The Need for More Foxes: Polymaths and Hyper-specialization

The Need for More Foxes: Polymaths and Hyper-specialization

In Adam Smith’s second book—An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, popularly known as simply The Wealth of Nations—he asked why almost all countries at the time of writing were poor except for northwest Europe. His answer was in the first line: “The greatest improvements in the productive powers of labour…seem to have been the effects of the division of labor.” By focusing on specific tasks in Smith’s proverbial pin factory, a group of workers can make more pins in a day than if each individual were left to do each task on their own. 

While specialization in the market economy causes higher standards of living, Smith acknowledged an important downside. Smith believed “the understandings of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments” and, within the specialized commercial economy, work tasks are “confined to a very few simple operations.” With so few avenues of mental stimulation in their daily lives, people ended up being “not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning even of the ordinary duties of private life.” 

He compared this to less-complex societies like hunter-gatherers where everyone needed to know how to do everything. Every man was a warrior, a medic, a hunter, a navigator, and craftsman. The individual people in these societies could do none of those tasks as well as the experts in Smith’s 18th century Scotland, but they still kept all of their mental acuities sharp.

To Smith, economic specialization was the best path to prosperity, but it needed to be coupled with basic education to create more well-rounded citizens. Without this education, the population would be vulnerable to “superstitions and delusions” that lead to poor participants in a democracy. Karl Marx took this idea in part to develop his idea of the Entfremdung, or the “estrangement of labor.” Marx’s utopian vision for society was one away from specialization where it’s “possible for me…to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.”

One industrial revolution and one digital revolution later, the contemporary labor market is even further hyper-specialized. The result has left us with the intellectual atrophy Smith and Marx warned of, mediocre civic engagement, and a sub-optimal rate of economic growth.


Smith was touching upon a topic that philosophers had been debating for millennia: How specialized should people be? In Isaiah Berlin’s phrasing, people can be either foxes, knowing a little about a lot of things, or hedgehogs, knowing a lot about one thing. Should scholars and everyday people be encouraged to be generalists or specialists?

The history of social attitudes towards this spectrum are found extensively in Peter Burke’s book The Polymath. Someone is considered a polymath who has mastered many disciplines, but the book’s analysis can be extended to the broader discussion about generalists versus specialists.

Throughout time, there have always been some who view foxes as impostors, uselessly regurgitating the work of others without really knowing any individual subject. The negative image of a fox is the person at a cocktail party who can name drop authors and cite familiarity with sophisticated works of art, despite not understanding any of it nor contributing any new thoughts. The positive image of a fox is the person with insatiable curiosity whose drive to conquer the world’s knowledge makes them interested in everything. 

Even the most impressive polymaths could have their insatiable curiosity be their own worst enemy. Unable to focus on one pursuit meant that many projects were left unfinished, unrefined, or as completely unsuccessful ideas. Da Vinci, perhaps the most famous polymath, struggled to finish his imaginative crossbow, square a circle, or leave the Last Supper in decent condition. From a fox-critic’s point of view, this shows the futile efforts of polymaths that would be better spent prioritizing their focus rather than dipping their toes into so many things.

Another way to think of those often considered to be polymaths is as “compilers” or human encyclopedias. For centuries, as Peter Burke puts it, “the function of the scholar was to transmit traditional knowledge rather than to transmit something new.” Being well-read, as many ‘men of letters’ were thought of in their day, is simply regurgitating the work of others. 

The Polymath shows that the prevailing societal view of foxes versus hedgehogs is in part a function of what information was available. During antiquity, scholars could easily access two thousand books. The European monastic libraries in the 9th century contained sometimes only a few hundred. During the latter time, published knowledge was limited enough that it seemed conquerable, and that being well-read in many disciplines was not at the expense of losing expertise in another. Thus, that time period was relatively fox-supportive.

Eventually, the world reached what Burke calls a crisis of knowledge. Europe’s postal roads expanded greatly, the printing press became cheaper and more accessible, and a cultural shift against the Dark Ages led to an explosion of available information. Many saw this as an alarming situation whereby sifting through all published books and prioritizing what to read was an impossible task. Soon, the idea of being well-read in all subjects was met with so much skepticism that the pendulum swung back against foxes and the intellectual climate was more supportive of hedgehogs. Burke notes that in Goethe’s version of the legend of Faust in the late 18th century, for example, “Faust’s thirst for knowledge was meant to be a weakness.” The prevailing wisdom towards foxes can best be summed up from a quote by Daniel Morhof in 1688: “Those who wish to live everywhere will live nowhere and dominate nothing, or at best visit many places superficially.”

Academic institutions began to specialize into more and more sub-disciplines. Immanuel Wallerstein remarked that, “The runaway expansion of the university system worldwide…created a structural pressure for increased specialization simply because scholars were in search of niches.” Scholars needed to separate themselves from each other as a means of professional self-preservation. Slowly, university heads by the end of the 19th century were pushing for less specialized curricula. The President of the University of Chicago from 1929-1945, Robert Hutchins, pushed for a curriculum based around “a common set of fundamental ideas” that exemplified the move towards a broader education that now dominates American elite higher education institutions.

Education versus market

Today’s education system recognizes Smith’s intellectual atrophy through specialization via public provision of education, though the breadth and depth of this varies across the world. The secondary school system in most of Germany, for example, stratifies students at ten years old into three different tracks with varying levels of academic and vocational focus: Hauptschule, Realschule, and Gymnasium. The British system encourages a broad education, but the English university system is designed to have students spend all three undergraduate years studying one subject. Scottish universities have a four-year degree where the first two years are somewhat pick-and-choose before third and fourth years are devoted entirely to only one or two subjects. 

Further towards the generalist side of the spectrum, the American liberal arts experience—by no means the universal American higher education experience—encourages a breadth of classroom experience, including but not limited to an elementary knowledge of a foreign language, basic math, basic history, and basic science, which eventually lead to a relatively less focused “major.” Purely seen through a labor market lens, the German approach can be thought of as more practical in that vocational training is given higher priority, whereas the American system encourages a broader education before entry into the labor market.

Independent of educational approaches, the contemporary economy requires hyper-specialization. People change careers and jobs require inter-disciplinary knowledge to some extent, but jobs themselves are incredibly specialized. As Smith said, it is the “ordinary employments” that dominate the intellectual stimulation of the majority. Finishing higher education sometime between eighteen years old and one’s thirties still leaves decades of responding to labor market demand rather than what the scholarly world has prioritized. The retention of a foreign language or history of the Civil War learned in high school is weak by middle age.

Evidence shows that the job reallocation rate – a crude estimate for the rate of job changing in the economy – has declined nearly a quarter since the early 1990s. A lot of factors go into this, but part of it is that changing career verticals has become a lot harder. Salespeople specialize not only in specific products within specific industries, but also within specific geographic regions. Journalists specialize not only in specific beats, but also through specific mediums and reporting towards specific audiences. The lateral moves within these professions may be easier compared to someone entirely new to the field, but they are no longer as close of substitutes as they used to be.

Economic and human loss

Smith’s arguments still ring true about how the hyper-specialized work environment is bad for democratic participation. While the internet is a boon for what is technically accessible, it has also embellished our bubbles just as often as it has broken down walls. With an overwhelming availability of information, a new crisis is upon us. Even ignoring online disinformation, people’s lack of familiarity with the values, culture, and circumstances of their fellow neighbors has contributed to paralyzing political polarization. A silver lining of the Trump administration has been to show the insufficient awareness of the gears and levers in America’s political system to even the most informed citizens. 

The economic and intellectual impacts of this hyper-specialization are mixed but suggest the status quo has tilted too much towards specialization. On the one hand, for everyone to have a base level of understanding of many subjects, there need to be teachers who have expertise on said subjects. Everyone can have a Wikipedia-entry level understanding of thousands of things, but we still need people to write those entries. In this sense, a mass of generalists is impossible without a certain level of specialists. And for the frontier of knowledge to continue to be pushed outward, society needs a number of hyper-specialists who will spend an entire career focusing on a very granular topic. The ability to be a fox depends on the prosperity brought about by a certain appreciation for hedgehogs.

But while hyper-specialization is what gets us our wealth of nations, short-term gains can come at the cost of longer-term innovations.

One need only think of the parable of the blind men and the elephant—individuals describing their reality through their own limited experience without anyone understanding the bigger picture. In this way, academic or professional hyper-specialization causes a narrow viewpoint of the world where innovations and improvements in productivity are unrealized because of an aggregate lack of broader knowledge. When the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was rolled out in 2011 with nearly 400 sub-contractors, the isolated components failed to come together as planned through hiccups in weight, software, and component compatibility. The elephant was unseen in the process until the end, causing delays.

Making bigger impacts by marrying specializations is possible, but the payoffs are riskier than going into well-defined jobs. Risk-aversion on the laborer side pairs with myopia on the employer side and the end result is that people aren’t taking enough risks when it comes to potentially dramatic innovations.

Indeed, there are myriad examples showing how the status quo incentivizes tiny changes rather than revolutionary changes. In academia, status and success is dependent on publishing in journals. Too often, this means taking an existing paradigm and tweaking it only slightly, perhaps advancing the knowledge frontier a bit but not enough to really shake things up. Paul Romer wrote an open letter criticizing the broad acceptance of unreasonable and unhelpful assumptions in macroeconomic academia. Romer was a chief economist at the World Bank, a tenured NYU professor, and an eventual Nobel Prize winner. In short, he didn’t have much left to prove and had no fear of professional insecurity. Compare this to a newly-minted PhD fighting for scraps in the job market: A refusal to author a paper under the set of accepted assumptions of the macroeconomy will mean almost certainly no publication and thus no tenure track. The incentives are to play the current rules of the game and in the long-run progress is stunted.

But there are simple examples showing that even the slightest inclusion of ideas outside hyper-specialization increases the frontier of knowledge in academia. Consider the two winners of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002. Broadly speaking, academic economics for a long time worked with models that assumed a high level of rationality. Meanwhile, psychology is premised around the idea of studying nuances and unpredictability of the human brain. Daniel Kahneman’s work with Amos Tversky focused on how people make decisions under uncertainty and differently based on how a situation is framed. Trained as a psychologist and having never taken an economics course, he eventually won the economics Nobel applying these basic ideas from psychology. 

He shared the Nobel with Vernon Smith, who had been using lab experiments since the 1950s to show how human psychology was more complicated than the simple utility-maximization models economists were using. Despite a Harvard PhD – the golden ticket in economics academia – Smith worked for a long time in isolation and had to wait decades before experimental economics had significant recognition within the discipline. It’s worth noting too that Smith used his engineering background to approach these problems. These two winners show both that academic inter-disciplinarity has many low-hanging fruits to be plucked, and also that the gains to breaking tremendous ground intellectually can be very risky without much payoff for a very long time. 

Outside of economics, some of history’s most famous intellectual titans have broken ground using knowledge from other disciplines. Charles Darwin has been noted to have written On the Origin of Species with the long-term changes from geology in mind and being partially inspired by descriptions of the struggle to survive from contemporary economics writing. Da Vinci used dissection of humans and his research on the anatomy of the eye, as well as his scientific experiments observing the nature of water, to inform his painting. Freud used his educational foundation in genetics from marine biology to form his framework for psychoanalysis. His education in the classics also helped create his conception of the Oedipal Complex.

The nature of innovation is inherently unpredictable. It’s impossible to prove the counter-factual of how much innovation has not happened because of a shortage of multi-disciplinarity, nor is it possible to show that the works of the above scholars would not have happened without their studies of other disciplines. But it does show that some of history’s greatest achievements have come from foxes’ insatiable curiosities. Like any investment in research and development, shifting resources and focus to multi-disciplinarity can lead to a lot of failures with still more net gains.

A policy and cultural shift

William Nordhaus has estimated that the gains from entrepreneurial risk have been measured to broadly go to society while the private gains to the innovator are around 2.2%. This leads to an economy with an under-supply of entrepreneurial risk. Similarly, risk-aversion from workers and myopia from employers leads to incentives that encourage too much specialization and encourage too little risk-taking in multi-disciplinarity and innovative change. Even in a culture of broad liberal arts American education, hyper-specialization still kicks in upon labor market entry. A cultural change is needed to encourage continuing education throughout adult life. With social benefits outweighing private benefits, public funding for research should try to fill the gap in the lack of multi-disciplinary research and development. 

Most people are not in academia nor at the edge of the knowledge frontier but it’s still in society’s best interests to make the masses more fox and less hedgehog. First, innovations in productivity do not just come from the Leibniz’s and Da Vinci’s of the world. Innovations still happen at each step of Smith’s pin factory and giving everyone the powerful tools of multi-disciplinarity will have positive economic consequences. Second, civic engagement will benefit from having a better-informed population. Knowledge of our government’s workings is woefully weak, even during a time when political engagement is so high. Making people more aware of the world outside their work and social bubbles will lead to a more cohesive society. 

Fighting back short-term market incentives that encourage hyper-specialization will improve intellectual progress, civic participation, and economic growth.

Featured Image is The Scotland Street School Museum (Glasgow), by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra