Eco: The Encyclopedia and the Alphabet of Thought

by Esteban


Charles-Nicolas Cochin (1715-1790), Frontispiece of L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des artes, et des métiers, abbreviated as L’Encyclopédie, or Encyclopedia. One source claims that this illustration was entitled Lycurgus blessé dans une sédition, while another states that it depicts la Raison et la Philosophie arrachant son voile à la Vérité rayonnante de lumière. Drawn by Cochin in 1764, it was engraved by Benoît-Louis Prévost (1735-1804) in 1765. 

“The idea of a universal encyclopedia was something that Leibniz was never to give up. Leibniz was, for a long period, a librarian; as such, and as a historian and érudit, he could not have failed to follow the pansophic aspirations and encyclopedic ferment that filled the closing years of the seventeenth century–tremors that would yield their fruits in the century to come.

For Leibniz, the interest in the idea of a universal encyclopedia grew less and less as the basis of an alphabet of primitive terms, and more and more as a practical and flexible instrument which might provide for everyone an access to and control over the immense edifice of human learning.

In 1703, he wrote the Nouveaux essais sur l’entendement humain (which did not appear until 1765, after Leibniz’s death). This book was a confutation of the doctrines of Locke, and ends with a monumental fresco of the encyclopedia of the future.

The point of departure was a rejection of Locke’s tripartite division of knowledge into physical, ethical and logical (or semiotic). Even such a simple classification was untenable, Leibniz argued, because every item of knowledge might reasonably be considered from more than one of the three divisions.

We might treat the doctrine of spirits either as a philosophical or as a moral problem, placing it in the province either of logic or of ethics. We might even consider that a knowledge of the spirit world might prove efficacious for certain practical ends; in which case we might want to place it in the physical province.

A truly memorable story might deserve a place in the annals of universal history; yet it might equally well deserve a place in the history of a particular country, or even of a particular individual. A librarian is often undecided over the section in which a particular book needs to be catalogued (cf. Serres 1968: 22-3).

Leibniz saw in an encyclopedia the solution to these problems. An encyclopedia would be a work that was, as we might now say, polydimensional and mixed, organized–as Gensini observes (Gensini 1990: 19)–more according to “pathways” than by a classification by subject matters; it would be a model of a practico-theoretical knowledge that invited the user to move transversally, sometimes following deductive lines, as mathematicians do, and sometimes moving according to the practical purposes of the human users.

It would be necessary also to include a final index that would allow the user to find different subjects or the same subject treated in different places from different points of view (IV, 21, De la division des sciences).

It is almost as if Leibniz intended here to celebrate as a felix culpa that monument of non-dichotomical incongruity that was the encyclopedia of Wilkins; as if he were writing a rough draft for the very project that d’Alembert was to set forth at the beginning of the Encyclopédie. Dimly shining from beneath the project of Wilkins, Leibniz has recognized the first idea of a hypertext.

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 278-9.