The full official title of L’Encyclopédie is L’Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, translated to “The Encyclopedia, or Classified Dictionary of Sciences, Arts, and Trades” (Britannica). It consists of 28 books, 17 of which are volumes. The remaining 11 books, called plates, contain illustrations and graphics that correspond to the volumes. Throughout this semester, I plan to begin with Volume 1 and continue through the volumes as far as I can.
The first volume contains all of the entries that begin with “A” – there are so many “A” entries that it took up the entire book! I suspect that common letters like “A” will have their own volumes, while other less popular letters will share with their neighboring letters. Who knew that encyclopedia publishing was a popularity contest?
The first entry in the first volume of L’Encyclopédie is simply the letter “A”, “the character or figure of the first letter of the Alphabet in Latin, French, and in almost all of the languages of Europe” (3). The very last entry of the first volume is “Azymites”, or “the name that the schismatic Greeks give to the Roman Catholics”(914). So, as a reference, there are a total of 911 pages worth of entries in the first volume, and there are 16 volumes that follow. I repeat: there is an incredible amount of information contained in this work. I have included pictures of both the first (page 3) and last (page 914) entry pages of the first volume.
An introduction to the project is included at the beginning of this volume, titled “Discours préliminaire des éditeurs” (Preface from the editors). It is quite long – 45 large encyclopedia pages, to be exact. Nonetheless, as one might expect, it is fundamental to the work as a whole. Diderot and d’Alembert (the latter of whom is the principle author of this preface) set the tone for their writing and explain the nature of the project in this section. The University of Michigan hosted a collaborative translation project of L’Encyclopédie in which a team of academics and student assistants translated the entirety of the work from French into English. The project’s scholars call the Discours préliminaire “incomparably the best introduction to the French enlightenment.” In doing my own reading of the work, I appreciate this assessment of the preface, and if I were more qualified to make such a comment, I would probably agree. The Enlightenment was characterized by the organization and advancement of human knowledge and learning; the preface and L’Encyclopédie as a whole most definitely lend themselves to these tendencies. The University of Michigan article about the Preface in addition to the translation project itself can be found here and here, respectively.
I found that the Watkinson also has an English translation of the plan of L’Encyclopédie, published shortly after the work itself, called The Plan of the French Encyclopedia, in which this preface is included (of course, I could have read the University of Michigan translation, but reading a three-hundred-year-old book is much more fun). Upon comparing what I read in French and its English translation, I found that the two versions say slightly different things. For the most part, the gist is the same, but a budding philologist like myself would find such differences noteworthy. My principal observation is that the French version seems more proper than its English counterpart. I attribute this to two factors: first, French tends to be a formal language, and historically, the French have been pickier about use and preservation of their language (that’s why they established L’Académie Française). Second, I speak better English than I do French, so it is possible that complex words and phrasing I use in English may be more familiar to me than they are in French. Either way, I found that the French manuscript seems to say essentially the same thing in a fancier way and in more words than the English one.
In terms of content, the authors present their own qualifications for undertaking the task of compiling this work as well as what they intend to include in its volumes. The opening sentence states that they, the authors, are presenting this work to the public as “L’Ouvrage d’une société de Gens de Lettres,” or a publication of a “learned body.” With this, Diderot and d’Alembert begin to address an important critique of the work: “how is it possible that two persons can be [qualified] to treat all of the arts and sciences?” They reassure readers that “this is not the work of a single hand or two,” but will have many contributors from this “learned body” (see this list of contributing authors). The work will embrace two perspectives: first, as an encyclopedia, and second, as a philosophical dictionary. As an encyclopedia, the work will demonstrate the connections between and organization of all human knowledge and disciplines. The Philosophical Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Trades will explore the base principles and essential details of each science and art in human existence.
My next post will concern the authors’ division of knowledge, which is a very integral part of the work and its context, so it deserves its own post.
Stay tuned and bon weekend!