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The Circle Of Learning

We owe the word encyclopaedia to Quintilian's (first century C.E.) Latinized version of the Greek term denoting a circle of learning. Works such as Marcus Terentius Varro's Disciplines (c. 50 B.C.E., now lost) defined this circle as the "seven liberal arts," which later formed the trivium and quadrivium of the medieval university curriculum. Varro also included medicine and architecture. However, the circle of learning, comprising selected subjects, must be distinguished from the circle of all knowledge. A similar outlook is found in authors of the Middle Ages who placed the classical learning within a Christian framework, seeking to document the knowledge required by man for salvation. Important examples of such works are Flavius Magnus Cassiodorus's Institutiones (c. 560 C.E.), Isidore of Seville's Etymologiae (636), and Hugh of St. Victor's Didascalicon (c. 1130). Including both sacred and secular learning, these works expanded the original Greek concept; indeed, in Isidore there are hints of encyclopedism as near-comprehensive coverage of knowledge, including topics outside the liberal arts.

The most famous of the medieval works was the Speculum maius (The greater mirror), compiled between 1245 and 1260 from a range of authorities by the Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais; it was reprinted as late as 1624. It comprised three books, or mirrors—of nature, of history, and of doctrine. The last book, the Speculum doctrinale (Mirror of doctrine), covered the liberal and mechanical arts, mathematics, and natural philosophy. Gregor Reisch's Margarita philosophica (The philosophic pearl), first published in Freiburg in 1496, is one of the most successful examples of an encyclopedic compendium. Reisch summarized arts and sciences in the university curriculum of his day and implied a sequence of disciplines, sometimes by matching subjects to particular stages of life. This work went through ten editions between 1503 and 1599. At the other end of the Renaissance period Johann Heinrich Alsted's (1588–1638) Encyclopaedia (4 vols, 1630), considered the last and best of the neo-Scholastic encyclopedias, treated thirty disciplines in separate treatises arranged in accordance with a philosophical schema; in addition, an index to each treatise allowed access to a specific discipline. Yet even such a large work was conceived as a summary of subjects that in principle outlined an educational path. Alsted described his work as presenting a "methodological understanding of everything than man must learn in this life" (book 1).

Who could truly encompass this circle of knowledge? Indeed there were already doubts, especially given Francis Bacon's (1561–1626) stress on new knowledge, steadily accumulating over time. Nevertheless, the idea of "encyclopaedia" revived by Renaissance humanists was still selective, conceived as a circle of learning, not a summary of all knowledge in a single work. A version of this ideal supported the notion of general learning in the arts curriculum of the early modern European universities. In the English case, for example, this included rhetoric, logic, mathematics, and moral and natural philosophy. This curriculum was predicated on the interdependence of various branches of knowledge, a conviction elaborated by the Cambridge mathematician and divine, Isaac Barrow (1630–1677), who advised that "one Part of Learning doth confer Light to another, … that he will be a lame Scholar, who hath not an insight into many kinds of knowledge, that he can hardly be a good Scholar, who is not a general one" (Barrow, vol. 1, p. 184). In his Glossographia of 1656 Thomas Blount (1618–1679) reflected this position by defining the "encyclopedy" as "that learning which comprehends all Liberal Sciences; an Art that comprehends all others, the perfection of all knowledge."

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEncyclopedism - The Circle Of Learning, Encyclopedic Collections, Alphabetical Encyclopedias, Bibliography