Encyclopedia (encyclopaedia)

An encyclopedia or encyclopaedia (British English) is a reference work providing a collection of summaries of knowledge concerning the whole field of human knowledge or a specific area of ​​it, generally arranged in alphabetical order. Below it will be analyzed the historical, social, and above all cultural context of production and diffusion of the Encyclopaedia par excellence, the one of Diderot and d’Alembert (hereinafter also indicated with the adjectives French and Parisian). In this way, we will bring out both the tensions typical of the Age of Enlightenment and the innovations (ideologically, “factiously” motivated) that the encyclopaedists introduce with their major, collective work.

Starting with a brief etymological excursus, we can say that the term comes from the Hellenistic Greek ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία, that is ‘basic education’ but also ‘general culture’. The two aspects, apparently opposed, are actually related: it is the set of basic knowledge on various disciplines that allows possessing a general culture.

The term encyclopedia first appeared in 1620, in the title of the work Cursus philosophici encyclopaedia by J.H. Alsted, after reworked as Encyclopaedia septem tomis distincta (1630)But on the other hand, since the 13th century, theologians and philosophers have been questioning the principles and methods by which to classify and systematize knowledge. Ramon Llull, in his Ars compendiosa inveniendi veritatem or Ars Magna (1271 and 1277, Short – but also fruitful, advantageous – Art to find the Truth), moved by the desire to convert Muslims and Jews to Christianity, proposed to demonstrate religious truths by combining simple, logical-mathematical and universal terms. Or Bacon in the Novum Organum Scientiarium (1620, The New Instrument of Science) conceived a classification of all knowledge as a tree structure: the arbor scientiarum has three large, main branches (memory, intellect, imagination), each of one ramifying into various disciplines. Also Leibniz, in particular in De Combinatoria (1666), attempted to delineate a universal combinatory (characteristica universalis) of first and necessary concepts that, numbered, would permit a rational structuring of knowledge.

First of all, an encyclopedia is a kind of dictionary mainly concerning Arts, Sciences and Literature. Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-1765, Dictionary of Science, Arts and Crafts) is indeed the subtitle of the Parisian Encyclopaedia; similar Original Dictionary of Arts and Sciences is the subtitle of the English Cyclopedia (1728) by E. Chambers. We will see how, already at the beginning of the 18th century, the English encyclopedic production processes, like the German one, were in place before Diderot and D’Alembert’s venture was started. The second point, an encyclopedia is formally structured in alphabetical order, and starting exactly since the 18th century it is more generally written in a given mother tongue (Latin, the language of erudite people, is used less and less to articulate, codify the human knowledge).

The two traits, regarding the use of both the alphabetical order and the mother tongue, respond to a precise pedagogical motivation. It’s to allow an easy consultation of the text and encourage its circulation. Thus to make knowledge accessible to everybody, or at least to a public wider than just one of the erudite people. The pedagogical motivation is also testified by the fact that the French Encyclopedia includes 11 volumes of illustrations: the drawings make it easier to understand what is explained in words.

To fully grasp the motivations and/or implications of this strong pedagogical will of Diderot and D’Alembert, as well as of all the other philosopher-authors representing the Lumières, it is appropriate to make a small digression from the subject of the encyclopedia.

In French Lumières literally means ‘lights’ (and keeping this same basic meaning, in the other main European languages we have: Enlightenment in English, Aufklärung in German, Illuminismo in Italian). The light which the Illuminists refer to is the one of the human intellect that makes knowledge possible. On the contrary, at the current time, the general, social, and Christian conception of human knowledge depended on God and found its limits in Him. By ideally opposing “natural” light to “divine” light, the Illuminists intend to devalue (deny) the latter and promote (affirm) the first as the main, unique source of human knowledge.

At the same time, the Lumières (its exponents) wanted to free man and/or society from the obscurantism proper to religious and political authorities – it is no coincidence that 1700 is the century of the Revolution and philosophical currents of atheism and libertinism. The dissipation of obscurantism is therefore duplicated with a pedagogical action that the Illuminists carry out through their literary-philosophical works (especially novels, dialogues, and epistolary novels).

But let’s get back to the Parisian Encyclopaedia as the model for future encyclopedias: we expose now some clarifications concerning its contents and its internal structure as well as its sources. The French Encyclopaedia first of all consists of 17 volumes (plus the 11 volumes of illustrations mentioned above): the first 7 were published between 1751 and 1757; the other 10, following some interruptions in the work (for reasons we are going to see later), about ten years later, in 1765. As regards the internal structural division of the Encyclopedia, it includes three main sections, which are memory, reason, and imagination, i.e. the three fundamental human rational faculties identified by Bacon. The three main sectors, in turn, are divided into sub-sectors and are composed as follows.

Since memory guides historical knowledge, the memory section is dedicated to History: ancient and modern, sacred and ecclesiastical, civil and natural, the latter also encompassing the arts and crafts. The arts and crafts, together with the History of Philosophy and synonyms, are the main topics of interest for Diderot, which is responsible for writing numerous articles (more than 10,000 signed and unsigned) on the subjects.

The reason section, more closely connected to a theoretical-philosophical knowledge, encompasses “divine science” (i.e. Theology) and the Sciences of human rationality (Mathematics, Physics, Natural Sciences including Geography). And d’Alembert, with about 600 articles, especially focused on these exact sciences. The last section, the one of imagination, groups together the aesthetic, “poetic” knowledge of the Fine Arts (Beaux-Arts). Diderot is not indifferent to this branch of human knowledge: in fact, he wrote the article on beauty (“Beau”).

Here Diderot sketches a theory of beauty, which on the other hand does not only incorporate an ideal of artistic beauty but also an ideal of what we might call “social beauty”, that is, the ideal of the common good. By listing various types of aesthetics, Diderot cites the practical aesthetics of artists, moralizing aesthetics, and civic aesthetics. And if we will have to wait for Kant and his Kritik der reinen Vernuft (1781, Critique of Pure Reason) for a more systematic investigation on aesthetics, further the merit of this Diderot’s article was to introduce in France the term “aesthetics” itself, until then used only in Germany.

We can, therefore, note that the Parisian Encyclopedia grouped all the branches of knowledge. This is a fundamental difference in comparison to previous encyclopedias, that treated only some disciplines and so were specialistic and/or partial encyclopedias. On the other hand, the French Encyclopedia does not boast an exclusive primacy in the universal, totalizing cataloging. This primacy is attributable, rather, to the abovementioned encyclopedia by Chambers, that in turn is one of the main models for the Parisian Encyclopaedia; more precisely the latter initially intended to be a simple translation of the English summa.

Other English and French works also inspired the Encyclopedia by Diderot and D’Alembert. Recalling beforehand that also in England (as well as in Germany) the encyclopedic movement (of Encyclopaedia production) was active, among the British models of the French Encyclopaedia we mention three of them. The Lexicum Technicum, or aUniversal English Dictionary of Art and Science (1704) by J. Harris; the New General English Dictionary (1735) by T. Dyche and the Encyclopaedia Britannica (published between 1768 and 1860). We cite in passing the German encyclopedias preceding the Parisian one (and apparently without influence on the latter): the Allgemeines Lexicon der Kunste und Wissenschaften (1721, General Lexicon of Arts and Sciences) by J.Th. Jablonski, and the Grössen vollstandiges universal Lexicon (1732-1750, Large Complete Universal Lexicon) by J.A. Frankenstein & P.D. Longolius.

As for the French models of the Parisian Encyclopaedia, they consist essentially and mainly of the work of the Académie royale des Sciences. Such a “loan” brings with it a corollary of implications and consequences on the ideals promoted by the French Encyclopedists and on the fate of their Encyclopedia, as we shall see soon.

Now we would point out that the debt of the Encyclopaedia par excellence to other studies reveals one fact: it cannot have a “knowledge primacy”, because obviously, it would be impossible to systematize ex-novo the totality of human knowledge. The use of earlier sources is a usual cultural practice; on the other hand, in the specific case of the Parisian Encyclopaedia, some dubious textual selections can be attributed to this “reuse”.

Art and History, in particular, are not treated solidly (while the articles on Geography, History, and Mechanical Arts are the most valid). Also, the sub-sections dedicated to Theology pose some problems, related, in this case, to the reception of the work (not to its fabrication): the ecclesiastical class considers some articles of Theology unorthodox, or too critical towards the Christianity, or too condescending with other religions.

But then, if the Parisian Encyclopaedia does not have a knowledge primacy, why it is so successful and/or absolute reference model for the genre to which it belongs? What makes the collective work of the Enlightenment Encyclopedists so crucial is the promotion – not devoid of “militant” connotations – of a more practical, empirical knowledge. In this regard, it is appropriate at least to mention what follows. It is the fact that, within the Enlightenment current, praxis and empiricism are ideologically opposed to a knowledge that depends on God, rising to central values and/or exclusive gnoseological paradigms.

To testify the commitment (engagement) of a non-abstract knowledge, there is not only the subtitle Dictionnaire raisonné…des métiers. There is also the fact that the collaborators of the Parisian Encyclopaedia (about 130) belong to varied social classes, and therefore possess different professional and intellectual qualities. Thus, next to the most famous names (in addition to Diderot and D’Alembert, Buffon, Rousseau, Daubenton, etc.), we find experts in various fields (engineering, manufacturing, trade) from Paris, the province or abroad, as well as – not without amazement – some ecclesiastics (who were active especially in the early years of editing).

In this context, however, the emphasis should be placed above all on the fact that the production and dissemination of encyclopedic articles on Science mark one event of great importance for the European cultural panorama. It is the distancing of the users (of society, of “people”) from the erudite knowledge, characteristic of the Académie, and consequently, the disappearance of the cultural hegemony, until then held by the Académie.

It is also well known that the latter was founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu under the aegis of King Louis XIII: it’s possible to suppose that the confrontation/clash between Encyclopedists and Academics also led to a critique of royal power. But actually in the article “Autorité politique” (‘political authority’), probably written by Diderot but not signed, the royal authority itself is not contested; nevertheless, state authority and power, in general, are the subjects of criticism.

With this, the Illuminist Encyclopaedists are accused, especially by the clergy (because of the articles on religions mentioned above), that they attacked all kinds of authority. Beyond these specific accusations, the ideas and ideals of Illuminists were generally perceived, even by the noble elite, as too bold and not conforming to the social order. This is not without reason: the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood (liberté, égalité, fraternité) are destined to materialize in the 1789 Revolution, by which the two traditional, strong King’s and the Church’s powers were subverted.

Thus it is not surprising that, in the course of its work, the drafting of the Encyclopaedia gave rise to tensions between Encyclopedists and booksellers on one side, and on the other one the Church, the Parliament, and the King. Tensions that sometimes led to the prohibition, or censorship, of encyclopedic works. So it was in the period immediately following the so-called “affaire de Prades”, 1752 (Prades, a Catholic theologian, author of the article “Certitude,” ‘certainty,’ had positions close to those of Enlightenment empiricism which cost him the accusations of blasphemy by the Church).

But in 1765 the booksellers, and with them the encyclopedists, obtained from the sovereign (desirous to extend the French cultural hegemony in Europe) the tacit permission to publish the remaining volumes (from the VIII to the XVII) of the grand work.

The Encyclopaedia is therefore ready to expand the knowledge of the inhabitants of the Old Continent, after having obviously passed through the processes of translation into the various national languages. However, the translation projects of the Parisian Encyclopaedia abroad are not very successful. While in Venice, Milan, and Padua, counterfeit editions of encyclopedias were printed, in Florence and in Spain Grand Duke Leopold II preferred to encourage the translation of Panckoucke’s Encyclopédie Méthodique (1782-1792), which intended to correct deficiencies and errors of Diderot/D’Alembert’s Encyclopaedia.

In the faraway Russia, some translations were completed, although limited to individual parts of the Parisian Encyclopaedia, while in England and Germany various translation plans remained unfinished (the case, for example, of The Plan of French Encyclopaedia). On the other hand, in these last two countries, the presence of encyclopedism, of a national encyclopedic production (and tradition) can be observed. For England, we can cite The New Royal Cyclopœdia, and Encyclopœdia by H. Boswell&F. Stonehouse (1788), and the Encyclopœdia lonidnensis by J. Wilkes (1797-1829). For Germany, we remember an encyclopedia that uses not only the traditional alphabetical order but also a system of cross-references (functional to a wider view on knowledge): it’s the Deutsche Encyclopädie oder allgemeines Real-Wörterbuch aller Künsten und Wissenschaften von einer Gesellschaft von Gelehrten (1778-1807, German encyclopaedia or general real dictionary of all arts and sciences by a society of scholars).

In the 19th century, the writing of encyclopedias did not stop. But in this century, on one hand, partial encyclopedias were written more often, i.e., those focused on a specific topic and/or discipline; on the other hand, Germany stood out for its greater encyclopedic attention. We report some titles by way of example. In addition to the universal, all-embracing encyclopedias Allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Wissenschaften und Künste (1818, General Encyclopaedia of Sciences and Arts) and Allgemeine Deutsche Real-Enzyklopädie für die gebilde Stände (1818, General German Real Encyclopaedia for the Formed States), other partial encyclopedias were published, including the following. From the Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften (1817 and 1827, Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences) by Hegel, to the Real– Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft (1839 and 1894, Real Encyclopaedia of Classical Antiquity); from the Juristische Encyklopädie (1853, Juridical Encyclopaedia) by L. A. Warnkönig, to the Enzyklopädie der mathematischen Wissenschaften (1898, Encyclopaedia of Mathematical Sciences).

In the 20th century and up to the current times, it has been encouraged a more specific encyclopedic production, as well as some international ones (inevitably at the time of globalization). To explain again this through examples and turning towards Anglophone and Italophone productions, we mention the following works. Among the first ones, the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science (1938) as well as the more recent Encyclopedia of Contemporary Literary Theory (by I.R. Makaryk, 1993) and the Contemporary Encyclopedia of British Literature (by K. Vallath&all, 2015-2019). Among the second ones, the Enciclopedia Italiana di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti (1929, Italian Encyclopaedia of Science, Belles-Letters, and Arts), and in an online version and constantly updated the Enciclopedia d’Arte Italiana (Italian Art Encyclopaedia).

Far from exhausting the entire range of current encyclopedias (they can be found on a wide variety of subjects), this final list is intended to be an indication of this fact: the great Parisian Encyclopaedia has been propagated, over the centuries, a persistent and indefatigable Cultural enthusiasm, both in those who “produce” Culture and in those who, through their readings, benefit from it.

Scroll to Top