Flashbacks August 2006

A Taxonomy of Knowledge

Atlantic authors from the nineteenth century to the age of Wiki wax philosophical on encyclopedias, dictionaries, and thesauri.

Roget hoped his work would be a Linnaean taxonomy of specimens of the English language. But over time, Winchester pointed out, Roget’s thesaurus came to be used merely as a dictionary of synonyms. Roget had become “a vade mecum for the crossword cheat,” a college freshman’s resource for misguided efforts at elevating diction. (One of Winchester’s own students, dissatisfied for some reason with the phrase “earthly fingers,” had turned to his Roget and decided that “chthonic digits” would better suit.) Worst of all, it had become an unneeded crutch; too many of us, Winchester contended, would sooner reach for a thesaurus than find our own words to match our own thoughts. His final assessment was bleak: “Roget has become no more than a calculator for the lexically lazy: used too often, relied on at all, it will cause the most valuable part of the brain to atrophy, the core of human expression to wither.”

It might startle us to think that a reference work could wield such power. But another Atlantic contributor, John George Rosengarten, had already made this observation in the magazine’s earliest years. His 1868 article, “The Encyclopedists,” assessed the importance of the eighteenth century’s landmark Encyclopédie, an effort headed by “the three great chiefs, Voltaire, D’Alembert, and Diderot.” Rosengarten was impressed by the “influence, powerful alike for good and bad, which the Encyclopedists continue to exert.”

The Encyclopedists lived in an age when, at last, the written word had begun to have some force:

Authors became a power, and showed it by adopting the name of gens de lettres; they were almost a fourth estate. Literature ceased to be a pompous luxury of the great; it gave up its solemn, measured steps…it became popular in itself and powerful in forming public opinion, and then it was that the Encyclopédie was announced.

The architects of the Encyclopédie met with great resistance. The government halted production more than once, and only by currying favor with the king’s mistress were the Encyclopedists able to proceed. The project was at last concluded in the mid-1770s, a quarter of a century after Diderot announced the first volume.

Rosengarten saw in the Encyclopédie “a concert of action on the part of the intellect of France, an alliance of literature and science in the war for truth.” Though the first volumes were “wisely restrained in tone,” the Encyclopedists’ mettle grew as they published more: “The writers speak with greater elevation, the work takes a loftier position, and in its pages can be heard the rustling of the storm that was then gathering, and was soon to break over the devoted head of France.” And when the Revolution came, the voice of the Encyclopedists emerged from the din:

In the midst of the Revolution the same voice could be heard, and it was that voice which triumphed over the storm, and brought France once more to peace, to industry, and to progress, material, intellectual, political. Those who made and the pilot who rode the storm safely are all graduates of the school and indoctrinated with the lessons of the Encyclopédie...the Encyclopédie was a powerful lever with which its authors overturned the past and raised the standard of reform for the future.

Reference works can be many things; they are by turns useful, excessive, vain, superfluous, ingenious, and destructive. As the Encyclopedists showed, a reference work can even be a revolutionary document. And so our librarians are simply upholding a historic practice when they guard these volumes with care. Kings, too, did not want reference books to circulate.

—David Zax

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David Zax is an intern for The Atlantic Monthly.

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