Polymaths at war

This is a little potted biography of Moshe Feldenkrais from the introduction to The Potent Self (disclaimer, this book gets rave reviews across The Internet but I’ve only read his preface so far and he spends the greater part of it defensively explaining why most of the book is about sex, so I am reserving judgement)

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Isn’t the biography itself fascinating though? I have a subjective impression, which I would be delighted to see reinforced by evidence that other people provide without me having to do anything, that it has been easier, at certain points in the twentieth century, to be a high-achieving polymath than it is now.

The practical framework of modern capitalism, it seems to me, tells against polymaths in two ways: (a) credentialism in the job market and (b) the hedonic treadmill. By credentialism, I don’t simply mean that one has to have certain bits of paper or experiences in order to be considered for a job – that is the least of it. One actually has to have an entire coherent narrative of events and self-improvement leading towards the particular job one seeks. I know this because where I work in HE it’s what we teach the students. If you’ve ever hired anyone you’ll know that, no matter what your best intentions, you’ll pretty quickly default to pattern-matching to pick out the applications you want to take forward – the ones that are the most obvious match, the ones that give the more coherent story about who these people are and why their names are in front of you. The ones who make it easy for you, because you have limited time and you need to cover your arse – and that’s capitalism, folks!

And the hedonic treadmill tends to keep us doing the same things, at an increasingly senior level, to maintain a certain lifestyle rather than start all over again doing things we might actually want to do, things that might expand our minds or make use of talents we haven’t developed properly. The hedonic treadmill is really just the driving engine of the narrative point above – newspapers may whiffle about the new millennial jobseeker and their “portfolio” (i.e. unsupported) career, but the whole point is that those people aren’t on the treadmill yet. I would guess that in most British work contexts it’s bloody hard to get in as a “new starter” at a senior age, even if you decide you want to. The decision itself looks suspect; the system is not set up for you. You’re not on the treadmill! Why would you want that?

What mechanisms might disrupt the operation of these two polymath-favouring factors? Well, some of them are associated with wartime conditions, at least in 20th century British history. For a start in wartime there’s a lot of work to be done, and someone has to do it – literally has to do it in the case of antisubmarine research for the Admiralty, or all our boats will be blown up. And in any technical field where there is a shortage of expertise (which right up to the present day is most of them) this will tell against credentialism. Wartime conditions also create movement, disrupt lives, and overrule personal narratives. Nobody expects someone who has just fled from genocide to have a totally coherent personal and intellectual narrative, unless of course you are the modern-day Tory front bench. Lastly, wartime conditions reduce opportunities for consumption. Not only is the hedonic treadmill transparently no longer the main business of life for people who are now fighting or working in munitions factories; its outwardly measurable consumables are not even available.

As such, war-torn Europe perhaps produced opportunities for polymathic activity which postwar Europe has, in the most well-meaning possible way, been stifling with increasing success ever since.

H/t @Andrew_Wyld for the convo

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