- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Could You Learn Every Subject?

A personal goal of mine is to get a basic understanding of every major intellectual area: physics, philosophy, history, and so on. I thought I’d share a little bit about my motivation, the feasibility of achieving it and how well I’m making progress.

The first difficulty in learning every subject is, what counts as a subject?

A naive way to approach this problem would simply be to consider all the undergraduate departments in a typical university. But this is unsatisfactory for a few reasons.

Consider languages. Language families typically get their own department. Would learning every subject require learning all major world languages? A major topic, like physics, would be utterly dwarfed by linguistics under such a scheme.

Another issue is that this assumes “has its own university department” = “important.” Some departments seem to teach more universal insights than others. While making direct comparisons between the value of different fields is often considered impolite, a reasonable metric for valuing subjects might have you going far deeper into some than others.

Still, I think using “typical major subjects as taught by universities” as a starting point isn’t so bad.

Why Try to Learn Everything?

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Funnily enough, I don’t think it’s particularly useful to aim to learn so widely.

If your goal were professional success, a narrower specialization is almost certainly more profitable. Being the best programmer, accountant or surgeon is much more valuable than having a little knowledge about a lot of subjects.

This is probably true even if your ambitions are something that benefit from breadth. Being a polymath is overrated in terms of productivity [1]. A lot of famous polymaths are more specialized than they first appear. Leonardo da Vinci is the original Renaissance man, but pretty much all his accomplishments were in design and painting.

My career as a writer, and sort-of public autodidact [2], is an unusual exception in that I benefit from breadth more than most. Part of that is by design, allowing me to align my wider interests with my professional life. Had I chosen a career in academia or industry, I’d probably have been forced to be more specialized than I am today.

That being said, there are diminishing returns on this even for me. Learning more psychology or history is probably going to be more valuable for me than learning chemistry simply because the former has a higher chance of working its way into my writing. But chemistry is cool, so I’d like to learn it anyways.

Thus my motivation to try to learn broadly is intrinsic. I’d like to know a little bit about everything because the world is an interesting place [3].

Which Subjects Should I Consider?

Knowledge can often be viewed as trees. At the trunks, you have major disciplines: physics, economics, religious studies. As you go up, there are more and more branches and sub-disciplines: solid-state physics, econometrics, Tibetan Buddhism.

The right way to start, it seems to me, is to figure out what the trunks are. What are the starting points for knowledge, in the broadest sense?

Here’s a possible list, adapted from Wikipedia [4]:

Each of these, of course, has many subtopics.

Depending on how high a bar you set for “knowing X” and how finely you want to distinguish subtopics, the task of learning all of them is clearly impossible. But even if a goal is impossible to complete, it can still be directionally useful.

What I’m really after is doing some kind of breadth-first search [5] of this space. Trying to cover widely enough to get the core insights of most of the major fields, perhaps with more depth in the subtopics I find more interesting.

Evaluating My Progress

Self-evaluation is notoriously fraught. We don’t have introspective access to our memories in bulk, so when asking “how well did I learn X”, we end up having to substitute that for easier questions like, “do I remember taking a class about X” or “does this topic seem familiar to me?”

This is particularly true when evaluating knowledge at the broadest level. Even figuring out what subjects should be on the list wasn’t obvious, so evaluating how far along I am in each is much harder.

Keeping these difficulties in mind, I’d like to guesstimate my relative knowledge in different disciplines. The rough benchmark I’m using is:

Keep in mind, these scores are totally subjective and only make sense for the purpose of evaluating my relative progress in different areas. I’m not actually testing myself, so it’s impossible to validate these numbers against an actual curriculum.

Examining the list again from above:

Looking at this map, I think there’s a few obvious “big” fields I know relatively little about. I know very little geology and environmental science. I could learn a lot more anthropology and political science. Law is also an area I could go a lot deeper in.

Some of these numbers mask important gaps. I’ve spent a lot of time learning languages, for instance, but I haven’t studied linguistics much on its own. I have read some history, but it’s such a vast field that there are still many important gaps.

How Should I Learn More?

I have a few strategies I’ve found helpful for tackling this project. The first is to try to find courses online. Big intro courses, taught by top universities [7] and viewable online are good starting points. The Great Courses [8] on Audible also tend to be fairly good, especially since they tend to cover more in the humanities which tends to be sparser in public course offerings.

Next would probably be textbooks. These offer good coverage of material and have a higher standard of rigor than most popular books written on a topic. Popular books tend to replace the real idea with a cartoon version that omits any hard math or reasoning. While this may be good for getting the gist, it often makes it impossible to move up to more difficult work because you’re missing the actual language in which the ideas are discussed.

Practicing knowledge is also important. Studying art and actually being able to paint are very different skills. In most cases, my practical outcome would be “could follow a conversation about this field” as opposed to actually making, inventing or discovering something. Thus I’m okay with not going into a laboratory to do experiments, as long as I have the gist of the results.

That said, some fields knowing and doing are intertwined. Math is a good example, where it’s almost impossible to really understand it without also being able to do it.

I do care about practical knowledge as well, but my goals to learn to ski, paint, write and speak Mandarin better [9] are somewhat separate from the ones I’ve listed here. Having a broad knowledge base is useful for practical activities, but if your goal is only to perform a skill, taking a bunch of university classes isn’t typically the most direct method.

What about you? What are your lifelong learning goals? Are there any subjects you’d like to learn more about that you’re currently missing? Are there any you feel I’ve overlooked? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.