Although I can't claim to have achieved anything like the depth of study required for the title ‘polymath’ to apply to me, I find myself consistently straining under its weight. While I only have finite interests, the problem I face is that even the entailments of my preferred subject areas are sufficiently vast that they constantly threaten to drown me. I spoke about the infinite library problem before, and this is still an issue I face: how do I determine what not to read? Where can I tolerate a gulf in my knowledge?
I am not, I believe, all that well-versed in game studies, which is putatively my home field. For most of my career as a game designer, my practical experience has supposedly stood for more than a comprehensive review of the literature. Yet now I am being published in that field, I find increasing need for the relevant references – and a staggering volume exists, even on purportedly minor subjects like game aesthetics. This is complicated by my desire to then read on related subjects, including narratology and of course philosophy of art – not to mention the history of art. I have a decent grasp of all these areas, albeit sometimes only to a passing degree, but the gnawing sense of an abyssal pit of unread books and papers is palpable.
Philosophy is my Achilles heel right now, as I cannot hope to cover it to my satisfaction. I have long had interests in philosophy of science, of religion, and of mind, but now these subjects are crowded out by aesthetics and especially ethics. My only relief, in this regard, is that most of twentieth century ethics is deeply confused – but even then, I may still have to read it! The sense of obligation I have to be able to address all points on any given path rapidly expands into an impossible funnel of content. Some casualties are inevitable, and metaphysics may be one of them. I enjoy reading about (say) object oriented ontology, since my own metaphysics was moving in a similar direction not that long ago, and also because the emergence of Secular Animism intrigues me as someone who studies nonreligion. But I simply don’t have the time to invest in the corners of my interests any more.
The funny thing is, working on The Mythology of Evolution I didn't feel this tension between wanting to read everything and the practicalities of selective reading. I had thought, on submitting the proposal for that particular book, that I knew in advance everything I needed to write it. This was a big mistake! But compiling the reading list to rectify my deficits was straight-forward, and mostly involved reviewing an armful of recent publications – many of which strengthened rather than weakened my case. Perhaps it helped in this instance that evolution and philosophy of science were topics I would cover in this book, but perhaps never again. It made the entire project feel self-contained.
Not so Chaos Ethics, the final part of my trilogy concerning the role of imagination in life. Even after years of reading books on moral philosophy there are still untapped seams I would dearly like to give a fair crack of the whip. And unlike the last manuscript, I expect I could be publishing in ethics for the rest of my life if I can get all my ducks in a row, which only intensifies the sense of perpetual incompleteness. (It doesn't help that I also have to contend with moral psychology and ethography!) There's just too much stuff to read, and there isn't enough time to cover it all. Something has to give, but what?
Ultimately, like so many issues today, the problem is all in the mind. Stress about an overly vast reading list is easily solved by either raising the bar on quality control, or lowering the bar on completeness. Most authors avoid such problems entirely by feeling no obligation to understand topics they comment upon solely in passing. So why do I feel the burden of the polymath, even though I have no explicit desire to be judged a jack-of-all-trades? What secret fantasy or fear compels me, against all sense, to attempt to know everything – even if that remit is now at least somewhat constrained? And if being a know-it-all is such a terrible thing, why do I feel bad about my limitations as a know-it-somewhat?