Answering Service

The Columbia Encyclopedia, Third Edition

Columbia, 2388 pp., $49.50

Two cultures? Five? Nine?… The proliferation of knowledge within the mind of humanity, like the proliferation of nuclear weapons among the nations of men, points to an eventual climax of self-destruction. Against this destiny, the encyclopedia—like the United Nations—puts up a feeble and rather ludicrous resistance. Indeed, there is some question whether what is going on is resistance at all—it can, perhaps, as well be described as complicity.

The word “encyclopedia” etymologically refers back to the circle of learning (enkiklios paidein) that the Greeks—and the greater part of Western civilization after them—thought to be essential to a liberal education. As a term for a reference book it first became common in the eighteenth century, with Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728), the great French Encyclopédie (1751-65), and the first edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica (1768). Before that time, there were divers compilations of random facts, with all sorts of fancy Latin or Greek titles; but the sum total of known facts was so few that these books were merely ancillary to the cultures of their day and felt no need to reflect or represent them. They were compendia of facts, not of knowledge—knowledge was what the university curriculum provided, through the study of classical texts. By the late seventeenth century, however, it was becoming clear that the traditional idea of knowledge could not accommodate the new abundance of facts. (The original symptom of this crisis was the gradual substitution of the alphabetical arrangement of material for the older “grammatical” or methodical arrangement.) And by the mid-eighteenth century, under the influence of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment (related, thought not identical, phenomena), it was clear that a new circle of the arts and sciences had to be drawn.

Diderot and D’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Métiers was, of course, just such an ambitious attempt to draw the new circle. That the article on the stocking-knitting frame was ten times the length of the article on cathedrals was no accident, but rather a cunning maneuver in a “silent war on the vast domain of error” (D’Alembert). In his preface, D’Alembert explored the connection and nature of the arts and sciences, and even presented a chart of the System of Human Knowledge as based on memory, reason, and imagination (with no room for divine revelation). Where learning had been organized on the basis of tradition, it was now to be organized on the basis of ideology.

The Encyclopedia Britannica was ideological in its own peculiarly British (i.e., muted and quasi-traditionalist) way. Its early editors all deplored the specific outlook of the Encyclopédie, which they deemed blasphemous and subversive, but it never occurred to them to doubt that an encyclopedia should presume to know, not only what people may want to know, but also what people ought to know. It quite firmly constructed its own circle of the arts and sciences. The ideological tenor of the E. B—what might be called a prudent Whiggery—achieved its fullest and most splendid demonstration…

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