On July 1st, 1751, the first volume of the Encyclopédie, the world’s first encyclopedia, was published in France.
It is not impossible to put together articles explaining everything about everything. That is, as long as it is an encyclopaedia.
An encyclopaedia is a systemized overview of all branches of knowledge or a range of disciplines that together make up a separate branch of knowledge.
Such a book has first appeared in the convenient format on July 1st, 1751. Of course, it had its own predecessors from ancient Egypt (2nd millennium BC). In ancient China (12th-10th centuries BC), collections of knowledge were compiled, too.
The Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of Sciences, Arts and Crafts (Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des metiers) saw the light of day thanks to bookseller le Breton who wished to republish Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia, a two-volume encyclopaedic dictionary published in England in the 1720s. For this endeavor he commissioned Denis Diderot who became editor-in-chief of the Encyclopédie.
35 volumes were published over a span of 30 years, including 10 volumes of illustrations and several volumes of reference data.
Initially there were two editors-in-chief: Diderot and French mathematician and philosopher Jean le Rond d’Alembert. The latter had resigned from this position in 1758.
“The purpose of the Encyclopédie,” Diderot wrote in an eponymous article, “is to collect and summarize knowledge scattered throughout the land and to deliver their general system to people who will live after us so that the work of the past centuries will not remain useless for centuries to come and our descendants, becoming happier as they become educated and we would be credited for our contribution to the mankind” (Encyclopédie…, vol. 12, 1765, p. 348).
The ultimate objective was to bring the humanity closer to prosperity.
Diderot brought together outstanding people of his time around the Encyclopédie: philosophers, writers, historians, statesmen, scientists and even progressive clergymen.
The authors continued to introduce readers to the amazing world around us. Their audiences grew year after year. Recent discoveries in science and advances in technology had a great influence on that. As he tried to attract viewers to his encyclopaedic world, Diderot turned to technical inventions and crafts and accompanied articles on these topics with drawings and charts.
Articles in the Encyclopédie varied in their level and depth, obeying not the principles of justification but rather the principles of presentation in the manner of “conversation about everything,” so favored by the French. That left readers to come to their own judgments about all subjects and phenomena.
Diderot came up with a “mosaic” format apt for the time: from scattered “bits” of information on various sciences, crafts and arts’ a picture of knowledge and skills was formed.
The Encyclopédie was initially published by subscription in a circulation of 4,250 copies. Similar publications began to appear later in other countries.
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