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The Mind of Leonardo da Vinci

Waqās Ahmed connects Leonardo’s worldview with systems theory.

“These are the principles for the development of a complete mind: Study the science of art. Study the art of science… Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Leonardo da Vinci

The five-hundredth anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) presents an important occasion to reflect not only on the maestro’s incredible work and life but perhaps more importantly, on his mind. Not only does Leonardo’s work provide profound insights into his worldview, but his worldview provides profound insights into his work.

Leonardo sought to maximize the thinking and being of every lived moment. Perhaps this is why he insisted that “time stays long enough for those who use it,” and that “a life well spent is long.” How else was he able to enquire and create to such an astonishing extent in a single lifetime?

What is undisputedly clear is that Leonardo had the mind of the quintessential polymath, characterized by remarkable self-awareness, insatiable curiosity, exceptional intelligence, unparalleled versatility, a heightened sense of imagination, and a vision of unity. When I interviewed the art historian Martin Kemp, a leading expert on Leonardo, he remarked: “The mind of Leonardo is a mind that is entirely curious, like a child – [asking] why does that happen? what am I looking at? how can I understand it? – and if you combine that sort of child-like curiosity with enormous intellectual power, you get something very potent.” (The Polymath: Unlocking the Power of Human Versatility, Waqās Ahmed, 2019. Quotes from this unless otherwise stated). What can we learn from this today?

Systems & Connections

It is agreed by anthropologists, behavioural scientists and evolutionary biologists that curiosity is a universal human trait. No wonder that Aristotle proclaimed (in his Metaphysics): “All humans by nature desire to know.” Leonardo, who asserted that “learning never exhausts the mind,” demonstrated that life-long curiosity is not simply an attribute, but an attitude. But like intelligence and creativity, curiosity can take one of two major routes in the mind. The first is one of depth, whereby the individual probes deeper and deeper into a particular subject. This is typical of the specialist, itching to dive straight down to the depths of their chosen patch of ocean to discover its pearls. The second way, which is one of boundless breadth, is the route of a polymath like Leonardo.

The polymath is broadly curious. Man-made disciplinary boundaries cannot shackle his or her mind to one particular field. Polymaths maintain an open mind, and pursue a line of enquiry like an investigative journalist or a detective, whether the question requires them to learn biomimicry or plumbing, astrophysics or masonry. Such a mindset not only pushes into diverse fields, but seeks creative connections between them. Kemp observes that “one of the characteristics you’ll find of polymaths generally is that they see links where we see separations – for Leonardo everything’s linked up”.

In contending that everything is inextricably connected, Leonardo revealed why he believed that one discipline could not be fully understood without the firm comprehension of several others. He often pointed out the fundamental connections between painting, music, poetry, philosophy, and science. “He who despises painting loves neither philosophy nor nature,” he wrote; and “music may be called the sister of painting”; and “if poetry treats of moral philosophy, painting has to do with natural philosophy” (Notebooks). The entire world, according to Leonardo, is one big (Italian!) family. Indeed it is because he didn’t see things in categories that his writings and drawings in his Notebooks seem so sporadic: he switched between subjects in a seemingly random fashion because he saw everything as ultimately connected. As Kemp says, “Leonardo was a kind of pathological lateral thinker… so when exploring anatomy, he’ll be looking at the heart, the movement of water…. And when exploring movement of water, he’ll be thinking about the curling of hair, and so on – it would be an infinite spiralling on of these related interests, and underneath all this variety there is a common thing, a cause and effect.”

Thinking Systems

Leonardo da Vinci

This is the mentality of what today would be called a systems thinker. Systems Thinking, according to one of its foremost proponents Fritjof Capra, refers essentially to ‘connectedness, relationships and context’. Its two main premises are that the nature of the whole is always different from the mere sum of its parts, and that relationships between objects are primary and the objects themselves secondary. (This because objects are themselves nothing but networks, embedded in larger networks). In very much this way, Leonardo claimed that knowledge was not a ‘building’, but instead a ‘network’.

In his 1975 bestseller The Tao of Physics, Capra contributed to Systems Thinking by importing elements of Eastern philosophy to better understand modern Western science. His study into the thinking of Leonardo da Vinci – who he pronounced to be the original systems thinker – confirmed its link with polymathy.

Despite being a bedrock of philosophy for millennia, seeing the interconnectedness of diverse aspects of the world went out of fashion after the Renaissance, when Western thinkers largely adopted a more atomistic, analytical approach to science and philosophy pioneered by scientists such as Galileo and philosophers such as René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. This encouraged them to view the world in terms of individualised foundations or building blocks, which could be best understood through analysis rather than integration. The new approach was: if you want to know how things work, take them apart and examine the pieces. For three hundred years this approach enjoyed extraordinary success in investigating the natural world. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, some scientists realised that knowledge in the sciences was becoming increasingly fragmented between innumerable sub-specialities, causing people to lose sight of the inherent connections between, and unity of, natural phenomena. A new breed of scientific thinkers sought to revert to the traditional, pre-Enlightenment mode of holistic thought, which they developed into the scientific framework called Systems Thinking. (In particular it was developed by Soviet polymath Alexander Bogdanov, and popularised by Austrian-American biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy.) This new paradigm eventually inspired an ecological movement known as Deep Ecology – of which James Lovelock’s ground-breaking Gaia Theory is the most recognised manifestation. Indeed it was one of the pioneers of the ecological movement in the United States, the biologist Barry Commoner, who famously insisted that “everything is connected to everything else.”

Today, in our highly complex, interconnected world, it is not surprising that the practical value of Systems Thinking has been recognised in many fields. Its principles have been adopted and applied by leaders and managers in business and government as well as within academic disciplines including economics, ecology, philosophy, and more.

Expanding Consciousness

Whether Leonardo held a Systems-like worldview because of his Christian beliefs is not clear. We do know that he was also interested in the holistic ideas of the East. Kemp informed me that “Leonardo spoke to sea captains to enquire about other cultures. He would have been particularly interested in the more holistic philosophies which would often characterize thought outside of European specialised thought, and thought in which the rigid procedures of empirical data are less prevalent and less dominant.” In Ancient India, for example, Jain philosophers developed a mode of thinking referred to as Anekantaveda, which teaches the existence, appreciation, and potential simultaneous validity of different perspectives. This is exemplified by the renowned ‘elephant and the blind men’ analogy, where each blind man feels a different part of the elephant – tusk, trunk, legs, or tail – and each firmly declares that they have hold of a different thing. As Leonardo once exclaimed, “The greatest deception from which men suffer is their own opinions” (Notebooks).

In relentless pursuit of varied knowledge, the objective of polymaths such as Leonardo is to expand their umwelt, the environment of their thought. They engage in a method of enquiry that consists of discovering, pursuing, experiencing, and knowing multiple perspectives, then synthesising them together in a way that allows for a fairer and more complete picture of the world. The ecologist and philosopher of science E.O. Wilson agrees that this is the best methodology for uncovering reality:

“Only fluency across the [disciplinary] boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is… A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience among them.”
(Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, 1999)

Leonardo’s worldview, driven by curiosity, inspired by connectivity, and in pursuit of unity, offers a profound lesson for our times. The more areas of knowledge and experience we add to our repertoire, the more perspectives we can synthesise to enrich and round out our own perspective on the world. This epistemological unity allows one to be elevated to a higher perspective. It not only increases our propensity for genuine empathy and understanding (much needed in today’s pluralistic society), but also for a kind of social and intellectual freedom. It is a method of acquiring a more holistic understanding of the human condition; or in short, of getting a real education.

© Waqās Ahmed 2019

Waqās Ahmed has a background in visual art, neuroscience, and world history, and is author of The Polymath (Wiley 2019). He is founder of the DaVinci Network, which curated the official opening of the Leonardo da Vinci 500th Anniversary Celebrations at the National Gallery in London.

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