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The Encyclopaedic Principle

Document from the Zurich Project
Translation made by Sabine Michel

The Encyclopaedic Principle : What should be counted as an encyclopaedia?

You read correctly! The question is not: What is an encyclopaedia? or even: What is the nature of an encyclopaedia? In cultural sciences, unlike in certain areas of research in the natural sciences (the genome of Escherichia Coli), the object is not given per se, but takes shape only through the lens of – phenomena-oriented – research. Designing the object carefully pays dividends by generating interesting questions and possible answers to them.

The history of the 'encyclopaedia' concept has been thoroughly researched.1 However, this does not contribute much to our understanding of the phenomenon. A great many texts (from the pre-Enlightenment era) which we should consider encyclopaedic do not carry the title "Encyclopaedia", but titles such as "Treasury", "Gold Mine", or "Market Place." Conversely, the title "Encyclopaedia" may conceal a completely different work. (There is also a trite use of the word, namely in the publishing business, where the term is used in order to promote sales, for instance when advertising a cookery book as an "Encyclopaedia of Kitchen Herbs".) We would be narrowing our view just as imprudently if we were to consider solely the "Encyclopédie" and related texts of the Enlightenment.

We have to be careful not to construct the object from a modern, Encyclopaedia Britannica-educated perspective; encyclopaedias of this type only became common after around 1700. In earlier epochs of our own culture - and undoubtedly in other cultures too – there have been very different forms of encyclopaedic material (which (mis)lead us to perceive the material as 'disguised' by various literary genres – a perception that was neither shared nor intended by contemporaries): encyclopaedias in the form of a travelogue, a biography, a map, etc.

Conversely, there are texts which at first glance appear to be encyclopaedias, but which beneath the surface defy that description. 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.

Encyclopaedias as we understand them come into the category of phenomena which can only be described as being related by "family resemblance" (L. Wittgenstein).

What, then, should be regarded as an encyclopaedia?

There is a range of rather central (and interlinked) characteristics, as well as peripheral features. Occasionally however, core characteristics may be missing.

In general, a text is understood to be an encyclopaedia if it possesses the following characteristics:

  • Encyclopaedias strive to be comprehensive (Alsted 1630: Encyclopaedia est methodica comprehensio rerum omnium in hac vita homini discendarum). Of course there are also specialised encyclopaedias (e.g. an encyclopaedia devoted to zoology); but in these cases, the subtopics are exhaustively treated. – This claim to universality is emphasised by various means.

  • Encyclopaedias strive to be organised displays, not heaps of fragmented knowledge (in this respect they differ from their predecessors, the "miscellanies" known in German as "Buntschriftstellerei"). They imply an organising principle which structures the wealth of information. This structure may be imagined as a tree with roots, trunk and branches, or as a source with rivers which rise from it.

  • Encyclopaedias invite 'consultation', which is a specific manner of reading, i.e. they are not intended to be read from cover to cover; they therefore offer access via certain tools (statim invenire techniques by means of a taxonomy, or indexes). It would be a topic for linguists to show how this invitation to be consulted is reflected in the textual structure in detail.

  • Encyclopaedias obtain information either second-hand or by compilation and thus neglect the ways in which the stored knowledge was acquired – or they try to lay open the sources of knowledge and provide platforms for discussion (cf. Bayle, Diderot). Both types have to be investigated.

  • Encyclopaedias provide information on things, not words (of course there are mixed types, cf. Larousse), though the difference between semantic knowledge and general knowledge (knowledge about the world, German "Weltwissen") is hard to define.

  • Encyclopaedias often have more or less hidden agendas which go beyond the mere mediation of subject matters; e.g. the representation of identity; the basic human satisfaction at having somehow subjected the contingent to the mind, at having made it available; the legitimisation of a certain organising principle; the propagation of a model suggesting human progress over the course of history; praise of God by the contemplation of Creation; providing suitably inoffensive material for convivial conversation.