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Definition of Encyclopaedia

Document from The Zurich Project
"Kurzfassung deutsch"

This document is a discussion of the genre of encyclopaedia. The questions asked below can help to define encyclopaedic works.
Translation made by Sabine Michel

Project Description

How is
[a] general knowledge
[b] distributed
[c] from the 16th to the 21st century?
[d] Stored general knowledge becomes manifest in encyclopaedias.
[e] Who accesses it and
[f] How to Define an Encyclopaedia? how?
[g] How is knowledge processed (i.e. made available) in encyclopaedias?
[h] What happens to knowledge when it is transferred from production to consumption?
[i] What happens to the society that deals with it?
[j] Who has an interest in the distribution of knowledge or its suppression?
[k] These questions are topical.
[l] What strategies do we follow in order to unearth interesting material?
[m] The project is intended to be interdisciplinary. 

[a] One characteristic of general knowledge is its claim to consistency. In the pre-Enlightenment period it was still possible for individual 'islands' of knowledge to exist alongside but completely separately from one another, whereas the Enlightenment period saw the emergence of techniques which created homogeneity (e.g. a contradiction is moderated by referring to the meaning of a certain knowledge element in a different context, or from a specific point of view ("Subsinnwelt").   


Unlike other studies in the history of science, our project is about the reception of knowledge rather than the production of knowledge. First of all, there are a few obvious aspects of publishing to consider: Which editors print what kind of encyclopaedias under which circumstances? Which economic processes are involved? (This has been researched by R. Darnton with regard to the "Encyclopédie".) Who buys what: who can afford what? (e.g. reading societies in 18th century Switzerland).


The historical dimension must not be overlooked; only a comparative study of the period from the pre-Enlightenment (16th/17th century), through the dawning of a new age in the 18th century and the bourgeoisie of the 19th century, right up to the most recent past will make us aware of the categories applicable to important changes in the way people approach knowledge. To study only the present situation would be to take a one-dimensional view of this multifaceted topic; it would blind us to the heterogeneity of the elements of knowledge and the change from static to dynamic models.


Encyclopaedias are thus the central source of material. The ideal user of an encyclopaedia can be inferred from an encyclopaedia’s composition and paratexts. By looking at how compilers/editors dealt with the material from which they extracted information, we can see which fields of interest predominated at the time, and we can also observe processes of modernisation, differentiation of categories, homogenising tendencies, etc. Further historical sources include documents about libraries' policies of acquisition and circulation, publishers' catalogues, and the history of publishers and publishing houses.


To put it in the broadest terms: In the 17th century, general knowledge was edited for scholars; the elements of knowledge were embedded in systems – In the 19th century, it was chopped up into quotable fragments with which the bourgeoisie adorned their conversation. – Today, 'information' is freely available to everyone via the Internet; research into exactly how the netizens use it has only just begun.



The types of access offered within the world of paper databases are discussed in the following paper by P. Michel.


Which fragments of knowledge are granted the honour of being turned into an article, complete with lemma? (Those which are not obvious and need to be explained – or rather the commonplaces that form the basis of conversation?) Are the encyclopaedias intended to be up-to-date or durable ("printed on acid-free paper, an investment for your grandchildren")? What patterns of argumentation are used to assert the claim to truthfulness? 


To an ever greater extent, the knowledge in encyclopaedias becomes context-free, subject-free and beyond any single scientific discipline; encyclopaedias are hubs of anonymous knowledge. If the articles no longer address the issue of how the knowledge was acquired, then one can neither call that knowledge into question, nor reconstruct the argumentation or evaluate the evidence for it. 


With the change from specialised knowledge to encyclopaedic knowledge, society becomes homogenised. 


Encyclopaedias that were published in (fascist or communist) dictatorships are very well suited for studying the propagation or suppression of items of knowledge; certain lemmata show considerable changes from one edition to the next. 


Knowledge is a social construct. The project is concerned with researching the historically shifting, culture-specific parameters which a priori guide, profile and focus perception and thus render possible – or prevent – access to knowledge. The regulating 'systemoid' must be precisely analysed with regard to its specific logic, ruptures and contradictions. A further concern of the project is modern Western society's self-concept, with its claim to equally distributed education and the deficits that this inevitably entails. 


It is not our aim to compile bibliographic records, inventories and descriptions of individual encyclopaedias; neither is this a longitudinal study of individual knowledge items. The idea is to take a more abstract approach to the issue, in terms of "discours"; i.e. to reach a meta-level. – We need to find suitable strategies to help unearth interesting material, e.g. to determine the status accorded to children in the organisation of the encyclopaedia, we first need to establish in which articles (other than under the lemma "childhood") they are mentioned, and second, how these contribute to the encyclopaedia's concept of childhood.

Further examples are: the classification of monsters; the treatment of phenomena such as materialism or atheism; the appearance and disappearance of entire categories (e.g. "leisure" in a bourgeois vs. a Marxist environment). 



Addressing questions such as these, relating to cultural anthropology, requires an interdisciplinary approach, and the various disciplines can be expected to interact fruitfully. 

  • Social history

  • Literature – changing styles and argumentation in encyclopaedia articles

  • Linguistics. A new subdiscipline is currently taking root: transfer of
    knowledge between experts and the general public (Wichter / Antos)

  • History of science – evaluation of whether and how innovations are integrated in encyclopaedic articles. Modern history of science has abandoned the study of great leaps in knowledge production (paradigm shifts, Copernican revolutions) in favour of the study of changing modes of perception, the history of "rationality", etc.

  • Cognitive psychology – knowledge representation

  • Educational science – reflections on the relationship between democratic state and education system; ways of dealing with the oversupply of information in the World Wide Web

  • Ethnology – the ways encyclopaedic material is dealt with in non-European cultures; integration of foreign knowledge into a culture's own stock of knowledge.