Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Prefatory Notice
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THE Encyclopædia Britannica has long deservedly held a foremost place amongst English Encyclopædias. It secured this position by its plan and method of treatment, the plan being more comprehensive, and the treatment a happier blending of popular and scientific exposition than had previously been attempted in any undertaking of the kind. The distinctive feature of the work was that it gave a connected view of the more important subjects under a single heading, instead of breaking them up into a number of shorter articles. This method of arrangement had a twofold advantage. The space afforded for extended exposition helped to secure the services of the more independent and productive minds who were engaged in advancing their own departments of scientific inquiry. As a natural result, the work, while surveying in outline the existing field of knowledge, was able at the same time to enlarge its boundaries by embodying, in special articles, the fruits of original observation and research. The Encyclopædia Britannica thus became, to some extent at least, an instrument as well as a register of scientific progress.
This characteristic feature of the work will be retained and made even more prominent in the New Edition, as the list of contributors already published sufficiently indicates. In some other respects, however, the plan will be modified, to meet the multiplied requirements of advancing knowledge. In the first place, the rapid progress of science during the last quarter of a century necessitates many changes, as well as a considerable increase in the number of headings devoted to its exposition. In dealing with vast wholes, such as Physics and Biology, it is always a difficult problem how best to distribute the parts under an alphabetical arrangement, and perhaps impossible to make such a distribution perfectly consistent and complete. The difficulty of distribution is increased by the complexity of divisions and multiplication of details, which the progress of science involves, and which constitute indeed the most authentic note of advancing knowledge. This sign of progress is reflected in extensive changes of terminology and nomenclature, vague general headings once appropriate and sufficient, such as Animalcule, being of necessity abandoned for more precise and significant equivalents.
But since the publication of the last edition, science, in each of its main divisions, may be said to have changed as much in substance as in form. The new conceptions introduced into the Biological Sciences have revolutionised their points of view, methods of procedure, and systems of classification. In the light of larger and more illuminating generalisations, sections of the subject, hitherto only partially explored, have acquired new prominence and value, and are cultivated with the keenest interest. It is enough to specify the researches into the ultimate structures, serial gradations, and progressive changes of organic forms, into the laws of their distribution in space and time, and into the causes by which these phenomena have been brought about. The results of persistent labour in these comparatively new fields of inquiry will largely determine the classifications of the future. Meanwhile the whole system of grouping, and many points of general doctrine, are in a transition state; and what is said and done in these directions must be regarded, to a certain extent at least, as tentative and provisional. In these circumstances, the really important thing is, that whatever may be said on such unsettled questions should be said with the authority of the fullest knowledge and insight, and every effort has been made to secure this advantage for the New Edition of the Encyclopædia.
The recent history of Physics is marked by changes both of conception and classification almost equally great. In advancing from the older dynamic to the newer potential and kinetic conceptions of power, this branch of science may be said to have entered on a. fresh stage, in which, instead of regarding natural phenomena as the result of forces acting between one body and another, the energy of a material system is looked upon as determined by its configuration and motion, and the ideas of configuration, motion, and force are generalised to the utmost extent warranted by their definitions. This altered point of view, combined with the far reaching doctrines of the correlation of forces and the conservation of energy, has produced extensive changes in the nomenclature and classification of the various sections of physics; while the fuller investigations into the ultimate constitution of matter, and into the phenomena and laws of light, heat, and electricity, have created virtually new sections, which must now find a place in any adequate survey of scientific progress. The application of the newer principles to the mechanical arts and industries has rapidly advanced during the same period, and will require extended illustration in many fresh directions. Mechanical invention has, indeed, so kept pace with the progress of science, that in almost every department of physics improved machines and processes have to be described, as well as fresh discoveries and altered points of view. In recent as in earlier times, invention and discovery have acted and reacted on each other to a marked extent, the instruments of finer measurement and analysis having directly contributed to the finding out of physical properties and laws. The spectroscope is a signal instance of the extent to which in our day scientific discovery is indebted to appropriate instruments of observation and analysis.
These extensive changes in Physics and Biology involve corresponding changes in the method of their exposition. Much in what was written about each a generation ago is now of comparatively little value. Not only therefore does the system of grouping in these sciences require alteration and enlargement; the articles themselves must, in the majority of instances, be written afresh rather than simply revised. The scientific department of the work will thus be to a great extent new. In attempting to distribute the headings for the new edition, so as fairly to cover the ground occupied by modern science, I have been largely indebted to Professor Huxley and Professor Clerk Maxwell, whose valuable help in the matter I am glad to have an opportunity of acknowledging.
Passing from Natural and Physical Science to Literature, History, and Philosophy, it may be noted that many sections of knowledge connected with these departments display fresh tendencies, and are working towards new results, which, if faithfully reflected, will require a new style of treatment. Speaking generally, it may be said that human nature and human life are the great objects of inquiry in these departments. Man, in his individual powers, complex relationships, associated activities, and collective progress, is dealt with alike in Literature, History, and Philosophy. In this wider aspect, the rudest and most fragmentary records of savage and barbarous races, the earliest stories and traditions of every lettered people, no less than their developed literatures, mythologies, and religions, are found to have a meaning and value of their own. As yet the rich materials thus supplied for throwing light on the central problems of human life and history have only been very partially turned to account. It may be said, indeed, that their real significance is perceived and appreciated, almost for the first time, in our own day. But under the influence of the modern spirit, they are now being dealt with in a strictly scientific manner The available facts of human history, collected over the widest areas, are carefully co-ordinated and grouped together, in the hope of ultimately evolving the laws of progress, moral and material, which underlie them, and which, when evolved, will help to connect and interpret the whole onward movement of the race. Already the critical use of the comparative method has produced very striking results in this new and stimulating field of research. Illustrations of this are seen in the rise and rapid development of the comparatively modern science of Anthropology, and the successful cultivation of the assistant sciences, such as Archaeology, Ethnography, and Philology, which directly contribute materials for its use. The activity of geographical research in both hemispheres, and the large additions recently made to our knowledge of older and newer continents by the discoveries of eminent travellers and explorers, afford the anthropologist additional materials for his work. Many branches of mental philosophy, again, such as Ethics, Psychology, and Æsthetics, while supplying important elements to the new science, are at the same time very largely interested in its results, and all may be regarded as subservient to the wider problems raised by the philosophy of history. In the new edition of the Encyclopædia full justice will, it is hoped, be done to the progress made in these various directions.
It may be well, perhaps, to state at the outset the position taken by the Encyclopaedia Britannica in relation to the active controversies of the time — Scientific, Religious, and Philosophical. This is the more necessary, as the prolific activity of modern science has naturally stimulated speculation, and given birth to a number of somewhat crude conjectures and hypotheses. The air is full of novel and extreme opinions, arising often from a hasty or one-sided interpretation of the newer aspects and results of modern inquiry. The higher problems of philosophy and religion, too, are being investigated afresh from opposite sides in a thoroughly earnest spirit, as well as with a directness and intellectual power, which is certainly one of the most striking signs of the times. This fresh outbreak of the inevitable contest between the old and the new is a fruitful source of exaggerated hopes and fears, and of excited denunciation and appeal. In this conflict a work like the Encyclopædia is not called upon to take any direct part. It has to do with knowledge rather than opinion, and to deal with all subjects from a critical and historical, rather than a dogmatic, point of view. It cannot be the organ of any sect or party in Science, Religion, or Philosophy. Its main duty is to give an accurate account of the facts and an impartial summary of results in every department of inquiry and research. This duty will, I hope, be faithfully performed.
St Andrews, 1st January 1875.