What is an Encyclopedia?

This has absolutely nothing to do with encyclopedias

An ENCYCLOPEDIA (also spelled Encyclopaedia) is a book or work professing to give information, more or less full, on the whole circle of human knowledge. The name is compounded of two Greek words, enkyklios, circular or general; and paideia, discipline or instruction.

These words were used by the Greeks and Romans to signify the circle of instruction through which every free-born youth had to pass before entering on public life. That circle embraced more particularly grammar, music, geometry, astronomy, and gymnastics, and afterwards became the “seven liberal arts” of the middle ages. The compound name Encyclopedia (or also encyclopaedia). appears to have been unknown to the Greeks, and also to the Latin writers of the classic period; and there is no evidence that either Greeks or Romans ever applied the words, single or compounded, to designate a book. The short form Cyclopaedia has still less classical authority than encyclopedia.

Encyclopedias, in the modern sense of the word, are most commonly alphabetical; but sometimes the arrangement is “rational,” i.e., according to the natural relations of the subjects. An alphabetical encyclopedia is a dictionary of universal knowledge. Besides this, its proper meaning, of a repertory of universal knowledge, the name encyclopedia is often applied — less properly perhaps — to alphabetical works whose scope is limited to a particular branch — works differing in no respect from others which are styled dictionaries, gazetteers, etc. See Dictionary. As all works of this kind, which now form a large and increasing section of literature in every language, have in so far a common character with encyclopedias proper, we may give some account of the whole class under the term encyclopedia.

For the sake of convenience, encyclopedias may be arranged in three categories:

  1. The earlier works of this kind, having, for the most part, merely an encyclopedic character, i.e., embracing a large range of subjects, without distinctly aiming at universality;
  2. Encyclopedias proper, which treat of the whole circle of human knowledge;
  3. Book professedly confined to a definite department of knowledge, whether under the name of Encyclopedia, dictionary, gazetteer, or other title. As books of this class profess to touch on every important point that comes within their scope, they may be considered as encyclopedic in a limited sense. In the following sketch, the distinction between the first and second of those classes, which is of a somewhat indeterminate kind, is not strictly adhered to when it would interfere with the chronological sequence.

Early Encyclopedias

The earliest work of an encyclopedic character is generally ascribed to Speusippus, a disciple of Plato. The great collections of Varro (Rerum Humanarum et Divinarum Antiquitates and Disciplinarum libri ix.), of the elder Pliny (Historia Naturalis), of Stobaeus, of Suidas, of Isidorus (the Origines), and of Capella, belong to the same class, but they exhibit no plan, and are only confused accumulations of the then known arts and sciences. Vincent of Beauvais (1264) surpassed them all. He gathered together with wonderful diligence the entire knowledge of the middle ages in three comprehensive works, Speculum Historiale, Speculum Naturale, and Speculum Doctrinale, to which soon after an unknown hand added a Speculum Morale.

But these, as well as the other similar compilations which appeared in the later mediaeval period under the title of Summa, or Speculum (mirror), are marked throughout by a lack of philosophic spirit. Perhaps the nearest approach to the modern Encyclopedia by an ancient writer, dates two centuries earlier than the time of Beauvais. In the 10th c., flourished Alfarabius, the ornament of the school of Baghdad, who wrote an encyclopedic collection of knowledge, remarkable for its grasp and completeness, and which still lies in MS. in the Escorial of Spain. Among the earliest and most noted of the modern encyclopedias was that of Johann Heinrich Alsted, or Alstedius, which appeared in Germany in two volumes in 1630. It consisted of 35 books in all, of which the first four contained an explanation of the nature of the rest. Then followed six on philology, ten on speculative and four on practical philosophy; three on theology, jurisprudence, and medicine; three on the mechanical arts; and live on history, chronology, and miscellaneous topics.

Two important French works belong to this century—the one is Louis Moreri’s Grand Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, of which the first edition appeared at Paris in 1673, and the last in 1759; the other, Peter Bayle’s famous Dictionnaire Historique et Critique, published at Rotterdam, in 4 vols., 1697. The first encyclopedic dictionary, so far as known, appeared in Germany as the Lexicon Universale of Hoffmann (2 vols., Basel) in 1677. Some time after there appeared in France, Thomas Corneille’s Dictionnaire des Arts et des Sciences, 2 vols. (Paris, 1694). Dictionaries limited to the explanation of technical terms had long been common throughout Europe; but previous to Hoffmann’s work, no attempt had been made to bring the whole body of science and art under the lexicographic form.

A highly successful attempt identical in kind, and attributable in idea, it may be, to the German work just alluded to, was the Lexicon Technicum of Dr. Harris, 2 vols. folio (London, 1710), which may fairly be regarded as the parent of all the dictionaries of arts and sciences that have since appeared in England. The Cyclopaedia of Ephraim Chambers, published in 1728, in two very large folio volumes, presents the next marked advance in the construction of encyclopedic dictionaries. This one was brought out with considerable claims to originality of arrangement. The author endeavored to communicate to his alphabetical materials something of the interest of a ‘‘continuous discourse,” by an elaborate system of cross references. Another peculiarity of this cyclopedia was that its author, in the details of mathematical and physical science, gave only conclusions and not processes of demonstration.

It was long a very popular work. The largest and most comprehensive of the successors to Hoffmann’s book in Germany, was Zedler’s Universal Lexicon, 64 vols. (Leip. 1732-50). In point of comprehensiveness, this work should be classed with the encyclopedias proper, there being almost nothing then known that may not be found in it. Perhaps the strongest impulse, if not in all respects the best, communicated by this successful attempt of Ephraim Chambers, was given to the French mind through D’Alembert and Diderot. Their Encyclopedie was really, though not professedly, founded upon E. Chambers’s book, which an Englishman named Mills had translated between 1743 and 1745, though the French version of it never was published.

The great French Encyclopedic was written by various authors of high literary and philosophical attainments, but of whom nearly all were tainted too much with the most impracticable revolutionary ideas, besides holding for the most part extremely skeptical opinions. The Encyclopedists excluded both biography and history from its scope, yet infused into it more originality, depth, and ability, than ever had appeared, before within the boards of an encyclopedic dictionary. It appeared at Paris in 28 vols. between the years 1751-72, and was followed by a supplement in 5 vols. (Amsterdam 1776-77), and an analytical index in 2 vols. (Paris, 1780). The work was everywhere received with the greatest enthusiasm, and it secured a place in the literary history of the nation for the editors and principal writers, who are ordinarily known as the Encyclopedists of France. They were D’Alembert and Diderot the editors, Rousseau, Grimm, Dumarsais, Voltaire, baron d’Holbach, and Jancourt. [See La Porte’s Esprit de l'Encyclopedie (Paris, 1768); and Voltaire’s Questions sur l'Encyclopedie (Paris,1770).]

D’Alembert’s celebrated preliminary discourse was garbled in various pretentious works of this class published for the most part in England; such were Barrow's New and Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 1 vol. folio, 1751; and the Complete Dictionary of Artsand Sciences, by Croker, Williams, and Clerk, 8 vols. folio, 1768. A somewhat better, though rather Illogical performance was published by a "Society of Gentlemen" in 1754 In four 8vo vols., generally known as Owen's Dictionary, from the name of the publisher of it. The first rude outline of the ponderous and solid encyclopedia Britannica was laid down in the year 1771, in three volumes, but it was nothing mere than a dictionary of arts and sciences; it had not yet attained to its subsequent universality. Such is a brief outline of the earlier kind of encyclopedias.

about encyclopedias

Some Notable Encyclopedias

The first Encyclopedia proper that demands our attention is the encyclopedia Britannica, of which the 2d comparatively complete edition, containing biographical and historical articles, appeared in 10 vols., between 1776 and 1788; the 3d edition was completed in 18 vols. in 1797; the 4th edition, in 20 vols., in 1810; the 5th and 6th editions, and supplements, in 6 vols., appeared between 1815-24; the 7th edition in 21 vols., in 1880-42; the 8th edition, in 21 vols., 1852-60; and a 9th edition is now in progress. The method pursued by this work, while thoroughly alphabetical, consists in a combination of the systematic and the particular. In few instances is any science broken up into fractional parts; nearly all the sciences are given in treatises as they severally occur in the order of the alphabet. In some cases, however, where obscurity might result from such a plan, the other method is adopted. A marked feature of this work, is the number of complete treatises and dissertations which it contains by men of European name. From first to last, this encyclopedia has been executed and published in Edinburgh, the literary reputation of which it has helped in no small degree to increase.

The next encyclopedia that we must notice is the Encyclopedie Methodique par Ordre des Matieres, which was begun in 1782, and was not finished till 1882. It extends to 166 1/2 vols. of text, with 51 “parties,” containing 6,439 plates. Each subject is treated in a separate volume or series of volumes, so that the work is a collection of separate dictionaries, more extensive than any encyclopedic work that has yet appeared. A work of higher scientific value, however, and even of a more varied nature, has been in progress for nearly half a century in Germany, undertaken originally by professors Ersch and Gruber in 1818, and which has since continued to appear, in three several sections of the alphabet, up to the present time. There have already appeared of this great Allgemeine Encyclopadie der Wissenschaften und Kiinste some 150 volumes.

In 1802, Dr. Abraham Rees projected an extended and improved edition of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, which was completed in 45 volumes in 1819. The system of cross-references peculiar to E. Chambers is very effectually carried out in this book; but besides including a great accession of historical and biographical detail, it contained a large number of papers, prepared by competent writers, on subjects with which their life had rendered them familiar. Another work of considerable merit, which began to appear in 1810, was Brewster’s Edinburgh encyclopedia, edited by the late sir David Brewster, and completed in 18 vols., in 1880.

In 1812, a great impetus was given to encyclopedic publications, by the appearance of the Conversations-Lexicon of F. A. Brockhaus of Leipsic. It has since gone through twelve editions. The eleventh issue, in 15 vols., appeared between 1864 and 1868 (supplement, 1872-73). The twelfth edition began to appear in 1875. It has been translated into nearly all the civilized languages of Europe, no fewer than four English works of the kind being professedly founded on it: these are the encyclopedia Americana, in 14 vols. (Philadelphia, 1829-46); the New American encyclopedia, 16 vols. (New York, 1858-63), of which a new ed. under the title American Cyclopaedia appeared between 1873 and 1876; the Popular encyclopedia, 7 vols. (Glas., new ed. 1883); and Chambers’s Encydopadia, 10 vols. (Edin. 1860-68; revised ed., 1874-86). Of these, the last-mentioned is a substantially new work, following in its construction the admirable plan of the Conversations-Lexicon, but making use of its valuable matter only so far as it is found suitable.

The next encyclopedic work which appeared after the Conversations-Lexicon, was one projected according to an original philosophic plan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1818, and finished in 1845, in 30 volumes. This Encyclopedia Metropolitana was arranged in four divisions: 1st, the pure sciences; 2d, the mixed and applied sciences; 8d, biography and history; and 4th, miscellaneous and lexicographic articles. The contributions to the first two divisions were written by persons of recognized ability, and they have nearly all been published separately in 8vo volumes since the Metropolitana appeared.

If the book had any fault, it was that the plan of it was too rigidly philosophical, and therefore not adapted to be consulted dictionary fashion; for although in one sense the alphabetic arrangement, by its jumble of subjects, is most heterogeneous and irrational, it recommends itself to popular acceptance by its extreme simplicity; and in point of fact, no encyclopedia has ever been thoroughly popular that has not been executed on the plan of a single alphabet, in which all subjects, however various, are included. Next appeared the Penny Cyclopedia of the society for the diffusion of useful knowledge, which was begun in 1833, and completed in 1843, in 28 volumes. This work was perhaps, at the time it appeared, the most useful and convenient, for the purposes of general consultation, of any encyclopedic treatise that had ever been issued. The English Cyclopaedia is founded on the copyright of the Penny Cyclopedia, but is rearranged into four great divisions, which are each given in the order of the alphabet, viz., geography, natural history, biography, and arts and sciences. This publication was begun in 1858, and was completed in 1861, in 22 vols.; a synoptical index appeared in 1862, and a supplementary volume for each division has since (1869-73) been issued.

Among other publications of this character which have appeared in the course of the present century, may be mentioned Wilkes’s encyclopedia, Londonensis, in 24 vols. (Lond. 1810-29); the encyclopedia Perthensis, in 23 vols. (Edinburgh, 1816); and the London encyclopedia, 22 vols. (Lond. 1829). The French have likewise published an Encyclopedie des Gens du Monde, in 22 vols. 8vo (Paris 1833-44); and Encyclopedie Moderne, which, with its supplement, occupies 42 vols. 8vo (Par. 1846-62); and a Dictionnaire de la Conversation et de la Lecture, 2d ed. in 16 vols. (Paris 1854-57), to which a supplement was afterwards added. The last of these is to a large extent based on the Conversations-Lexicon of Brockhaus.

The most notable of the other German encyclopedia are Meyer’s Neues Conversations-Lexicon, in 15 vols. (1857; 8d ed. 1874); and Pierer’s Universal Lexicon, in 84 vols. (Altenburg, 1840-46), a sixth edition of which began to appear in 1875. In addition to these, there are several other continental encyclopedias, which are based upon the Conversations-Lexicon—such as the Enciclopedia Espanola (Madrid); the Nuova Enciclopedia Popolare Italiana (Turin); the Nordisk Conversations Lexicon, 5 vols. (Copenhagen, 1858-63); and the Svenskt Konversations-Lexikon, 4 vols, (Stockholm, 1845-51); besides others in Russia, Hungary, the Netherlands, etc.

Specialized Encyclopedias

We have now to direct attention briefly to those books that are dictionaries at encyclopedias for one branch of knowledge. These works have been always very numerous, both in this country and on the continent. Such are the Biographie Universelle (commenced in 1811; new edition, 1842-65); Chalmers’ Biographical Dictionary, in 32 vols. (1812-17); the Dictionnaire des Sciences Medicales, 60 vols. (Par. 1812-22); Nouveau Dictionnaire d'Histoire Naturelle, 36 vols. (Par. 1816-19); F. Cuvier’s Dictionnaire des Sciences Naturelles, 60 vols. text, 10 vols. plates (1816-45); Dictionnaire de l'Industrie, etc., 10 vols. (Par. 1834—41); M'Culloch’s Commercial Dictionary (1832; last edition, 1882); M'Culloch’s Geographical Dictionary (1st edition 1841; new edition, 1866); the Dictionary of Practical Medicine (London 1866); Chambers’s Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1843; third edition, 1876); Spon’s Dictionary of Engineering (1869-74); Johnston’s Gazetteer (1850; new edition, 1877); Morton’s Cyclopaedia of Agriculture, 2 vols. (1855); the Nouvelle Biographie Generale (1855-66); Lippincott’s Gazetteer of the World (Philadelphia, last ed. 1882); Allibone’s Dictionary of British and American Authors (Philadelphia, 1859-71); Ure’s Dictionary of Arts, Manufactures, and Mines (1839; 7th ed., supp. vol. 1877); Schmid’s encyclopedia des Erziehungs und Unterrichtsesen.(1859-75).

Nor must we overlook the dictionaries of Dr. William Smith, viz., the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, 3 vols. (1843-48; new ed. 1849-51); the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, 2d ed. (1849); the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, 2 vols. (1854-57); the Dictionary of the Bible, 3 vols. (1860-63); and the Dictionary of Christian Antiquities (1875-80). These dictionaries are the product of the ripest scholarship in Britain, and are perhaps the most splendid specimens in existence of encyclopedias devoted to special branches of knowledge. See Dictionary.

Recent Developments in the Field of Encyclopedias

The Encyclopedia in traditional, book form, reached the pinnacle of their development with the publication of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica as well as its equivalents in other languages. This massive encyclopedia, comprising thousands of articles and individual entries, is still in general use today, having found new life online after having been scanned and converted to digital format.

The format of paper encyclopedias remained pretty much fixed over the past couple of centuries; the content and scope might change from one edition to the next, but they all had certain characteristics in common: for example, they were all massive collections of articles and subjects. Learning about interrelated subjects required the reader to physically move between different volumes. The high cost of printing mean that comprehensive encyclopedias such as the Britannica were extremely expensive. But more importantly there were size limitations; even though encyclopedias tended to be multi-volume works, there were limits on the shelf space that people could devote to this collection, and so publishers of encyclopedias had to make difficult decisions on what merited inclusion or not. As well, the cost and time involved in updating articles, meant that encyclopedia articles were often out of date.

This all changed with the development of the internet and of hyper linked text. It was now possible to create online encyclopedias which did not occupy physical space, and so could include a vast array of articles and information, far exceeding the stores of knowledge that the early encyclopedia writers could ever have dreamed. Moreover, it meant that articles could be cross linked through clickable links, which allow for the creation of what is essentially a web linking different subjects and topics in a way that would have been completely beyond the scope of paper encyclopedias.

However, the paper encyclopedia has not become extinct. Various encyclopedias continue to be published. And even the online encyclopedia Wikipedia allows users to order print copies of selected articles, and to also organize them into PDF books.