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Alphabetical Encyclopedias

By the early 1700s, a new expression of encyclopedism was the publication of encyclopedias in the form of alphabetical dictionaries of terms and subjects. These were regarded as summaries of accumulated information in various fields of knowledge, produced in a form accessible to a wide readership. Such works acknowledged the medieval and Renaissance legacy of encyclopedism, but the scope of these new works extended beyond the subjects of the university and also explicitly confronted the problem of keeping pace with the incessant progress of knowledge in all fields.

Distinctions must be made within the set of alphabetical dictionaries that emerged toward the end of the seventeenth century. By 1700 there were specialist lexicons for anatomy, chemistry, and other subjects; the predecessors of the modern language dictionary; the historical (and biographical) dictionary; and the dictionary of arts and sciences. The last two kinds are most relevant here because for a time the distinction between them had a bearing on the contemporary definition of an encyclopedia. Louis Moréri's Grand Dictionnaire Historique (Great historical dictionary), first published in Lyon in 1674 and then issued in an expanded second edition in 1681, is usually regarded as the first work (other than bibliographies) to summarize a range of subjects in strictly alphabetical order. Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (2 vols., 1697; enlarged 2nd ed., 1702; Critical and historical dictionary,) began as an attempt to remedy Moréri's errors. Although large works for their time, neither pretended to the title of "encyclopaedia" because they were conceived as historical dictionaries covering major aspects of sacred and secular history by means of biographical entries on key figures.

The new genre of the dictionary of arts and sciences was the more direct predecessor of the modern encyclopedia. Three significant examples are Antoine Furetière's (1619–1688) Dictionnaire universel, published in three volumes at the Hague in 1690, two years after his death; John Harris's Lexicon technicum (2 vols., 1704, 1710); and Ephraim Chambers's (1680–1740) Cyclopaedia (2 vols., 1728). These works consisted of entries on terms (mainly from the arts and sciences) in alphabetical order, but they professed to be more than definitions of words by also being descriptions of things. The category of "arts and sciences" was flexible enough to embrace apparently disparate subjects such as law, music, and architecture, as well as the disciplines of the physico-mathematical disciplines and the new experimental sciences. The Lexicon technicum was strong on the latter but far less comprehensive than Chambers's Cyclopaedia, which justified its use of that title by covering systematic disciplines belonging to the category "scientia"—such as grammar, theology, logic, music, astronomy, mechanics, optics, and other parts of natural philosophy, as well as of subjects capable of being brought into scientific order, such as anatomy, medicine, natural history, and the practical and mechanical arts and trades. It did not include biography or history. Thus early-eighteenth-century encyclopedism tolerated a division of labor—between historical/biographical dictionaries and those dealing with the arts and sciences (and assuming the title of encyclopedia). The Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenschaften und Künste … (Great, complete universal lexicon of all sciences and arts …), begun in 1732 by the Leipzig publisher Johann Zedler, is an example of an historical dictionary that included entries on scientific topics in addition to those on history, theology, philosophy, and biography; it reached sixty-four folio volumes by 1750. By at least the early 1800s, encyclopedic coverage meant a comprehensive survey of all knowledge of the kind attempted by the Encyclopaedia Britannica, especially in its ninth edition (25 vols, 1875–1889).

Chambers compiled his Cyclopaedia single-handedly, drawing from various sources and presenting the information under key terms. With the famous Encyclopédie (1751–1780), edited by Denis Diderot (1713–1784) and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (1717–1783), encyclopedism became collaborative. While acknowledging their debt to Chambers, the French editors declared that a complete survey of knowledge required the efforts of many hands and so recruited contributions from leading members of the Republic of Letters. When completed, the Encyclopédie consisted of seventeen folio volumes of text and eleven volumes of plates, incorporating an extensive documentation of the arts, crafts, and trades, and illustrated by some twenty-five hundred engravings. Whereas Chambers's sought to condense "the vast bulk of universal knowledge into a lesser compass" (Chambers, 1738, vol. 1, xxiv), the French editors welcomed long essays covering the history and current views on a particular subject. This set the pattern for subsequent encyclopedias. The Encyclopaedia Britannica (3 vols., 1771) departed from Chambers's format of relatively short entries on terms, instead presenting major disciplines as "systems" in separate treatises of at least twenty-five pages each. From its third edition (10 vols., 1788–1797) experts were invited to write these treatises. Similarly, the Encyclopédie methodique (166 vols., 1782–1832), the successor to the Encyclopédie, was organized by disciplines, so that, for example, there were at least nine volumes on natural history. Each subject was under the control of a leading expert with a license (almost without a word limit) to describe and codify a field. Previously a concept that assumed the value of general learning, encyclopedism now depended on specialists.

This shift had implications for the rationale of Enlightenment encyclopedias. Both Chambers and Diderot claimed that the integrity of particular sciences and the relations between them could still be perceived, in spite of alphabetical arrangement. This is why they provided maps or charts of knowledge in their prefaces, albeit recognizing that such classification was to some degree arbitrary. Given the expansion of knowledge, especially in the natural sciences, they admitted that there was no longer a Woodcut from Gregor Reisch's Margarita philosophica (1496). Reisch's popular compendium, published during the early Renaissance period, sought to summarize and compartmentalize the disciplines of art and science. ANNENBERG RARE BOOK & MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA single circle of learning (such as the seven liberal arts) but insisted that their works were informed by an awareness of the links between subjects and that cross references allowed the reader to follow these in a methodical fashion. By the late 1700s, however, most encyclopedias had abdicated responsibility for any systematic classification of the subjects they covered. The Britannica never included a map of knowledge. One exception was the Encyclopaedia metropolitana (26 vols, 1827–1845), organized on a plan devised by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This was a return to the systematic, or at least thematic, format of earlier encyclopedic works. Rejecting alphabetical arrangement, Coleridge recommended an order of subjects that reflected the hierarchy of the disciplines in the classification he supplied, beginning with the abstract, formal subjects of logic, grammar, and geometry (all in the first two volumes), then the mixed-mathematical disciplines such as astronomy, optics, and music; then the various parts of natural history, and so on. This sequence of subjects was intended to prescribe a proper order of study. But this format had limited appeal, and the work was a commercial failure. Encyclopedism had finally lost touch with the original sense of the Greek concept of a circle of learning that an individual could, and should, pursue.

Nevertheless, understood as comprehensive coverage of either a single subject or the totality of knowledge, encyclopedism Diagram showing the "View of Knowledge" from Cyclopaedia (1728) by Ephraim Chambers. Chamber's two-volume work featured descriptions of subjects from a range of topics, mostly drawn from the fields of arts and science. ANNENBERG RARE BOOK & MANUSCRIPT LIBRARY, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA still flourished into the twentieth century. The nationalist emphasis of the nineteenth century (replacing the cosmopolitanism of the Enlightenment) continued to inspire encyclopedias. In various European countries, and in the Soviet Union, encyclopedias were emblems of national culture—for example, the Enciclopedia Italiana (1929–1939) in thirty-six large volumes, directed, in part, by the philosopher Giovanni Gentile. Other manifestations include H. G. Wells's call for a new encyclopedia to function as the "World Brain," and the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science—a collection of monographs planned by members of the Vienna Circle, notably by Otto Neurath (1892–1945) and Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970). In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the electronic storage and retrieval of information has allowed vast collection projects, larger than anything earlier versions of encyclopedism had contemplated.

By the late twentieth century, the role of encyclopedias in textual form was being questioned. The Encyclopaedia Britannica was issued on CD-ROM and then online; but with the increasing power of search engines on the Internet, the reference function of encyclopedias has been challenged. The tradition of encyclopedism in the West has emphasized the importance of categories of knowledge, relations between subjects, and the authority and credibility of the selections and summaries contained in catalogs, taxonomies, museums, and encyclopedias. Regardless of the medium in which information is stored in the twenty-first century, these issues remain.



Barrow, Isaac "Of Industry in Our Particular Calling, as Scholars." In The Works of the Learned Isaac Barrow, published by his Grace Dr. Tillotson. 3rd ed., 3 vols in 2. London: J. Round, J. Tonson, and W. Taylor, 1716.

Blount, Thomas. Glossographia; or, a Dictionary, Interpreting All Such Hard Words … Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue. Menston: Scolar Press, 1969. First published in 1656.

Chambers, Ephraim. Cyclopaedia; or, an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. 2 vols. London: J. and J. Knapton, J. Darby, D. Midwinter et al., 1728. 2nd ed. 1738.

Coleridge, Samuel. "General Introduction or Preliminary Treatise on Method." Encyclopaedia Metropolitana; or, Universal Dictionary of knowledge, on an original plan: comprising the twofold advantage of a philosophical and an alphabetical arrangement, edited by Edward Smedley, Hugh James Rose, and Henry Rose, 26 vols., London: B. Fellowes, F. and J. Rivington et al., 1827-45, vol. 1, 1–43. Reprinted in Robert Collison, Encyclopaedias: their History through the Ages, New York: Hafner Publishing, 1964, 243–299.

d'Alembert, Jean Le Rond. Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot. Translated by Richard N. Schwab, with the collaboration of Walter E. Rex. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. First published in 1751.

Diderot, Denis, and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, eds. Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. 17 vols. of text (1751–1765), 11 vols. of plates (1762–1777), 4 supplemental vols. of text, 1 supplemental vol. of plates, and 2 supplemental vols. of index. Paris: Briasson, 1751–1765; 1776–1780. Reprinted in 34 vols., Stuttgart-Bad, Cannstatt: Frommann, 1966–1967.

Pliny the Elder. Natural History Ten Vols. Translated by H. Rackham. New ed. London: W. Heinemann, 1974.

Reisch, Gregor. Margarita Philosophica. Freiburg: Joanne Schottu Argen, 1503.

Zedler, Johann Heinrich, Grosses vollständiges Universal-Lexicon aller Wissenschaften und Künste. 64 vols. Halle and Leipzig: J. H. Zedler, 1732–1750.


Arnar, Anna S., ed. Encyclopedism from Pliny to Borges. Chicago: University of Chicago Library, 1990.

Collison, Robert. Encyclopaedias: Their History through the Ages. New York: Hafner, 1964.

Chartier, Roger. The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1994.

Darnton, Robert. "Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge." In his The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. London: Penguin, 1985.

Findlen, Paula. Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Kafker, Frank A., ed. Notable Encyclopedias of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries: Nine Predecessors of the Encyclopédie. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol. 194. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1981.

Kafker, Frank A., ed. Notable Encyclopedias of the Late Eighteenth Century: Eleven Successors of the Encyclopédie. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol. 315. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1994.

Yeo, Richard. Encyclopaedic Visions: Scientific Dictionaries and Enlightenment Culture. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Richard Yeo

Additional topics

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