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What Encyclopaedias Accomplish  

Document from The Zurich Project " Was leistet enzyklopädisches Zusammenstellen von Wissen?"
Translation made by Sabine Michel

What Does the Encyclopaedic Compilation of Knowledge Achieve?

Functions of encyclopaedic literature

What function does an encyclopaedia have? 'Knowledge storage' is too superficial an answer. Encyclopaedias frequently have other functions than those we would spontaneously attribute to them. Often the provision of information is not their dominant function.
The types of function listed below may occur at any time, but some flourish especially in particular historical situations. One compilation of knowledge may fulfil different functions. The list is not exhaustive. 

(A) Encyclopaedias as providers of entertainment for the leisured classes
(B) Collecting for the sake of having
(C) The encyclopaedia as a substitute for an inaccessible library
(D) Ordering and classifying as a defence mechanism against contingency
(E) Providing an overview, arranging things in a particular order
(F) Entries in an encyclopaedia can boost the esteem in which things or people are held
(G) Encyclopaedia entries serve to confirm conventional wisdom
(H) Providing insights and knowledge to prove the wisdom of God
(I) Knowledge serves to (re-)attain the salvation of mankind
(J) Providing knowledge for the purpose of indoctrination
(K) Superordinate disciplines employ encyclopaedic knowledge for purposes of their own (ancilla theologiae function)
(L) Using knowledge to promote one's own social advancement
(M) Cultural self-assertion through knowledge
(N) Compiling knowledge can help reveal inconsistencies
(O) Improving the education of the general public by popularising scientific results 

(A) Encyclopaedias as providers of entertainment for the leisured classes 

Aulus Gellius (in the 150s AD) used to spend entire nights on his Attic estate excerpting books – hence the title "Noctes atticae" – and he compiled the results "in order to provide recreation for my children, to grant them some respite from business affairs and allow them to unbend and divert their minds": a kind of 'infotainment'. He also, it must be said, aimed to furnish his readership with sufficient knowledge to fend off accusations of brutish ignorance. 


(B) Collecting for the sake of having 

The ideal of education in the Archaic period took the form of a discussion at the market place ("Polis"), in the shade of a plane tree, or at a symposium – whereas in Hellenism the passing down of knowledge was more important, and huge numbers of books were copied and annotated.

Armchair erudition in libraries: Alexander the Great's friend Ptolemy I Soter (ca. 376-ca. 283), who installed himself in Egypt, founded the Library of Alexandria which contained an estimated 500,000 to 700,000 scrolls. Librarians lived in a monastery-like community, funded by the state for the purpose of research. The cynic Simon deridingly called them "fattened chickens in a basket"; the scribe Didymus of Alexandria was nicknamed "Brass Guts" for his extreme industry.

Nietzsche calls this type "Alexandrian", by which he means eclectic-positivist; at heart the Alexandrian is a librarian and corrector, who goes miserably blind from dusty books and too many misprints. 


(C) The encyclopaedia as a substitute for an inaccessible library 

Some works comprised an entire library and thus provided information about everything that mattered: law and economics, land surveying, architecture and mechanical engineering, the art of hunting, horticulture, veterinary medicine etc.; they contained cookery books and even treatises on sericulture (the rearing of silkworms). Examples: Colerus: »Oeconomia rvralis et Domestica«, 1645; Franciscus Philippus Florinus, »Oeconomvs Prvdens oder Klug= und Rechts=verständiger Haus-Vatter« (roughly translates as 'Oeconomus Prudens, or Prudent and Legally-Literate House Paterfamilias'), 1705. 


(D) Ordering and classifying as a defence mechanism against contingency 

The rule of chance and chaos is hard to bear. Goethe speaks of the "millionfold hydra of empiricism" (letter to Schiller, 16/17 August 1797).

Arranging knowledge in a particular order is a strategy to cope with contingency. But entropy always catches up with us. 


(E) Providing an overview, arranging things in a particular order 

By the 16th century, the stock of knowledge had already grown huge and heterogeneous, and – thanks to the introduction of printing – it was disseminated in more and better-corrected books. In response, a desire arose to arrange this recorded knowledge methodically. Konrad Gessner (1516–1565) attempted an extensive and systematic stocktaking of scholarly books. (»Bibliotheca universalis seu catalogus omnium scriptorum in tribus linguis, græca, latina et hebraica, exstantium«, 4 Volumes, Zurich 1545–55).

Arranging knowledge in a particular order is a strategy to reduce complexity. 


(F) Entries in an encyclopaedia can boost the esteem in which things or people are held

After reading an article on mirrors I may not be able to manufacture a mirror (the encyclopaedia does not supply specialist information about the manufacturing process), but I will have a great respect for the craftsmen concerned and will have a much greater appreciation of the product 'mirror' than I did before reading the article. 


(G) Encyclopaedia entries serve to confirm conventional wisdom 

Reading the biography of Franz Schubert reinforces my belief in the received wisdom that geniuses are unhappy in bourgeois life, and that the true artist lives on the margins of society (cf. Thomas Mann, "Tonio Kröger"); similarly, the biography of Napoleon reaffirms the idea that great military leaders tend to overrate their abilities and that their power goes to their heads. 


(H) Providing insights and knowledge to prove the wisdom of God  


(I) Knowledge serves to (re-)attain the salvation of mankind  

Ex quo colligi potest […] quod videlicet omnium humanarum actionum ad hunc finem con-currit intentio, ut vel divinæ imaginis similitudo in nobis restau-retur, vel huius vitae necessitudini consulatur […]. Duo vero sunt quæ divinam in homine similitudinem reparant, id est speculatio veritatis et virtutis exercitum. Quia in hoc homo similis Deo est, quod sapiens et justus est; sed iste mutabiliter, ille immutabiliter et sapiens et justus est. (Hugh of Saint Victor, "Didascalicon" I, 7/8) From this it can be inferred [...] that the intention of all human actions is resolved in a common objective: either to restore in us the likeness of the divine image or to concern oneself with the necessity of this life [...] Now there are two things which restore the divine likeness in man, namely the contemplation of truth and the practice of virtue. For man resembles God in being wise and just; though, to be sure, man is but changeably so while God stands changelessly, both wise and just.
Hoc ergo omnes artes agunt, hoc intendunt, ut divina similitudo in nobis reparetur […] cui quanto magis conformamur, tanto magis sapimus. Tunc enim in nos incipit relucere, quod in ejus ratione semper fuit; quod quia in nobis transit, apud illum incommutabile consistit. (Hugh of Saint Victor, "Didascalicon" II, 1) This, then, is what the arts are concerned with, this is what they intend, namely, to restore within us the divine likeness [...] The closer we resemble the divine nature, the more Wisdom we possess, for then there begins to shine forth again in us what has always existed in the divine Idea or Pattern, coming and going in us but standing changeless in God. (based on Jerome Taylor's translation, 1968)

(J) Providing knowledge for the purpose of indoctrination 

The Sophists offered lessons in rhetoric and encyclopaedic knowledge to train people to make their voices heard through rational arguments at meetings of the assembly: eloquence in the service of statesmanlike aims. Sophism is not only the name of an epoch, but also a term for a phenomenon: Medieval and early modern preachers used encyclopaedic knowledge equally 'sophistically'. Cf. the following authors in the Zurich list: Thomas of Cantimpré, Petrus Berchorius (Pierre Bersuire), Vincent of Beauvais, Andreas Hondorff, Josephus Lange, Tobias Lohner, Laurentius Beyerlinck. 


(K) Superordinate disciplines employ encyclopaedic knowledge for purposes of their own (ancilla theologiae function)  


(L) Using knowledge to promote one's own social advancement 

The aristocratic Establishment gives way to a rising, mentally agile elite; social change in 5th-century Greece BC (rise of the polis): The Sophists enter the scene and teach rhetoric on the basis of general knowledge. 

In the 17th century: Rise of the clergymen, teachers, lawyers, cameralists and civil servants, who gain so much administrative know-how that they de facto outweigh the power of the de jure powerful nobility. 

The "Konversationslexikon" (Conversation Lexicon) bears this name because its purpose was to lend fluency and sophistication to conversation, and thus to refine manners; it was intended to help those without the benefit of a university education gain access to educated circles (according to K.G. Löbel's Conversationslexikon in 6 volumes 1796–1808). 


(M) Cultural self-assertion through knowledge 

Knowledge as a way for a culture or a social class to represent itself: a proud demonstration of what a society knows, of "how we have brought things on at last to such a splendid height" (George Madison Priest's translation of the German: "und wie wir's dann zuletzt so herrlich weit gebracht"; Wagner in Goethe's "Faust", line 573).

The third edition of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia had to present: the historical successes achieved by the Soviet Union and other socialist countries in the areas of economy, culture, and science, successes which had been achieved by exploiting the advantages of the socialist system; the great achievements of the revolution and of the labour of the USSR's peoples; the role of the CPSU in leading the way forward. 


(N) Compiling knowledge can help reveal inconsistencies

Judging by its form, Pierre Bayle's "Dictionnaire" is an encyclopaedia (like its predecessor compiled by Abbé Moréri, whom Bayle greatly despised) – but on closer inspection it is an anti-encyclopaedia designed in such a way as to shatter the reader's hopes of finding definite answers; instead, it sucks the information-seeker into a maelstrom of scepticism. 


(O) Improving the education of the general public by popularising scientific results 

Preface to the 15th volume of the 11th edition of the "Brockhaus" (1868), signed "editorial department and publishing house":

The Conversation Lexicon has the aim of making available and popularising scientific, artistic and technical findings, not for commercial usage but in the interests of general education. [...] For this general education is nothing less than the humanistic education which the individual acquires within the cultural life of his time, which presupposes occupational training as its starting point and includes the intellectual and the moral man, and thus has to be regarded as the wellspring of social and national strength and development. [...]

It has the aim of depicting within a limited scope, as a kind of microcosm, the circle of ideas and facts strewn invisibly to the individual through spirit, history and nature; not for the solution of a scientific problem or for the sake of practicing a skill, but to acquaint man as such with the world which lies beyond his ordinary horizon; this shall be achieved if not by making accessible, then at least by facilitating, first, insight into the concept of things and the organic relationships between them, and, second, an overview of the whole.

(Cf. the following quotations from the "Brockhaus" in German