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Posts Tagged ‘encyclopedia

“Belief can be manipulated. Only knowledge is dangerous.”*…

 

diderot

 

Denis Diderot and the encyclopedists had a plan to catalog knowledge that seemed harmless enough; but what they intended was far more subversive– to restructure knowledge itself:

Far more influential and prominent than the short single-authored works that Diderot had produced up to this point in his life, the Encyclopédie was expressly designed to pass on the temptation and method of intellectual freedom to a huge audience in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in faraway lands like Saint Petersburg and Philadelphia. Ultimately carried to term through ruse, obfuscation, and sometimes cooperation with the authorities, the Encyclopédie (and its various translations, republications, and pirated excerpts and editions) is now considered the supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment: a triumph of secularism, freedom of thought, and eighteenth-century commerce…

At first glance, [Diderot’s] large map of topics, which ranged from comets to epic poetry, seems quite inoffensive. Indeed, the Encyclopédie’s earliest critic, the Jesuit priest Guillaume-François Berthier, did not quibble with how Diderot had organized the “System”; he simply accused Diderot of stealing this aspect of Bacon’s work without proper acknowledgment. Diderot’s real transgression, however, was not following the English philosopher more closely. For, while it was true that Diderot freely borrowed the overall structure of his tree of knowledge from Bacon, he had actually made two significant changes to the Englishman’s conception of human understanding. First, he had broken down and subverted the traditional hierarchical relationship between liberal arts (painting, architecture, and sculpture) and “mechanical arts” or trades (i.e., manual labor). Second, and more subversively, he had shifted the category of religion squarely under humankind’s ability to reason. Whereas Bacon had carefully and sagely preserved a second and separate level of knowledge for theology outside the purview of the three human faculties, Diderot made religion subservient to philosophy, essentially giving his readers the authority to critique the divine…

The only other subject more problematic than religion was politics. In a country without political parties, where sedition was punished by sentencing to a galley ship or death, d’Alembert and Diderot never overtly questioned the spiritual and political authority of the monarchy. Yet the Encyclopédie nonetheless succeeded in advancing liberal principles, including freedom of thought and a more rational exercise of political power. As tepid as some of these writings may seem when compared with the political discourse of the Revolutionary era, the Encyclopédie played a significant role in destabilizing the key assumptions of Absolutism.

Diderot’s most direct and dangerous entry in this vein was his unsigned article on “Political Authority” (“Autorité politique”), which also appeared in the first volume of the Encyclopédie. Readers who chanced upon this article immediately noticed that it does not begin with a definition of political authority itself; instead, it opens powerfully with an unblemished assertion that neither God nor nature has given any one person the indisputable authority to reign…

From a fascinating excerpt of Andrew S. Curran’s  Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely.  Read the piece in full at “How Diderot’s Encyclopedia Challenged the King.”

* Frank Herbert

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As we note that knowledge is power, we might recall that it was on this date in 1920 that the League of Women Voters was founded.  Created to support women’s suffrage, it remains nonpartisan, neither supporting nor opposing candidates or parties, and advocating for (now more broadly understood) voting rights and for campaign finance reform.  The League sponsored the Presidential debates in 1976, 1980, and 1984, but withdrew in 1988, when the demands of the two parties became untenable. Then-LWV President Nancy Neuman said that the debate format on which the parties were insisting would “perpetrate a fraud on the American voter” and that her organization did not intend to “become an accessory to the hoodwinking of the American public.”

200px-LWV_Logo.svg source

 

Written by LW

February 14, 2019 at 1:01 am

“It might help to think of the universe as a rubber sheet, or perhaps not”*…

 

mobius strip

You have most likely encountered one-sided objects hundreds of times in your daily life – like the universal symbol for recycling, found printed on the backs of aluminum cans and plastic bottles.

This mathematical object is called a Mobius strip. It has fascinated environmentalists, artists, engineers, mathematicians and many others ever since its discovery in 1858 by August Möbius, a German mathematician who died 150 years ago, on Sept. 26, 1868.

Möbius discovered the one-sided strip in 1858 while serving as the chair of astronomy and higher mechanics at the University of Leipzig. (Another mathematician named Listing actually described it a few months earlier, but did not publish his work until 1861.)…

The discovery of the Möbius strip in the mid-19th century launched a brand new field of mathematics: topology: “The Mathematical Madness of Möbius Strips and Other One-Sided Objects.”

* Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

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As we return from whence we came, we might wish a Joyeux Anniversaire to Denis Diderot, contributor to and the chief editor of the Encyclopédie (“All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”)– and thus towering figure in the Enlightenment; he was born on this date in 1713.  Diderot was also a novelist (e.g., Jacques le fataliste et son maître [Jacques the Fatalist and his Master])…  and no mean epigramist:

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.

We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it.

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Written by LW

October 5, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The Encyclopedia – the advance artillery of reason, the armada of philosophy, the siege engine of the enlightenment”…

 

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Encyclopædia Britannica occupies a special place in the annals of publishing and the history of the West. Although its full influence, like that of any great work of literature, is ultimately immeasurable in concrete terms (the number of units sold is never the best barometer), its larger social and cultural impact—as a reference work, a spark to learning, a symbol of aspiration, a recorder of evolving knowledge, and a mirror of our changing times—has been extraordinary…

From George Bernard Shaw to Keith Richards, a few of Encyclopædia Britannica’s famous readers– and their fascinating tales– on the occasion of its 250th anniversary: “Encyclopedia Hounds.”

* Peter Prange

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As we look it up, we might we might recall that it was on this date in 2007 that Apple released the first iPhone….  the device that ushered in the smartphone and that, with Wikipedia (which dates from 2001), contributed to the decline of Encyclopædia Britannica, which ceased print publication in 2012.

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Written by LW

June 29, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Archives are a kind of site… like an archaeological site”*…

 

I was told that the most interesting man in the world works in the archives division of the New York Public Library, and so I went there, one morning this summer, to meet him. My guide, who said it took her a year to learn how to get around the Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street, led us to an elevator off Astor Hall, up past the McGraw Rotunda, through a little door at the back of the Rose Main Reading Room. Our destination was Room 328.

A sign above the door called it the “Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts.” Inside, there were a handful of quiet researchers stooped at large wooden desks, and in the corner, presiding over a cart of acid-free Hollinger document boxes, was the archivist Thomas Lannon…

The New York Public Library’s archives contain dentures, roller skates, and, as David Grann discovered, evidence of a systematic campaign of murder; Thomas Lannon presides over it all: “Keepers of the Secrets.”

* John Berger

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As we dig through the files, we might wish a Joyeux Anniversaire to Denis Diderot, contributor to and the chief editor of the Encyclopédie (“All things must be examined, debated, investigated without exception and without regard for anyone’s feelings.”)– and thus towering figure in the Enlightenment; he was born on this date in 1713.  Diderot was also a novelist (e.g., Jacques le fataliste et son maître [Jacques the Fatalist and his Master])…  and no mean epigramist:

From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step.

We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.

Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.

A thing is not proved just because no one has ever questioned it.

 source

 

Written by LW

October 5, 2017 at 1:01 am

“An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest”*…

 

Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Socrates

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy may be the most interesting website on the internet. Not because of the content—which includes fascinating entries on everything from ambiguity to zombies—but because of the site itself.

Its creators have solved one of the internet’s fundamental problems: How to provide authoritative, rigorously accurate knowledge, at no cost to readers. It’s something the encyclopedia, or SEP, has managed to do for two decades.

The internet is an information landfill. Somewhere in it—buried under piles of opinion, speculation, and misinformation—is virtually all of human knowledge. But sorting through the trash is difficult work. Even when you have something you think is valuable, it often turns out to be a cheap knock-off.

The story of how the SEP is run, and how it came to be, shows that it is possible to create a less trashy internet—or at least a less trashy corner of it. A place where actual knowledge is sorted into a neat, separate pile instead of being thrown into the landfill. Where the world can go to learn everything that we know to be true. Something that would make humans a lot smarter than the internet we have today…

An alternative to crowd-sourced, crowd-funded publishing that’s true to the ideals of the web– and that works:  “This free online encyclopedia has achieved what Wikipedia can only dream of.”

* Benjamin Franklin

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As we rethink querying Quora, we might spare a thought for “The Sage of Baltimore,” Henry Louis (H.L.) Mencken; he died on this date in 1956…  The author of The American Language (and many, many other things) is credited with having coined the term “ecdysiast,” in response to a request from a practitioner who requested a “more dignified” way to refer to her profession.

Often called “the American Nietzsche” (by virtue of his scholarship on the German philosopher), Mencken might better have been considered “the American Wilde”; consider:

Democracy is the theory that holds that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.

Nature abhors a moron.

Puritanism – The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.

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Written by LW

January 29, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The world encyclopedia, the universal library, exists, and it is the world itself”*…

 

Inlaid metal basin depicting scenes from the Mamluk court, later known as the Baptismal Bowl of Saint Louis, by Muhammad Ibn al-Zayn, Egypt, circa 1320-1340

Long-time readers will know that your correspondent has a fascination with the impulse to collect the world’s knowledge, from Diderot and his Encyclopédie to Wikipedia (c.f., “Share your knowledge. It is a way to achieve immortality” and “Rest in Pieces“).  But the encyclopedic impulse has much older roots…

Sometime around the year 1314, a retired Egyptian bureaucrat named Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri began writing a compendium of all knowledge, under the appealingly reckless title The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition. It would eventually total more than 9,000 pages in thirty volumes, covering all of human history from Adam onward, all known plants and animals, geography, law, the arts of government and war, poetry, recipes, jokes, and of course, the revelations of Islam…

Browse away at “In the Attic of Early Islam.”

* Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

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As we collect our thoughts, we might spare a thought for Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz; he died on this date in 2006.  A prolific creator– he published 34 novels, over 350 short stories, dozens of movie scripts, and five plays over a 70-year career– he was one of the first writers in Arabic to explore Existentialist themes (e.g., the Cairo Trilogy, Adrift on the Nile).  He was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature.

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Written by LW

August 30, 2016 at 1:01 am

“A book is a garden, an orchard, a storehouse, a party, a company by the way, a counselor, a multitude of counselors”*…

 

There are dead encyclopedias lurking everywhere, in basements and garbage dumps and church sales, because the publishing industry had such success at selling them to Americans in the 20th century. At their 18th-century Enlightenment origins, encyclopedias were for the educated elite. In the United States, historian Ann Katherine Johnson writes, reference books like encyclopedias and dictionaries began the 19th century as a luxury good—“tools for a relative few”—and exited as “mass-produced books designed ‘for the people.’ ” By the 20th century, in North America, encyclopedias had become a middle-class social tradition.

“Through most of the twentieth century, as many as 90 percent of American encyclopedias were sold door to door,” writes Jack Lynch in his book You Could Look It Up. Encyclopedia salespeople became so common as to be the butt of some pretty good jokes. But their pitch—“If you want to get ahead, you’ll invest in a set”—hit on some serious anxieties. “They were selling not books but a lifestyle, a future, a promise of social mobility,” Lynch writes. “You are holding your family’s future in your hands right now,” a 1961 ad for World Book, featuring a feminine hand grasping an order form, promised.

The advent of the home personal computer, and then the internet, killed the print encyclopedia dead. Why does this feel like such a tragedy to me? Encyclopedias were full of ideology, but pretended to be neutral; as proponents of the Wikipedia model point out, there is some advantage to the way we perceive authority now, as a distributed, ever-evolving web of edits and updates, performed by self-appointed experts who should be trusted only so far and no further. Yet my sense of nostalgia persists.

Artists Brian Dettmer and Guy Laramée tap these feelings in their work. Dettmer explodes encyclopedias, ransacking their interiors for illustrations and scattered words, putting them on display in new configurations. When you look at the resulting pieces, you recover some of that feeling of endless browsing, catching your eye on one image, then another; in fleeting impressions, you get a sense of the kind of world the encyclopedia portrayed. Laramée, on the other hand, approaches the books as objects, leaving them closed and monolithic, their art and words lost to the viewer. Sculpted into landscapes, they transcend their form, becoming something totally new…

More examples of Dettmer’s and Laramée’s work, and Rebecca Onion’s interview with them at “How Two Artists Turn Old Encyclopedias Into Beautiful, Melancholy Art.”

* Charles Baudelaire

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As we look it up, we might that it was on this date in 1897 that Karl Elsener patented a pen knife with a large blade, a second smaller cutting blade, a corkscrew, and wood fiber grips, which he called the Officer’s and Sports Knife.  Six years earlier Elsener had produced the second knife requisitioned by the Swiss Army, the first to be produced in Switzerland.  That knife– the Soldier Knife— was issued to officers and soldiers as a rifle maintenance tool (it also had a can-opener for ration tins). This original model was issued for almost 60 years, until 1951, with only small updates. With the addition of the Officer’s and Sports Knife, Elsenser launched his company, Victorinox, into pocket knife production for the general public, and created the “prepared for anything” category we’ve come to know as Swiss Army Knives.

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Written by LW

June 12, 2016 at 1:01 am

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