Praise Polymaths

Once upon a time folks who traveled far were treated with suspicion.  Sure if you were rich and traveled like the rich you weren’t more suspicious than other rich.  But those who traveled more than their class were suspected, correctly on average, of being less loyal to their neighbors.

Today travel is mostly celebrated; people love to talk about their trips and admire the well-traveled, even beyond the wealth it signals.  But travel today doesn’t much threaten loyalty – intellectual contact with locals is limited, and usually selected to be like-minded.  Ooh look, another pretty building.  True intellectual travel, where you actually take the time to see things from different perspectives, is rare, more valuable, and yet elicits more suspicion than admiration.

You see, our beliefs are severely distorted by our culture and training, and intellectual travel remains our only remotely reliable remedy.  We all know that we would have been inclined toward different beliefs had we been raised in different cultures or disciplines.  We see consistent differences between folks trained in West vs. East, science vs. humanities, economics vs. sociology, and in different schools of thought of most any discipline.  We like to think that we correct for this, but when we realize how hard that is, we throw up our hands saying “what ya gonna do?”

But we do know one thing that actually works –  taking the time to be trained in several conflicting cultures, disciplines, or schools.  Yes most of us don’t have the time for that, but if we were really concerned about such biases we would be respectful of and eager to learn from those who take the time to make honest intellectual travel.  We would be quite curious about, and deferential toward, the conclusions of smart thoughtful travelers about which sides in these conflicts seem more right.

But in fact, we are mostly suspicious of true intellectual travelers.  We much prefer loyal ambassadors of us, who visit them to 1) make us look good, 2) make them look bad,  3) persuade them, or 4) learn more about their weaknesses, etc.  For example, interdisciplinary academics take care to show they are loyal to a core discipline, and cross-cultural pundits take care to show they haven’t “gone native.”  We love to point to ex-them who have converted to join us, but we don’t trust those folks farther than we can throw them.

To counter these strong currents, try to celebrate, and truly listen to, honest intellectual travelers, who take the time to be trained in other cultures, disciplines, and schools, which then influences their thoughtful contributions.

Added 13FebCarl Djerassi sensibly prefers “intellectual polygamy”:

Nowadays people that are called polymaths are dabblers—are dabblers in many different areas.  I aspire to be an intellectual polygamist. And I deliberately use that metaphor to provoke with its sexual allusion and to point out the real difference to me between polygamy and promiscuity.  To me, promiscuity is a way of flitting around. Polygamy, serious polygamy, is where you have various marriages and each of them is important. And in the ideal polygamy I suspect there’s no number one wife and no number six wife. You have a deep connection with each person.

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