Carroll: An era, shelved


BY JAMES CARROLL

The Boston Globe

Thomas Jefferson was a 25-year-old lawyer when the Encyclopaedia Britannica began publishing its volumes, and the enterprise has continued until now. Last week, it was announced that the Encyclopaedia Britannica would cease publication of its print editions, a run of 244 years. The enterprise was always both a collection of information-filled books and a symbol of something transcending the books. So Britannica’s passage into an Internet-only afterlife is more than an epochal moment in publishing history; it also epitomizes a deeper change in how and why we come to know things.

Beside my writing desk is the small two-shelf bookcase that came as a bonus with a set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica purchased many decades ago. The encyclopedia itself is long gone, but the bookcase remains. In those days, American families avidly acquired the handsomely bound volumes that contained nicely alphabetized answers to every question anyone might ask, written by the most brilliant scholars on earth. All that information was right there, ready to be had just by flipping open one of the books. Never mind that, except for the occasional requirement of a child’s homework, that rarely happened.

The point was to have the world’s wisdom in the living room as a symbol of the family’s sophistication, and Britannica had a brainy cachet that its competitors lacked. In reality, the Encyclopaedia Britannica signified intellectual aspiration more than attainment. If the children of the family, when they got to college and cited encyclopedia articles in term papers, were rebuked by professors for shallow research methods, they didn’t tell Mom and Dad. When they moved out onto their own, they left the handsome volumes behind, but took the book case.

The project of summarizing all learning in one work has a long history, going back past, say, the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, who called his masterpieces “summas.” The word encyclopedia is from Greek that can be translated as “complete knowledge.” The French Enlightenment, presuming to rationalize all experience, sparked an encyclopedia mania, which in Scotland spawned the Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1768. There was an irresistible satisfaction in setting out to organize all that was known, whether according to a philosophical hierarchy of truth, a system of biological classification — or just in alphabetical order. But a world view was implicit here — that of a static, finite cosmos that could be held between covers of a set of books, even if that meant many books, with ongoing revisions. To know the truth was to conform one’s mind to the truth that already existed.

The digital age has transformed not only the place of print, but the worldview it enshrines. What if the answer to every question opens into yet another question? What if knowing is dynamic, not static? What if, as a philosopher might ask, reality is based not on being, but becoming? Or if, as an astronomer might say, the universe is infinitely expanding? Then — you have exited the world of Britannica, with its finite volumes and editions, and entered the realm of Wikipedia, the boundaries of which have yet to be imagined. The Encyclopaedia Britannica continues as a brand, with a minimal presence on the Internet, and a thriving business in educational materials, but the discontinuation of the traditional volumes is a monumental marker of the change we are living through. The end of this printed resource, and of the theory of knowledge it represents, has implications for the cultural divide that shows up in arguments over evolution, sexuality, and “values.” Truth is not a timeless absolute before which the mind must bow, but an ever-receding horizon toward which humans move through discovery and invention both.

The difference gets played out in politics because politics itself is at issue here, too. As the word “Britannica” implies, an old imperial ideal, organized around an all-powerful authority (the editor), is yielding in the digital age to a next-stage democracy in which authority is radically diffuse.

If Wikipedia is a measure, with its inbuilt mechanism of self-criticism and surprisingly impressive accuracy, the new way of knowing is an advance. If the founding of the printed Encyclopaedia Britannica was a milestone of human improvement, its passing is even more so.