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Theoretical Polymathics

Though I am much more interested in practical polymathics there does seem a need to clarify, in a theoretical sense, what is meant by polymathics. If only to highlight the dramatic difference in this way of thinking from all others[1].


Even where polymathy is advanced as a good thing it is treated rather tamely as mixing arts and sciences, in other words a compote of head knowledge. But the human organism has, we know now, a distributed intelligence. Because much of what we thought was done by the brain is actually performed and influenced by other areas of the body, we literally think with our entire bodies. And we use our bodies and include our bodies in all our activities. If you can't sit still for a long time you won't be able to do maths or write essays. So sitting still is a necessary academic skill. Beyond such simple examples there is the language we use. It is not derived from being brains in vats, it is derived from millenia of human experience involving physical exertion and physical skill. This provides both metaphorical and scientific clout to a new  perspective- that of polymathics.


Every area of knowledge- including mathematics has both tacit and explicit components. Typically, the tacit components are doubly hidden from view as they are the preserve of the people who are ‘good at’ a subject and seek to maintain their advantage. Being good at maths means more than memory and logical reasoning. It includes such diverse things as liking numbers, seeing patterns, having a feel for geometry, being enthusiastic about swapping algebraic forms around. Nietzsche was the first philosopher to promote the idea that foremost in knowledge is the value, the importance we attribute to a statement. Now we might add that how interested and enthusiastic we are is a key part of our ability to understand and perform in a subject area.


Maths is the province of people who are good at maths. People without maths ability have to take things on trust. People who are good at physics may understand Einstein, those who aren’t have to take it on trust. To be ‘good at’ art also involves tacit knowledge. Knowing how to cross hatch with style has many many applications but it is something made explicit with some difficulty and has to be learned as a skill. Indeed one definition of the tacit is that it is a ‘skill’ and not simply a series of logical moves made with information remembered.


So each area has a tacit component that is often overlooked – for various reasons, not the least of which being that it is difficult to write about and academic subjects are conveyed using textbooks and other written materials.


Tacit knowledge is built through experience rather than reading, though a certain kind of reading- autobiography for example- can really help speed up the acquisition of tacit knowledge.


Though there may be great differences between the explicit knowledge of a subject- a huge difference between integration and the history of Rome, there is something common about all tacit knowledge. Or there is more linkage here.


Polymathics focuses on the tacit knowledge aspect of all subject areas. It finds commonalities and is therefore a substitute for long experience in any area. It is a path to rapid skill and knowledge acquisition.


Academic study is based on the essential difference between subject areas. Indeed to receive funding for research your subject is prejudiced if it does not fall in an existing area. So funding- which is crucial in many areas- just reinforces the splintered image of knowledge.


But a premise of polymathics is that all knowledge is linked by a wider context. Also, that the context of a subject is vastly important. The denial or reduction of context is the simplest way to achieve odd, interesting and ultimately damaging results in any area. The more context you include the harder it becomes to ‘solve’ problems. It may be frustrating but it is better for everyone.


If all knowledge is linked in a Fortean way and if the tacit component of knowledge is much more common that we imagine we have some insight into the connection between genius and polymathy.


Polymathics is concerned with ranking the scope and range of knowledge from a new perspective. This is: how connected is the subject under study to the rest of the world. Instead of maths and physics at the top they might come at the bottom. Physical activities such as dance and martial arts may take their place. Artistic pursuits and making could also rank highly.


Polymathics starts from the position that we are humans- with minds and bodies that are interconnected and a social system that is interconnected. There could be no language without this prior interconnection. Before man spoke he was part of a primitive primate group that nevertheless communicated using rudimentary versions of language. Taking this anthropological view of language, refusing to privilege it simply because of its logical efficacy, is the final act we must take in discarding the obvious errors brought about by the Cartesian fallacy.


Polymathics is able to treat static and dynamic knowledge with due deference to each. Instead of treating dynamic knowledge as an inferior and limited version of static knowledge.


Polymathics is able to integrate both right and left brain perspectives.


One of the key questions in knowledge is: A) when does what I know cease to apply here?


And B): can I understand what I am seeing with my current stock of knowledge as my only interpretative guide?


Obviously B is a version of A. But the key point is: we are usually poor at recognising that we don’t understand what we are looking at. We are much more likely to represent it using existing knowledge, even if it’s wrong. This is modern version of a primitive man looking at an aeroplane and calling it a flying horse. That we are just as easily mislead as primitive men when it comes to the unfamiliar is a point of faith in polymathics borne out by countless observations.


Bending what I know out of shape to increase it’s scope is where falsehood begins. There are no ‘truth’ tests or handy Popperian gambits to help here. Everyone, in every area, is capable of being lead astray by their own enthusiasm and by the structure of the subject itself, into making statements that are unsupported, except by internal reference.


How do we know when we are going off course? Experience, usually. Making mistakes over a lifetime teaches some real lessons. We begin to get a feel for the nine tenths of the iceberg that is tacit knowledge. But some subjects have less experiential feedback than others.


Polymathics aims to simulate tacit knowledge, indeed is a substitute for it, enabling far more rapid understanding, far more accurate understanding and the ability to master subjects outside one’s ‘field’.


[1]Except perhaps those philosophies influenced by Eastern thought- Sufism, Daoism and Zen.

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