Encyclopedism and Order
The classificatory project of 18th-century natural history runs parallel to and was in many ways inspired by the development of the encyclopedic enterprise of the same period. Natural historians and encyclopedists shared similar ambitions for totality, coherence, and order. Both camps had to ask the same questions: How much is there in the world to know? Is it proper to measure all the riches of creation? If so, by what "method" should they be described? Is there a correspondence between what we can know and the fundamental nature of things? Parallel to the rapid increase of information
came the epistemological shake-up of the early Enlightenment. Natural history as well as general encyclopedism moved from the finite world of the baroque to the infinite world of modern times. If "encyclopedia" means "the circle of knowledge," the circle was broken during the latter part of the 18th century. Natural history opened out similarly.
In following this development we shall find it useful to adopt a distinction d'Alembert employed in his introduction to La grande encyclopédie . By esprit de système he meant the old a priori physics connected with scholasticism, rationalism, and deduction, the sort of thing that Christian von Wolff did in the first half of the 18th century.Esprit systématique was connected with experiments, empiricist ideals, and a readiness to go down the toilsome path from the Lockean world; travelers on this journey had to accept a demarcation between what we can know and what we cannot know, between physics and metaphysics, and to try not to mingle both sides. But that is what often happened. As Cassirer wrote in The philosophy of Enlightenment : "This difference in mode of thinking [between esprit de système and esprit systématique ] does not mean a radical transformation, it amounts merely to a shifting of emphasis. This emphasis is constantly moving from the general to the particular, from principles to phenomena. But the basic assumptions remain. . ., the self-confidence of reason is nowhere shaken. The rationalistic postulate of uniformity dominates the mind of this age."
The 18th century manifested its rationalism in encyclopedias. Natural history helped to determine their structure. The Linnæan encyclopedia had one of its roots in the religious idea of Creation as the Book of Nature opened to the naturalist-reader. The same ambition to take possession of what had been discovered, indeed conquered, characterized both the Systema naturae and the great French
Encyclopédie . It was not mere coincidence that d'Alembert's and Diderot's great work began at the same time that Georges Louis Buffon's Histoire naturelle and the geodetic survey of France started. In his Discours préliminaire , d'Alembert alluded—and most appropriately—to the new success of natural history. Each side could profit from the other. Linnæan natural history, with its clear structure, universal language, and simplicity, made a good model for encyclopedias. Its rationality and practicality gave it entrée everywhere.
According to Zedler's magnificent Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenschaften und Künste (1732–54), an encyclopedia is "a total idea of all sciences, which the ancients brought together so as to show the relationship they have to one another." Zedler settled for something less. Both he and Ephraim Chambers, the author of the Cyclopedia (1728), arranged their works not systematically but alphabetically, though, to be sure, not without long discussions about the systematic aspect: "It may be even said, that if the system be an improvement upon the Dictionary, the Dictionary is some advantage to the System; and that this is perhaps the only way wherein the whole circle, or body of knowledge, with all its parts and dependencies, can well be delivered." Chambers, who was influenced by Locke and Newton, went on to explain the perfection that characterizes a classical work in contrast to a modern one. The classic had so little to compare itself to that it could devote all its attention to order and its own perfection, whereas the latter—"since experiments are endless"—will never reach so far. "To have philosophy complete, we should have the order, precision and distinctness of the old; and the matter and copia of the new." Chambers opposed order to abundance of material.
The opposition Chambers developed was connected with the decline of rationalistic systems of sciences in the Leibniz-Wolff
tradition, which were especially important in Germany from 1720 to 1765. These often extremely elaborate maps of knowledge lost much of their appeal when examined in the light of English empiricist and French sensualistic epistemology, more precisely the French Encyclopédie and later Kant's criticism. The Encyclopédie has often been taken as the starting point for a new concept of knowledge because of its antimetaphysics, its updated information, its optimism, its democratic call for action, and many more things, including its empiricism.
The Encyclopédie was a joint adventure with many collaborators and two principal editors, Diderot and d'Alembert, who did not agree about everything. D'Alembert's famous Discours préliminaire stressed the "order and connection of human knowledge," the inner order and harmony of the sciences, and the possibility of making a uniform system of encyclopedic knowledge. It was not clear, however, how he supposed the tree of knowledge to grow—did logical division or historical development control the branching? His ideals were those of a geometer, believing in a regular universe and operating with axioms and principles. "If somebody could survey the whole universe from one standpoint, it would be seen as consisting of one single fact and one single truth." Alphabetical order does not necessarily invalidate coherence, since cross-references could link the various subject matters from a synthetic point of view. How well these combinations in the end corresponded to the tree of knowledge was problematic.
Diderot's article "Encyclopédie" (1755) gave a truer picture of the purposes of the Encyclopédie . It responded to accusations that the first volumes did not have the coherence promised in d'Alembert's essay: "It is impossible to improve the arbitrariness of this great original profusion. The universe presents us only with individual things, infinite in number and with almost no fixed and determined division [among them]; none of them can be called the first or the last; everything is connected to everything else by insensible gradations." Later
Diderot insisted on the value of irregular articles. "The formation of an encyclopedia is like the foundation of a great city." He compared encyclopedic order with a machine, the parts of which fit together, but which can also be assembled in a completely new way. Rather than being the organized accumulation of the total stock of human knowledge, the cross-referenced Encyclopédie would be an open-ended conversation among members of a cité scientifique .
Diderot's dynamism would become even more pointed in the Rève d'Alembert , in which he defended poetry against geometry. That did not mean total hostility toward all "systems," only metaphysical and deductive ones; acceptable systems should act as heuristic devices and hypotheses and as pedagogical tools. When Diderot defended this openness in contrast to closed systems, he also defended the alphabetical arrangement, which predominated thereafter. This arrangement represented an important step toward secularization of knowledge and agnosticism toward taxonomies of knowledge. To quote a recent interpretation: "As the zero degree of taxonomy, alphabetical order authorizes all reading strategies; in this respect it could be considered an emblem of the Enlightenment."
The encyclopedic business thrived on this tension between knowledge and information. The first edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1768–71) was more weighted toward information, whereas the success of the Brockhaus Conversationslexicon provoked charges of superficiality. Hegel used the same word as Kant did for natural history works, Aggregaten, to describe the state of contemporary
encyclopedias. To Hegel, an encyclopedia should be a summarized introduction to scientific knowledge. An heroic attempt to combine these different traditions, literally identified with the heritage from Francis Bacon and Plato, is found in the "General introduction" to the Encyclopedia metropolitana (1817). The objective is no less than a reconstruction of "the circle of knowledge in its harmony" to provide that "unity of design and of elucidation, the want of which we have most deeply felt in other works of similar kind, where the desired information is divided into innumerable fragments scattered over many volumes, like a mirror broken on the ground, presenting instead of one, a thousand images, but none entire." But the future belonged to fragments and to Brockhaus's Aggregaten .
Whatever its organization, an encyclopedia required supplements to stay current. A popular work could be updated, commented on, and augmented; but in principle an encyclopedia should stand unaltered. The editors of the Encyclopédie failed in their initial plans to translate Chambers' Cyclopedia . Too much had to be altered or added. A two-volume Supplement to Chambers' work was published in London in 1753. About the same time a new series of supplements began to complete the already published sixty-four volumes of Zedler's Lexicon, and Felice's Encyclopédie, ou Dictionaire universel raisoné des connaissances humaines , received six volumes of supplements in 1775–6. Four supplementary volumes completed d'Alembert's and Diderot's great work in 1776–7. This constant adding made an encyclopedia something like a journal. Diderot wrote to the point. "An encyclopedia is a rapid and disinterested exposition of mankind's discoveries in all places, of all types, and in all times, without any judgment about people. Journals are only a passing account of books and authors." Still, the comparison was possible,
and in a sense the encyclopedia and the newspaper were getting closer to one another.
The increase of information that perplexed encyclopedists also vexed lexicographers. In his Plan for an English dictionary (1747), Dr. Johnson declared it to be his purpose to "fix" the language once and for all, because "all change is of itself evil." By the time his Dictionary appeared in 1755, Johnson had shifted his position. He now thought that "fixing" the language was as futile an effort as "embalming" it. In the interim he had put in much hard work to collect words and to define them, work similar to what natural historians tried to do in the species jungle. He too had to deal with the problematic relation between words and things. "I am not yet so lost in lexicography as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven." Thus he inclined to accept Locke's criticism of essentialism, although as a lexicographer he could not be happy about the instability of meanings. "Definition is, indeed, not the province of man; everything is set above or below our faculties," he sighed on another occasion. The lexicographer had to make the best of the situation, and describe words, not define them; and so Johnson proceeded.
Emanuel Swedenborg also had something to say about the growing awareness of never-ending knowledge. In an undated note from the middle of the century he wrote: "I was allowed to enter a library where there was a great number of books. . . . In the inner parts of still more libraries were books written by adherents of the old churches and still farther were books from the oldest. . . . The libraries had many departments according to the training of the students. There were also many other libraries in heaven, but not public ones. Further on there were still more libraries likewise divided into
departments. They were as many as there are research areas." We meet the famous spiritualist and one-time scientist, the inspiration of Borges' story of the libraries of Babel and of Eco's monastery; we recognize the principle of plenitude, and also of order. The multitude is overwhelming, but chaotic only to those who have not found—like Swedenborg and his fellow countryman Linnæus—the general patterns of reality.
The relation between order and plenitude is a constant problem in librarianship. A survey of German Sachkatalogen from the 17th to the 19th centuries shows a change from hierarchical systems to alphabetism. Gabriel Naudé, who introduced the concepts of systematic and alphabetic catalogues in the early 1600s, compared a library to an army. Strict order must rule in both. During the second half of the 18th century the Göttingen school of librarianship dominated. Its head, professor of medicine Georg Matthiae, stressed the necessity of arranging the library into "classes" according to a "natural" system. The systematic catalogue should be given priority over an alphabetic one since the coherence of books provides the basis of a scientific arrangement; considerations of size, form, and so on, mark the simple and unscientific librarian. Some disagreed: "Pure arrangement of books by their sciences is almost impossible and by no means necessary. The place a book stands is of no importance." The librarian's main problem was to find room for new books on old shelves; but, like natural historians, librarians wanted to raise their professional status by invoking order, classification, and science. The reverse analogy also held. Linnæus once wrote: "Gardens are like living libraries of plants." The garden and the library shared the same problem: growing knowledge had made systems cumbersome.