are they wrong and stupid.

  14. Bill Walderman said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 9:02 pm

    After reading this site for about a year and a half, I think myl qualifies for polymath status. I'm astounded at the breadth and depth of his knowledge and erudition, not just in linguistics but in math, statistics, philosophy, music and even Latin poetry.

  15. marie-lucie said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 9:22 pm

    I agree with both Chris and Bill W.

    I am interested in many scientific topics and I am glad that there are people who are sufficiently knowledgeable or even on top of more than one discipline (and of the rest of the world) to explain things clearly without talking down to the reade, and also write beautifully so that it is a pleasure to read them. There is a place for academics to write for their colleagues and graduate students in technical language and taking a certain background for granted, but there is also a place for them to write for interested non-specialists (who may themselves be specialists in other disciplines). Thank you, myl, for your contribution to this effort.

  16. roscivs said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 11:49 pm

    The first I ever heard of Chomsky was in the field of Computer Science. I realize Philosophy is a broad field, but the three things I associate with Chomsky are Computer Science, Linguistics, and Politics.

  17. dr pepper said,

    October 17, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    I think a lot of popular science writers qualify as polymaths: Gould, Asimov, Thomas. That's because they have to understand their subjects well enough to explain them for the lay reader. I'm not sure about Sacks, he stays within a single discipline.

    People who design spacecraft systems have to know a lot of physics as well as mechanical principles and properties of materials. And people who design exotic medical devices need to understand both engineering and biology.

    And what about areas other than academics? There are people who act, sing, dance, and write their own material, some are actually good at all of them. Surely they count as polymaths too.

  18. J. Goard said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 1:05 am


    I, for one, is glad to learn that the world at large is starting to ignore Chomsky's claim to being the be all, end all of linguistics.


    Does Chomsky actually claim that?

    "X's claim to being Y" and "X's claim to be Y" are very different! The former means, roughly, "the basis upon which one could make the claim that X is Y".

    BTW, Sili, I totally agree.

  19. Victor said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 1:38 am

    I posted a different response when I saw the article first–my question was, what exactly is the difference between being a political activist and author when it comes to Chomsky? For that matter, why is either of these a "string" for a polymath? Glenn Beck and Jonah Goldberg are published "authors"–as Sarah Palin will be soon as well–does that make them polymaths? Was Ronald Reagan a polymath? Actor, political activist and President!

    The authors also don't appear to make a distinction between those who are recognized experts in multiple fields (e.g., late Herb Simon, Jerry Lettvin) and the pretenders who would like to be recognized as such (Richard Posner). Why do self-proclaimed "experts" count?

    Judge Posner, in fact, is one of my favorite targets. His opinions outside of his narrow expertise in antitrust law–including even many of his written judicial opinions–are often hair-raisingly lame. One of the worst written opinion pieces I've ever read in the Boston Globe was his long whine concerning the dearth of "public intellectuals", clearly aimed at advancing his own candidacy for that claim.

    Einstein was an amateur violinist and he wrote several letters that had significant political implications. He also is recognized for his achievements in physics and chemistry. Yet, somehow, I suspect that he would eschew the title of "polymath" because he was neither a musician nor a political activist, and he was so incensed at receiving the Nobel prize for Chemistry that he intentionally wrote his acceptance lecture (or so the legend goes) to make it virtually incomprehensible to chemists.

  20. marie-lucie said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 10:40 am

    In defense of my interpretation of "polymath" above, until this thread I had only seen the word applied to people I had never heard of but who had written prolifically about many subjects, not to famous multiply-gifted, creative people like Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo or Goethe.

  21. Terry Collmann said,

    October 18, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    Personally I like to think of myself as a polymoth – flitting around many subjects …

  22. Ginger Yellow said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    "I have only encountered the word "polymath" in reference to a person who writes about all sorts of subjects, not necessarily someone who has achieved brilliantly in several areas."

    I'd agree that it seems a stretch to call these people polymaths. I mean, Diamond is basically an ornithologist turned anthropologist, which seems a bit restricted for polymathdom. Oliver Sacks's strings are "neuroscientist, author" – which surely makes dozens if not hundreds of neuroscientists polymaths.Bruce Dickinson has to be a joke, as well, not least because "TV presenter" is listed twice. I'm happier with them calling Eco a polymath.

    Incidentally, the box can be found online here.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    Note that while Chomsky may not be a linguist, Eco is listed as inter alia a semiotician. Bruce Dickinson does not seem the least plausible entry to me . . .

  24. Dan T. said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:26 am

    Isaac Asimov wrote, in his introduction to one of his collections of science essays, a criticism of the trend toward excessive specialization in science, where nobody sees the "big picture" any more; this was, I believe, published around 1963.

  25. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

    The first time I encountered the word polymath was when it was used in regard to Robert Hughes. I had heard of him because I'd read his art criticism in Time magazine.

    I think polymath is the opposite of dilletante — both have wide interests, but the polymath is gifted in numerous fields.

  26. Terry Hunt said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    Terry Collmann, I wish I had said that. In fact, I probably will :-). (I'll try to remember to attribute it.)

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