A polymath is someone of great and varied learning. Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Jared Diamond, Stephen Fry, Tom Lehrer and Clive James can all be considered polymaths: they’ve done great things in very different fields. As someone who has published research in geography, water resources research, economics, psychology, infectious diseases epidemiology and drug policy, am I some sort of cut-rate, two-dollar-shop polymath? At the very least, I’m not a monomath (someone with a single, narrow field of interest).
Monomathy is, of course, a fundamental building block of the modern capitalist world. The Industrial Revolution was largely founded on monomathy; in pursuit of maximum efficiency, workers were made to repeat very simple and often tedious tasks for their entire working lives. Ironically, Adam Smith, the great Scottish economist and polymath, as well as noting that the division of labour was the engine of capitalism, observed that pushed too far it led to ‘mental mutilation’. This is a particularly interesting observation given what we now know about lack of mental stimulation and the onset of dementia.
Read more on this topic in excellent articles from Robert Twigger (Aeon Magazine, 4th November 2013 – from which I borrowed heavily in writing the text above), and Edward Carr (More Intelligent Life, The Economist, Autumn 2009).