Circle learning

[first published 18th March 2012]

The demise of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s printed edition has been greeted with an awful lot of breast-beating, not least in the Grauniad, where Ian Jack bemoans its demise in not-so unequivocal terms, and several of the commentators wax not-so-lyrical about the clumping great tomes. In an area in which information changes so rapidly and inexorably, the printed source-book is prey to obsolescence at speed. To take a cute example, the C18th children’s ‘science’ book (and I use the term loosely, because it’s anachronistic to use this term: natural philosophy is so much more accurate) The Newtonian System of Philosophy Adapted to the Capacities of Young Gentlemen and Ladies (London: John Newbery, 1761) AKA Tom Telescope went through six editions between publication and the turn of the century. Over this time several important changes were made to the text. Examples are the introduction of the Orrery as a demonstrative instrument in the 1790s, with a point being made about the slowness of the mechanical demonstrations to keep pace with new discoveries such as the planet discovered by Herschal in 1781:

There are seven primary planets; and there are marked on the Orrery as follows: Mercury b, Venus c, the Earth d, Mars e, Jupiter f, Saturn g, and the Georgium Sidus (which being of such recent discovery, is not represented in this Orrery.)

In 1798, Tom Telescope bore the words ‘A new improved Edition, With many Alterations and additions, to explain the late new Philosophical Discoveries’ on its engraved title. And this, mark you, was just a teensy duodecimo volume … about the size of a moleskine notebook. Think of the expense of resetting and reprinting the bleedin great tomes of Britannica. It’s all very well having appendices and all that, but unless the original entry is scrubbed out, it remains steeped in residual authority. It is this sort of authority which Bacon despised, and I’ve argued elsewhere that he ‘invented’ wikiscience, and you only have to look at how he described his own works to understand his point. His basic position that ‘opinion of plenty is among the greatest causes of poverty’, and his Bacon dislike of rhetorical ‘methods’ for a similar reason, namely that once knowledge is ‘comprehended in exact Methodes; it may perchance be further pollished and illustrate, and accommodated for vse and practise; but it encreaseth no more in bulke and substance’. Now, obviously that isn’t an exact fit on the encyclopedia issue, but the manner in which he describes his Advancement of Learning perhaps makes it more obvious:

Thus haue I made as it were a small Globe of the Intellectual world, as truly and Faithfully as I coulde discouer, with a note and description of those parts which seeme to mee, not constantly occupate, or not well conuerted by the labour of Man.

That is, he’s not affecting to have published “the sum of human knowledge”, as Jacks describes the Britannica series as containing, or affecting to contain. Bacon was more interested in what was yet to come. Hence his analysis of what was missing.
But it was the Baconian Natural and Experimental History which is most relevant here, and in this case Bacon was unequivocal. Everything was to be collected and noted down … because knowledge was for utility, not for show. But he understood that the nature of the book was to fix knowledge, to shore up the received wisdom, to slow investigation, to inhibit progress. This is why he suggests a way of writing which encourages knowledge to grow. This is similar to his championing of aphorisms, which represent ‘only portions and as it were fragments of knowledge’, and ‘invite others to contribute and add something in their turn.’ For Bacon, knowledge was to be presented as ‘a thread to be spunne upon’. Bacon wanted his readers to interact with this work.

Back in his day, this meant failing to finish books, and encouraging his readers to add, correct and comment. In Sylva sylvarum, he wrote the following:

For my part, if I have wrongly given credit to anything, or grown sleepy or inattentive, or become weary on my way and left the investigation unfinished, I nevertheless make the things plain for all to see, so that my mistakes can be spotted and separated out before the body of science is further infected by them, and also so that my labours can be carried on easily and expeditiously

But did they bother? Well, in one copy of Sylva, there are marginalia in what look like five separate hands. Each scribbler has an agenda, from providing definitions for words to inserting missing titles (evidence of some bibliographical cross-referencing). When it comes to adding to the sum of human knowledge, perhaps one example will do.

Exp 238 concerns the imitation of the human voice:

No beast can imitate the speech of man, but birds only; for the ape itself, that is so ready to imitate otherwise, attaineth not any degree of imitation of speech. It is true that I have known a dog, that if one howled in his ear, he should fall howling a great while.

Typically, Bacon is slightly mucking up his system by writing ‘it is true’, but the more interesting thing is that one of the commentators decides to repeat this experiment, and decides that more information needs to be given. He writes thus:

I hav tried this
expt, but the dogg
must love him
who doth it,

Bacon, a man devoted to putting in place the intellectual culture so that the sum total of available knowledge might be uncovered, would have cheered at the demise of the print editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Indeed, he termed the encyclopedic tradition ‘circle-learning’, as it encouraged constant recycling rather than the advancement of knowledge.

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