posner the polymath

Unlike France, America and Britain don’t tend to encourage public intellectuals. But if they did, Richard Posner would be their standard-bearer. Posner’s day job is as an appeals-court judge in Chicago—a career founded upon his reputation as America’s pre-eminent thinker on anti-trust law. But Posner is not just a lawyer. In his spare time he has written on sex, security, politics, Hegel, Homeric society, medieval Iceland and a whole lot more. The Wall Street Journal once called him a “one-man think-tank”. Posner thinks like a polymath. “I’m impatient and I’m restless,” he says, in a matter-of-fact way. “After I graduated from law school, I worked first in government for six years. I enjoyed it but I didn’t really want to make a career of that. I went into teaching without any great sense of commitment, but I couldn’t think of anything else. But gradually I lost int erest, as the 1970s wore on, I became involved in consulting. So when the judgeship came along in 1981—quite out of the blue—I was happy to take that. I just kind of slid into law. It is sort of the default career choice in the United States.”

Posner first made his name as a monomath. “I had a very big intellectual commitment for many years to anti-trust law. I wrote a lot about that.” Eventually, though, the polymath rose to the surface and he put anti-trust behind him. “I just got bored with it, I think the field slowed down—it happens with fields,” he says. These days most people cling to their expertise; Posner talks about it as if he were trading in an old car.

After he became immersed in the intellectual life of the University of Chicago, Posner started to apply insights from economics to a broad range of subjects. In his book “Sex and Reason”, written in 1990, he used economics to explain a part of life that specialist lawyers and economists had tended to think was beyond their reach. To take a simple example, the AIDS epidemic made gay sex unavoidably more costly, either because of the risk of disease or of switching to safe sex. It therefore reduced the amount of gay sex—and, by the same mechanism, cut the number of illegitimate births and inc reased the number of legitimate ones.

The book was a success because Posner had the field pretty much to himself. “Sometimes one goes into a new area and there hasn’t been much done in it and then you are a little ahead of the curve,” he says. Even then, the monomaths were in hot pursuit. “After a while there is so much in it that you don’t know what you’re going to do. Since 1990 the field has become extremely crowded because of specialisation and not very attractive.” Time to move on.

The monomaths do not only swarm over a specialism, they also play dirty. In each new area that Posner picks—policy or science—the experts start to erect barricades. “Even in relatively soft fields, specialists tend to develop a specialised vocabulary which creates barriers to entry,” Posner says with his economic hat pulled down over his head. “Specialists want to fend off the generalists. They may also want to convince themselves that what they are doing is really very difficult and challenging. One of the ways they do that is to develop what they regard a rigorous methodology—often mathematical.

“The specialist will always be able to nail the generalists by pointing out that they don’t use the vocabulary quite right and they make mistakes that an insider would never make. It’s a defence mechanism. They don’t like people invading their turf, especially outsiders criticising insiders. So if I make mistakes about this economic situation, it doesn’t really bother me tremendously. It’s not my field. I can make mistakes. On the other hand for me to be criticising someone whose whole career is committed to a particular outlook and method and so on, that is very painful.”

For a polymath, the charge of dabbling never lies far below the surface. “With the amount of information that’s around, if you really want to understand your topic thoroughly then, yes, you have to specialise,” says Chris Leek, the chairman of British Mensa, a club for people who score well on IQ tests. “And if you want to speak with authority, then it’s important to be seen to specialise.”

That is why modern institutions tend to exclude polymaths, he says. “It’s very hard to show yourself as a polymath in the current academic climate. If you’ve got someone interested in going across departments, spending part of the time in physics and part of the time elsewhere, their colleagues are going to kick them out. They’re not contributing fully to any single department. OK, every so often you’re going to get a huge benefit, but from day to day, where the universities are making appointments, they want the focus in one field.”

via More Intelligent Life.