Monday, September 30, 2013

“Système figuré des connoissances humaines” - Map of the System of Human Knowledge

By far the coolest thing I’ve found comes next: Diderot and d’Alembert created a detailed map of their system of human knowledge. This map is as much a visual aid for readers as it is a bolstering agent for the validity of their work. It clearly organizes and solidifies their idea of how this “system” of human knowledge works. It also, as I mentioned in my last post, allows the authors to display how they both were inspired by Bacon’s work and expanded upon it. As seen in the Preface as well, Diderot and d’Alembert obviously wanted to substantiate their designs and work – the idea of the containment of such a large amount of information was so revolutionary, they really needed to. The diagram certainly helps them to cover all of their bases by explaining the connections between disciplines. Plus, it’s pretty interesting to look at.
At first glance, a couple of things we already knew are confirmed. First, there are three categories of knowledge, memory (history), reason (philosophy), and imagination (poetry). Second, poetry is much shorter than the other two sections; this difference is even starker when it is laid visually out as such. This map is exciting, though, because their system is now so clear and easy to understand. I found myself bogged-down by the enormous amount of text that Diderot and d’Alembert provided in the preface to explain the system. The map is still complex, sure, but it includes simply the names of disciplines and displays how each is connected to the others. The lengthy explanations in the preface were almost counterproductive in describing the classification of knowledge just because they were so long. The system of human knowledge, I think, is much more accessible to readers thanks to this map.
How would thoughts be organized differently today if the project were done at the present time? 50 years later? What would be added? Taken out? These are all questions that are valid to reflect upon. Diderot and d’Alembert credit Bacon for inspiring the creation of their map, but the two French editors certainly had discretion in terms of what to add or subtract from the map.  The inclusion and exclusion of concepts from this map undoubtedly impacted society. Exploring this assertion alone could be a project in itself!
Another important thing to note is that despite including an elaborate diagram to explain the organization of knowledge, entries were categorized alphabetically, as opposed to being organized by their place on the map. I’m sure this organizational choice was made to make the volumes easier to navigate.
Here’s a picture of the map itself, scanned directly from the Watkinson edition of L’Encyclopédie. Click here to see the map translated into English via the University of Michigan translation project.

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