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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 in the famous 9th edition. Begun in 1875, completed in 1889, it was under the editorship of the great Biblical scholar, William Robertson Smith, and contained long essays (short books, really) by Mathew Arnold, Huxley, Saintsbury, Kelvin, Frazer, Wellhausen, and others. It was, and is, a monument to the Victorian world-view.

But just as it was impossible for tradition to defend its circle of learning from the onrush of new facts so it has proven impossible for ideology to do so. The circle itself has been abandoned, along with the conception of a knowledge—not a collection of facts, but a knowledge—that is the undisputed substance of education. The alphabetical arrangement is now the only principle of order in a general encyclopedia. The prefatory statement of guiding editorial principles was slowly eroded with each successive edition of the E. B. In the 1963 edition, it has totally vanished. What Diderot thought to be the obvious purpose of an encyclopedia—“to assemble the knowledge scattered over the surface of the earth; to explain its general system to the men with whom we live, and to transmit it to the men who will come after us”—has become a utopian fancy.

The Columbia Encyclopedia Is what an encyclopedia has to be when it ceases trying to be an enkiklios paideia. As its Preface states, it aims only to offer “first aid” to the general reader—and in this aim it is highly successful. It is, in effect, a gigantic and infinitely conscientious dictionary of facts, chock full of names, dates, spellings, and other “hard” data. Only a madman would try to browse in it, and only a simpleton would try to “learn” anything from it. It is inevitably most useful for looking up references to subjects one is utterly ignorant of or does not much care about. In one’s own particular field, the impression it conveys is not so different from that of reading an especially tedious freshman book report.

The Encyclopedia Britannica today is on its way to becoming a multi-volume version of the Columbia enterprise. But its history continues to plague it. The economics of encyclopedia publishing apparently make it inadvisable to undertake a single, complete revision of so large a work—so this revision has been going on in a piece-meal way, with unfortunate consequences. Most of the old giant entries have not been replaced but have been whittled down by editorial pygmies, and the results are too frequently a shoddy hotch-potch. Now someone has written a whole book showing just how shoddy the hotchpotch is.

Mr. Harvey Einbinder is a consulting physicist, who was originally moved to dissatisfaction with the E. B. by the entry on Galileo in the 1958 edition, which asserted that he had actually dropped weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, despite the fact that Professor Lane Cooper in 1935 had shown the story to be a fiction. (The Columbia Encyclopedia, incidentally, is still not completely persuaded: “Some say that he demonstrated this from the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”) From that moment on, Mr. Einbinder has devoted his spare time to picking the E. B. apart, piece by piece. He is very good at it and one would have thought the directors of the Britannica would have been pleased to pay him a generous consultant’s fee. Alas, they have lacked the sense to do so, and instead have, over these past years, engaged in a squalid, running controversy with him. From this controversy Mr. Einbinder emerges with truth and honor—he proves his case to the hill. The E. B. emerges with some shame—and an ever-increasing cash profit. For cultural first-aid is what we need, and it is less important that it be correct than that it be reassuringly there.

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