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1This article is rooted in the practices, values, and historical representations of erudite scholarship (Brizay and Sarrazin, 2015) and seeks to reposition and problematize these phenomena in the context of the current debate between those who defend the idea of academic specialization—understood as a narrow, vertically structured activity—and those who favor interdisciplinarity—understood as a horizontal approach to knowledge that favors “in-disciplined” scholarly creativity. This has long been a lively debate across national, European, and international academe, but the persistent glaring misunderstandings and mutual incomprehension cannot be ignored—the debate remains resolutely unresolved. So ingrained is the tension between the need for depth within disciplines and the irrepressible need to flex and reposition their limits, to digress and go beyond the boundaries, that the question arises as to whether it can—or even should—be resolved. Erudition carries within it this same tension. It represents the pinnacle of deep and abiding mastery within a given field, while also exemplifying the desire for discovery (libido sciendi) and, in its relentless curiosity, a certain form of sensuality (libido sentiendi) (De Mulder, 2012). Such ambivalence makes erudition a particularly interesting object of epistemological reflection: both a good thing and a bad thing, celebrated and disparaged, erudition is a complex process that requires a nuanced approach. There is no shortage of aphorisms and received wisdom paying homage to it, such as this example from Max Jacob’s Advice to a Young Poet (1994): “Erudition is far from a bad thing; it increases the variety of experience, and the experience of people and of things is the foundation of talent.” [1] There are also plenty who deny its value: “By using quotations, one displays one’s erudition and sacrifices one’s originality” (Arthur Schopenhauer); “Erudition – Dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull” (Ambrose Bierce, 2010, 70); “Erudition – Despise it as the sign of a narrow mind” (Gustave Flaubert, 2018, 33). Reflection on the role of erudition in today’s universities, torn between resistance to change coming from within disciplines and incessant appeals to open up interdisciplinary spaces, requires an understanding of its double nature, envisaged as a form of practice that is both targeted, narrow, and restricted, and at the same time open, broad, and wide-ranging.

2The intrinsic motivation of erudite individuals—which guides their investigative and scholarly process and qualifies their encyclopedic output—drives them to exhaustive research, which is multiplied across a range of accumulated areas of knowledge that they acquire through curiosity and through an open-mindedness that rejects any kind of paralyzing dogma. In its historical form, swept along by the interest and pleasure of acquiring knowledge, this intrinsic motivation was accompanied by an extrinsic one derived from the social context of academic and professional environments dedicated to study, such as academies, learned societies, those well-named cabinets of curiosity and so forth. The erudite humanist’s desire for knowledge (libido sciendi) was nourished and valued in the institutional settings that paved the way toward modern scholarship. [2] Although this golden age of erudition may have been open to criticism on the grounds of its focus on detail (on this, in light of the footnote below, see Grafton, 1997), and was subsequently brought low—indeed virtually extinguished—around the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century by the emergence of the modern university and its system of academic disciplines, the question remains as to its survival over the longer run of history. What remains of erudition today? What space, if any, is still made available for curiosity and creative exploration outside the confines of specific disciplines, particularly in the context of university research and teaching? And what is (or might be) the space available for a renewal of erudite practice—in the sense of a union between a deepening and a widening of knowledge—at the present time? In an academic context still primarily constrained by notions of academic discipline, is a transformed version of erudite scholarly practice individually or collectively possible?

The erudite individual: Crossing lines

3Erudition frequently consists of and is defined as a reasoned and methodical practice, namely a process that involves the gathering together of a significant quantity of knowledge, information, texts, manuscripts, and documents on a given matter of interest or object of research. Historically, erudite figures (plural because erudition as a practice is polymorphous and non-uniform), from the collector to the encyclopedist to the humanist scholar, emerged in the fourteenth century. They provide evidence of a mastery of a vast literary and scientific education, focused, it is true to say, in specific areas, but with an openness toward all disciplines that might contribute to the deepening of knowledge. Those deemed to be erudite clearly take no notice of the arbitrary division between the “educated dimwit” and the “untrained genius” (Serres, 1997), and have no truck with the specious incompatibility of the sciences and the humanities. These outlying “troubadours of knowledge” (ibid.), as they have been called, thrive equally in the sciences and the humanities, freely combining both, and happily crisscrossing the boundaries still frequently drawn between scientific and literary endeavor. This hybridization is at the heart of every process of learning and discovery, as Serres neatly and zestfully reminds us:


Learning consists of such crossbreeding. Strange and original, already a mixture of the genes of his father and mother, the child evolves only through new crossings; all pedagogy takes up the begetting and birthing of a child anew: born left-handed, he learns to use his right hand, remains left-handed, is reborn right-handed, at the confluence of both directions [. . .] His mind resembles Harlequin’s iridescent coat.
This holds for bringing up bodies as much as it does for instructing. The half-breed, here, is called the third-instructed. Scientific by nature, [. . .] he enters culture [because science today addresses matters that are inaccessible only in its own terms—suffering and evil. Only two things need be learned: precise reasoning and injustice; the freedom of invention, and thus of thought, follows. This holds, finally for behavior and wisdom, for education. It requires—it is—an engagement with the greatest possible otherness, thus to be reborn in hybrid form. Love the other who engenders in you a third person, the mind.] [3]
(Serres, 1997)

5This panegyric to transdisciplinary, humanistic thinking knocks a big hole in the dividing line between the two cultures (Snow, 1964)—sciences versus humanities—that so profoundly informs the organization of modern universities by subject discipline. This separation is regularly denounced as a major obstacle to interdisciplinary understanding and to the cognitive and practical adaptations necessary in a complex and changing world. One of the first lessons to be drawn from erudite scholarly practice is to be found precisely in this capacity to seek out deep knowledge by taking inspiration from more than one academic culture, but without swearing allegiance to any particular one of them, and without accepting a vacuous Manichaean opposition between them. Beyond its multifarious ramifications and the diversity of those who have embodied it, renascent humanism remains a particularly good example of this kind of openness toward a diversity of types of knowledge and toward ways of combining them to explore both understanding and the world. Hybridizing interactions took place between the natural sciences, the arts, mathematics, literature, technical disciplines, astronomy and so on, and figures such as the artist, the savant, and the person of letters combined and recombined in multiple ways. The commingling of different scientific, artistic, and literary cultures was no myth. It was the product of tried and tested practice. The practical reality of this “third culture,” as Brockman has expressed it (1996), seemed self-evident to the erudite individuals of the day; they combined different areas of knowledge by occupying the spaces between and among them, at the interface of the sciences and the humanities.

6Interest in the figure of the erudite scholar is not, therefore, an anachronistic fancy; neither is it an exercise in nostalgia for bygone ways. Quite the contrary: it rings out as an early warning of the current need to find the willpower to seek out and renew humanist values and thereby to open up the dialogue between different fields of knowledge and break down the barriers between academic disciplines. Calls for interdisciplinarity in teaching and research encourage the recognition and creation of new kinds of academic profile, evoking new figures who can reach over, cross boundaries, escape the constraints, people who are able to pass through the barriers between disciplines. Discussions in universities increasingly feature calls for more of the qualities of the “Renaissance man”: the scholar equipped with deep understanding across a range of domains of knowledge, despite a clear awareness of the epistemological and institutional obstacles that still line this tortuous path.

On interdisciplinarity

7Without rehearsing here the genesis and development of interdisciplinarity (Thompson Klein, 1990), it is worth pointing out that, discounting the (always interesting) interminable terminological debates which need not be detailed in this article, the abundant scholarly literature on the subject does show the broad outline of a certain consensus over its definition (see for example Piaget, 1972; Darbellay, 2005; Repko, 2008; Hermès, 2013). Interdisciplinarity can be defined as an approach that engages several disciplines in order to analyze and reach a coherent overall understanding of an object of study which is complex, and which cannot be reduced to study via any one of the approaches taken on its own. The desire to collaborate, articulate, and integrate various disciplinary perspectives aims to overcome the fragmentation and compartmentalization wrought by the dominance of subject disciplines. It seeks to go further than a multi-disciplinary approach, which, while it does make beneficial use of disciplinary pluralism, operates by means of simple, sequential juxtaposition and the addition of discrete disciplines, with no vision of the dynamic of integration essential to an interdisciplinary process conceived of as the product of an interaction between disciplines. The desire to cross the boundaries between disciplines and create hybridizations of them—much favored in discussion and demonstrated by those forms of scholarly practice located between and beyond the formal disciplines—is evidently a clear reminder of the transdisciplinary values, products, and processes that characterize the erudition delineated above.

8It should be pointed out that while interdisciplinarity certainly does look to go beyond discipline boundaries, those disciplines subsequently remain in situ as the basis of the process that sets out to de-balkanize them: interdisciplinarity repeatedly finds itself closely tied to disciplinarity, and vice versa, inasmuch as any interdisciplinary practice is likely to encourage a degree of evolution—or indeed a transformation—within the disciplines involved. The standard figure of interdisciplinary researchers, teachers, and practitioners is easy to spot: they demonstrate deep knowledge in a given specialism, while also being capable of looking outward and connecting with a wider universe of knowledge beyond that original specialism. Combining the depth and verticality of disciplinary study and a wide-ranging transdisciplinary horizontality, the interdisciplinary scholar metaphorically assumes the form of a letter “T” (T-shaped person, Brown, Deletic, and Wong, 2015). The stem of the “T” represents their depth of expertise in a specific area, while the horizontal bar indicates their ability to collaborate with other disciplines, to import and export concepts, tools, and methods from and to other scholarly fields. This new kind of academic—the minimal, embryonic, present-day expression of a revival of scholarly erudition—contributes to the success of collaborative interdisciplinary projects. The dual ability to develop the subject depth so important for early-career researchers while also embracing a wider range of understanding alongside and beyond the official perimeters acts as an exponential multiplier of their scholarly credibility. They receive recognition both for demonstrating excellence in their discipline and for their ability to fashion a secondary expertise through their adaptation and contribution to other interdisciplinary fields. It must be noted that the way universities organize knowledge by discipline inevitably militates against, or even precludes, epistemological positions, methods, and practices founded on curiosity and “cross-border” communication between different scholarly cultures. In a time of specialization—indeed of hyper specialization—reflection and advances in terms of interdisciplinary dialogue are nevertheless making some progress, despite the epistemological, methodological, and institutional obstacles. In this way, the epistemological positioning and innovative academic profiles of these new researchers, who consider themselves interdisciplinary practitioners—and for some this extends to a kind of “in-disciplinarity” open to exploration outside the disciplinary pen and free from any kind of academic conformism—are leading toward a reshaping of the contours of erudite scholarly research.


9Ranging beyond the initial virtues of specialization within defined fields, erudite research and learning answers those calls for transversality, for polyvalence, and for the breaking down of the divisions that separate academic disciplines from each other. Taking an erudite perspective, one that goes against the grain of disciplinary structures and strictures, enables us to see the reemergence of new types of humanist. Thus, the figure of the polymath is undergoing an interesting revival. Polymaths (“poly” indicating plurality) are characterized by their ability to learn, understand, and bring together a wide spectrum of subject areas in a creative and dynamic way, unconstrained by the arbitrary boundaries between the scientific and humanities disciplines (Darbellay, 2017). The figure of the polymath is as fascinating as that of the erudite interdisciplinary scholar. It brings to mind the tradition of great polymaths in the sciences and the arts who have proved their worth in terms of scientific creativity, innovation, and discovery: from the Greek philosophers to Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Descartes, Pascal, Newton, Goethe, Poincaré, Einstein, and so forth. They are the fullest realization of epistemophilia, understood not as a pathological deviation into a need to accumulate knowledge, but as a desire to encounter knowledge (the libido sciendi referred to above), a cognitive drive that feeds curiosity and creative exploration within and beyond disciplinary limits. As with erudition and interdisciplinarity, polymathy is sought out and celebrated, and yet also decried and criticized by those of a monodisciplinarian mind-set who wrongly see in it mere intellectual eclecticism that leads to cognitive fragmentation. In Antiquity, Heraclitus ridiculed polymathy as an accumulation of partial understandings, a claim to omniscience and universal knowledge—in short, a form of mental sophistry incompatible with attaining wisdom. Along similar lines, the entry for “Polymathy” in Diderot and d’Alembert’s 1751 Encyclopédie points out this negative perception: “Polymathy is often nothing more than a confused mass of useless facts that one reels out regardless of relevance, just to make a spectacle of it” (2017 edition). This unworthy polymathy is immediately contrasted with a more positive vision—that is, true polymathy: “True polymathy is a vast erudition, a knowledge of a great number of things, well absorbed, well digested, that one applies to the subject one is discussing in a relevant manner and only by necessity” (ibid.). This is an example of the same negative/positive ambivalence, but this time informing the postures and practices trying to work against the monovalent vision that favors discrete, closed and narrowly focused academic disciplines. Despite its creative potential, the reality is that polymathy—understood as an epistemological position and an interdisciplinary practice—is made difficult owing to the persistence of the (hyper) disciplinarian orthodoxy that still dominates the upper echelons of academic institutions, composed as they are of a series of discrete silos (Simonton, 2013).

10The present epistemological escapade is motivated by a renewed vision of erudition and has tried to explore the latest developments in the ongoing debate within academia over the tension between the demands of specialization and the need to open up interdisciplinary space. This tension has also provided an opportunity to rethink erudite practice and relate it to the concerns of interdisciplinarity. The erudite scholar, the interdisciplinary scholar, and the polymath come together in their shared ability to dig deep roots in recognized disciplines while also extending the range of their competence outside its boundaries. In this spirit, another figure appears at last, perhaps the most provocative and salutary of all: the “in-disciplined” scholar. “In-disciplined” scholars (Wolton, 2012; 2013; Darbellay, 2015) display a spirit of freedom in the face of all discipline-based limitations and are open to the unexpected, and to intellectual creativity; in so doing, they confront academic conformism and indeed are now marking a clean break from it. Might this “in-disciplined” figure be a new kind of erudite scholar, a new humanist, able to break out and escape the pull of the institutionalized silos of academic discipline?


  • [1]
    Translator’s note: Our translation. Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material in this article are our own.
  • [2]
    Within the context of this article, masculine forms have been used in a generic manner; it is recognized that this may tend to obscure the place and role of women in the history of erudition and scholarship. [Translator’s note: This feature of language is less prominent in English; in keeping with the spirit of the article, every effort has been made to avoid gendered generalizations.]
  • [3]
    Translator’s note: Portion in square brackets is our own translation.

What has become of the values of erudite scholarship? Is there still space for curiosity and creative exploration beyond the confines of the academic disciplines? Based on the practices, values, and historical representations of erudition, this article seeks to resituate the latter within the current debate between proponents of specialization and advocates of interdisciplinarity. The interdisciplinarian, the polymath, and the “in-disciplined” scholar: all these academic profiles certainly seem to be riding high of late. These new humanistic figures are mapped onto a practice of erudition that runs counter to disciplinarity.

  • erudition
  • interdisciplinarity
  • polymathy
  • in-disciplinarity”

Reference list

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Frédéric Darbellay
Frédéric Darbellay is an Associate Professor at the University of Geneva and head of the Inter- and Transdisciplinarity group of the Centre interfacultaire en droits de l’enfant (CIDE) (Interfaculty Center for the Rights of the Child). His research and teaching address the present complexity of the theoretical and practical questions facing researchers working within, between, and beyond the boundaries of academic disciplines in a spirit of discovery, creativity, and innovation. He is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of Td-net (Network for Transdisciplinary Research) of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences and of the Board of Directors of the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (AIS).
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