Universal man

The secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, G. Wayne Clough, wrote in the May issue of the SI’s (no, that’s not Sports Illustrated!) magazine about the “last universal man”—Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).  Humboldt is said to have had a grasp of all the world’s knowledge.

Just as “the world” in the first century did not include Missouri, and just as thoughts of transportation in 1600 did not include the Maserati, a consummate, “universal” grasp of knowledge in 1800 would bear little resemblance to such comprehensive knowledge in our time.  While there are brains in the world that my puny one can’t even fathom, and while my un-universal grasp of universal knowledge is clearly also limited, I think it still might be safe to say that there is no such thing as “universal knowledge” at any juncture in history.  Ya think?

Clough continued, “… Which is why the Smithsonian’s new strategic plan takes a cross-disciplinary approach to four Grand Challenges:  unlocking the mysteries of the universe, understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet, valuing world cultures, and understanding the American experience.”

Hmmm.  I don’t deny that those are grand challenges.  But they don’t seem to parallel what I would think of as a structure of universal knowledge, either.  I guess I don’t know much.  No, I know I don’t know much.  But I do rather suspect that any human, or human institution, that seeks “all knowledge” is misguided, likely to be disappointed … and maybe sorely.

Does the Tree of Knowledge in Eden come to mind?  Or maybe Babel?

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