Often when we think of the concept of ‘truth’, we tend to think about knowledge. Nowadays we have been getting a little lazy when looking for truth, by using Google or Wikipedia; before these tools we often went to the encyclopaedia. In 1750 France, two people took on a task to change the way we think; the project was called Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, mis en ordre par M. Diderot de l’Académie des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Prusse, et quant à la partie mathématique, par M. d’Alembert de l’Académie royale des Sciences de Paris, de celle de Prusse et de la Société royale de Londres (Encyclopaedia: or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, by a Company of Men of Letters, arranged by M. Diderot of the Academy of Sciences and Belles-lettres of Prussia: as to the Mathematical Portion, arranged by M. d’Alembert of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris, to the Academy of Sciences in Prussia and to the Royal Society of London).
Originally the Cyclopedia which was a project by Ephraim Chambers in 1728 but this was abandoned and Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert set out to create an entirely new encyclopaedia. Apart from editing and compiling Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert were contributors; Diderot helped with economics, mechanical arts, philosophy, politics and religion and d’Alembert with contemporary affairs, mathematics, philosophy, religion and science. Some of the most notable contributors of this project also included;
- Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton for natural history
- Baron d’Holbach for science (mainly chemistry and mineralogy), politics and religion
- Chevalier Louis de Jaucourt for economics, literature, medicine and politics
- Jean-Baptiste de La Chapelle for mathematics
- Jean-Jacques Rousseau for music and political theory
- Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune for economics, etymology, philosophy and physics
- Voltaire for history, literature and philosophy
Modern society owes a lot to the age of Enlightenment and this Encyclopaedia project; not only did it change the way we find knowledge in the search for truth but it also created a global standard of cataloguing and preserving our knowledge. In the words of Denis Diderot himself;
“The goal of an encyclopaedia is to assemble the knowledge scattered far and wide on the surface of the earth, to expose its general system to our fellow men with whom we live and to transmit it to those who will follow us, so that […] our sons, by becoming more educated, might become at the same time more virtuous and happy.”
While this was not the only encyclopaedia at the time or even before (Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopedia in London and Novalis’ Enzyklopädie in German) the Encyclopédie project seems to be the one that is more often referred to when looking at the history of the encyclopaedia. This could be effects of the Age of Enlightenment and its reputation with knowledge and truth, or it could be the fact that it is often referred to as the intellectual preparation for the French Revolution. However I think it was more to do with the famous “preliminary discourse” written by Jean Le Rond d’Alembert which explored the structure of the encyclopaedia articles as well as the background of the learned men that wrote each article. The significance of this is the ability to check the credibility of each article and quite possibly the start of referencing.