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Reviewed by:
  • Notable encyclopedias of the late eighteenth century: eleven successors of the “Encyclopédie”
  • Michael Cartwright
Frank A. Kafker, ed., Notable encyclopedias of the late eighteenth century: eleven successors of the “Encyclopédie”. Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation at the Taylor Institution, 1994. Pp. 424.

The Encyclopédie has become such a touchstone of reference for scholars of the eighteenth century that the specifier (L’Encyclopédie de Diderot et d’Alembert) seems all but redundant. It is an inevitable but unfortunate state of affairs. For the Encyclopédie was not conceived from the simple intellectual energies of its original editors, combined with the commercial enterprise of its publisher, Le Breton. Its many innovations and its several defects make its accurate placing in a tradition of encyclopedism most important, and this is what the series of essays assembled by Frank A. Kafker succeeds in doing, in a truly admirable fashion. This is in fact the companion volume to Kafker’s earlier compilation, Notable encyclopedias of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: nine predecessors of the “Encyclopédie (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, Vol. 194, 1981). Kafker is an editor whose methodology is encyclopedic in the very best sense. For instead of embarking alone upon a historical survey of epic proportions, he delegated the task to a team of well-chosen experts. Each of whom has provided a concise account of a particular encyclopedia, or of the influence that an encyclopedia had in a particular country or upon a particular intellectual milieu. The result is all one could wish of a compilation. The two volumes combined are the best history we have of encyclopedism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Every one of the ten essays presented in this, the second volume, has a coherence and a unity of purpose that carry the reader along effortlessly toward an understanding of the Encyclopédie in its fullest historical, indeed, its geographical and linguistic context. French-language, English-language, and other European-language successors are accorded separate sections. The overall methodology is found in the guidelines that Kafker gave to his associates and which appear as an appendix at the very end of this volume. Five series of questions were proposed [End Page 332] regarding the history of each encyclopedic enterprise: its editing, its prose style, its significance as a book of knowledge, its reflection of politics, and its reflection of religion. Finally, each contributor was asked to furnish a complete bibliography of the work itself and of those who composed it. The positioning of this information shows becoming editorial modesty, but the information, together with Kafker’s important essay on the influence of the Encyclopédie on the eighteenth-century encyclopedic tradition, might well have been placed as a preface. In that way, the reader would acknowledge and applaud from the beginning how well the enterprise has been conceived and how exactly the directives of the editor-in-chief have been followed.

Of course, each of us will have particular concerns that draw us to one or several of the articles presented here, but Kafker has thought of the general reader, too, by ordering the contributions in a logical progression of intellectual inquiry. For example, no general account of the Encyclopédie can omit a mention of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux. Yet few of us take the trouble to consult this rival text which we suppose to be a collection of reactionary ideologies strictly controlled by Jesuit scribes. Arnold Miller puts an end to this myth (and saves us some very heavy reading) by analyzing the Dictionnaire with a perfectly unbiased eye. He turns to the last edition of the work (1771) and asks a series of simple, pertinent questions. What were the relative costs of the Dictionnaire and of the Encyclopédie? The latter was a much more expensive acquisition, especially since the Dictionnaire had already run through nine previous editions by the time the last volume of the original edition of the Encyclopédie was sent to its subscribers.

Furthermore, the Dictionnaire de Trévoux was indeed first and foremost a dictionary in the purest linguistic sense. It laid no claim to the more elaborate descriptions and...

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