Sunday, August 07, 2011

Organizing Knowledge: Encyclopedias and Outlines

by Gary Berg-Cross

Modern Humanism as a philosophy & practice focusing on human values grew out of the Renaissance which launched off the study of classical Greek & Latin works. But it got a big boost from the French Enlightenment as philosophical salon discussions lead to a new view on knowledge as the informative partner of reason. A major tool to aid the enlightened trend was the creation of Encyclopedias. Ephraim Chambers, was one of the first encyclopedists of the Enlightenment with his Cyclopaedia (1728). He viewed his creation as a personal library, a condensation of all useful knowledge. It was also a tool for liberating the individual, and society. Building on this was the great, intellectual Encyclopédie (1751–72). The series was library itself with a enlightened editing by Denis Diderot & D’Alermbert. And they had major contributions by dozens of leading intellectuals & secular thinkers. Notable are the philosophes like Voltaire, Montesquieu but larger in number were the articles produced by the growing profession of naturalists/scientists.

Science was well represented because the Encyclopedie represented a rational but also empirical organization of a growing body of knowledge. It served the encyclopedists & natural historians aim to create a sweeping overview of knowledge. The main “natural history” contributors penned some 4,400 articles describing the natural, as opposed to supernatural order of things. Notable authors were Daubenton (900 articles along), Diderot himself, Jaucourt and d'Holbach. These were not all dry tomes since the editors and times ensured that the work had a general language of inquiry, reflection and illumination (see figure on the left from the Encyclopedie). It used the realm of the senses to describe and really “see” natural objects. The way we perceive things supplemented by reasonable analysis is the way the Encyclopedie organizes and discussed things. There were some other frames to use, but not those of earlier scholars and sacred texts. Instead they used some key general principles derive from Buffon’s Natural History to organize and integrate it. This made many articles anti-Lamarkian in spirit, thus helping to set an evolutionary stage for Darwin.

Organizing and knowledge, especially new knowledge is a tool used to combat conservative tendencies or to reverse upsetting trends. New organization and presentation is often used to aid progress. The encyclopedists, for example, believed correctly at their work would allow a systemization and “scientization” of education which would in turn have a significant influence on modern culture.

The Encyclopedie was not part of my education, but a later work, The Outline Of History by one man, H.G. Wells was. Just after WWI, Wells took a turn at advancing culture with his 1920 Outline Of History - Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind. History texts, Wells felt, were not only incomplete and poorly organized they were loaded with nationalistic bias. He believed that such parochial and anti-intellectual views had enabled the Great War. What the post-WWI world needed was more of a peoples' history of the world. Outline accomplished this and grabs readers because it is organized and styled like a mystery story novel.

Well’s Outline begins with a naturalist chapter called "The Earth in Space and Time". Given this scientific frame, it then covers the various archeological ages reflecting his use of modern science to understand the human condition and society. Outline was the first general history based on an evolutionary, sociological and anthropological understanding. In this way it represents and updating of what the Encyclopedie covers. It's evolutionary sophistication is less surprising when you realize that Well's mentor was the tenacious & clear thinking T.H. Huxley, of Darwin's Bulldog fame. Indeed, Wells build a large natural history base in the first section of Outline, relegating humankind entrance to a late appearance after nearly a hundred pages have gone by & we have a context to judge human events. In the run up to human history he covers the type of things later abstracted down in his 1922 A Short History of the World. You can read them online:

· The World in Space
· The World in Time
· The Beginnings of Life
· The Age of Fishes
· The Age of the Coal Swamps
· The Age of Reptiles
· The First Birds and the First Mammals
· The Age of Mammals
· Monkeys, Apes and Sub-men

It’s details are outdated now, but remarkable at the time and still enlightening when I read Outline in the late 5os..

On social issues Outline prefigures his later book A Modern Utopia. Looking at the failures of past society Well's writing reflects a desire for a society that would be run and organized by humanistic and well-educated people. Wells’ Outline was extremely critical of the role that privilege and hereditary factors in capitalist society. He was also critical of the role of Religion and how earlier histories have covered it. Below is a sample of his analysis of Hebrew "Kings" (really small tribal chiefs and Henry VIII style kings) , who had historically received good press.

"It is a striking tribute to the power of the written assertion over realities in men's minds that this Bible narrative has imposed, not only upon the Christian, but upon the Moslem world, the belief that King Solomon was not only one of the most magnificent, but one of the wisest of men. Yet the first book of Kings tells in detail his utmost splendours, and beside the beauty and wonder of the buildings and organizations of such great monarchs as Thothmes III or Rameses II or half a dozen other Pharaohs, or of Sargon II or Sardanapalus or Nebuchadnezzar the Great, they are trivial. His temple was... the (size) of a small villa residence... And as for his wisdom and statecraft, one need go no further than the Bible to see that Solomon was a mere helper in the wide-reaching schemes of the trader-king Hiram, and his kingdom a pawn between Phoenicia and Egypt. His importance was due largely to the temporary enfeeblement of Egypt... To his own people Solomon was a wasteful and oppressive monarch, and already before his death his kingdom was splitting, visibly to all men" (282).

Wells didn’t stop with histories, he later worked in the spirit of Encyclopaedias . In 1937 his contribution to the new Encyclopédie Française was an essay called World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia. This brought the idea of encyclopedias up to date with a goal of efficiently making, assembling and distributing knowledge in clear and understandable language. It remains a goal but the core of such an institution we now see in such products as Wikipedia, which is a more world-wide synthesis of bibliography and documentation supplementing the online, indexed archives of the world. A great number of workers still engage in keeping its knowledge up to date.

The Encyclopedists might be proud of a product like Wikipedia, but probably less so at society’s lack of wisdom. Our children remain educated with history books that somehow miss the natural wisdom, organization and integration of the Encyclopedie and the perspective of Well’s Outline. We yet wait for Well’s vision of the use of a Universal and Permanent World Encyclopedia/Knowledge Base to be secured. Here is how he expressed that vision of a world-wide, accessible knowledge base to be used for education and the common good:

"In the hands of competent editors, educational directors and teachers, these condensations and abstracts incorporated in the world educational system, will supply the humanity of the days before us, with a common understanding and the conception of a common purpose and of a commonweal such as now we hardly dare dream of. And its creation is a way to world peace that can be followed without any very grave risk of collision with the warring political forces and the vested institutional interests of today. Quietly and sanely this new encyclopaedia will, not so much overcome these archaic discords, as deprive them, steadily but imperceptibly, of their present reality. A common ideology based on this Permanent World Encyclopedia is a possible means, to some it seems the only means, of dissolving human conflict into unity."

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