Encyclopaedic Visions: Scientific Dictionaries and Enlightenment Culture
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As a concept, the round of learning or circle of sciences – the original Graeco-Roman notion of encyclopaedia – has a long history; and it is not one without moments of crisis and change. One of these surely occurred towards the end of the eighteenth century, when observers acknowledged that there was by then an unbridge-able chasm between the knowledge contained in individual memory and the collective body of knowledge stored in an encyclopaedia. The quotation above concerns James Tytler (1747?–1805), a hack writer, ship’s surgeon and balloonist, who almost single-handedly compiled the second edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In doing so he displayed the general knowledge and talent for clever abridgement that made him a desirable, if ill-paid, worker in the Edinburgh printing trade. Writing in 1805, however, his biographer realised that these capacities had their limits. Indeed, to take even more illustrious examples, early Victorian polymaths such as T. B. Macaulay and William Whewell (1794–1866), regarded as encyclopaedic in their learning, nevertheless acknowledged that their omniscience was not truly comprehensive. Macaulay admitted that science was not his forte and that he had ‘gulfed’, or failed, mathematics at Cambridge. Whewell, the historian and philosopher of science, was considered amazing precisely because his extensive knowledge did include the sciences, although he confessed that increasing specialisation meant that he could only hope to keep abreast of some branches. As one who aspired to embrace the complete circle of sciences, Whewell did so at a time when multi-volume encyclopaedias, fuelled by specialist advances in knowledge, visibly demonstrated the decline of the encyclopaedic mind. The demise of such universally learned individuals had been spoken of before – Bayle, Leibniz and Gibbon had been mentioned as the possible last survivors of the species – but this became incontrovertible once encyclopaedias themselves betrayed either candid doubts, or false conﬁdence, about their ability to contain knowledge in a manageable set of volumes. As one writer reﬂected in 1862, the time had passed when ‘every man whose business lay in intellectual matters was bound to be his own encyclopaedia’.2
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