1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Prefatory Note to the "Handy Volume" edition (1915)

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By JAMES BRYCE (Viscount Bryce)

THE progress of mankind, usually measured in its material aspects by the increase in the population of the globe and in the wealth — i.e., the number and the value of objects useful to man — which the globe contains, may be also measured in its intellectual aspects by the volume of knowledge which is available for man's service or enjoyment, and by the capacity of the human mind for using or enjoying that knowledge. The increase in population had been, during the last four centuries up to the beginning of the World-War of 1914, very large. It was then in Europe, the only Continent for which figures that can be trusted exist, about 407,000,000, having probably been at the beginning of the Christian era not more than 35,000,000 in that Continent, perhaps much less. The increase in wealth, for estimating which no data exist, has of course been incomparably greater. The increase in knowledge, however, has been so much vaster and more rapid than either of the above that no sort of comparison can be made. Think of what was known regarding Nature in A.D. 1660, when the Royal Society of London was founded, or even as late as 1814–5 when the end of the great European War set men's minds more free to prosecute investigation, and think of what is known about Nature now! And although the advance has been more remarkable in the sciences of Nature than in any other direction, it has been immense in other fields also. In the many branches of history, in archæology, in economics, in philology, to take the most obvious examples, the volume of facts acquired and principles ascertained since the beginning of the Eighteenth Century exceeds the whole of the stock that had been accumulated up to that date. The number of new sciences and new practical arts for which new names have had to be invented is itself the most striking illustration of the expansion of our intellectual resources, sometimes by methods which, like those of stellar chemistry, were undreamt of by earlier generations, sometimes by the recovery of ancient records which were unknown to, or undecipherable by, generations that lived much nearer to the times when those records were written down. We know more of ancient Egypt, for example, than the Romans knew when they had conquered it, and far more about primitive man, his races and his ways of life, than was known to any earlier age. And to-day we see how in every direction knowledge goes on increasing at a constantly accelerated pace.

The power of the human mind to acquire and retain knowledge has not, however, shown any increase within the last few centuries. The average of life is, in most civilized countries, slightly longer, and the average of health probably also better, and the aids to the acquisition of knowledge more abundant. But the capacity of the individual man for learning and remembering what he has learnt does not seem to be greater now than it was in the days of the famous scholars of the Renaissance. As Mephistopheles says in Goethe's Faust: “The little god of the world remains always of the same stamp.” There are now, as there have always been, learned men — men in whose memory an enormous number of facts and of thoughts are stored. There must be more of such men now than ever before, because every civilized nation is larger, and the facilities for obtaining knowledge far more ample. But whereas two or three centuries ago a single mind was able to acquire and retain in some one particular field of knowledge, such as botany for instance, or astronomy, or ancient history, nearly all that was worth knowing, and perhaps a good deal of what was best worth knowing in several other fields also, nobody now-a-days could, whatever his industry, cover more than a small part of any of those fields. Knowledge, as it has grown, has branched out along an endless variety of divergent paths. Each of the departments of learning as they stood a century ago has now been divided into new departments more or less distinct from one another. To know any one of these well one must specialize in it. The expenditure of ability and industry which in the days of Gibbon, or even of Niebuhr, would have enabled a man to be a master of ancient history, would not now suffice to make him a master of more than one among the three or four chief departments of that study. And in the sciences of Nature the process of subdivision and specialization has gone much further than in those which relate to the doings and thoughts of Man. Thus it is that to-day no one of us can be a Learned Man in the old sense of the word, as Bacon said that he had taken all learning to be his province. Each of us, if he wants to obtain full command of the facts in some particular line of enquiry, and to make in that line real additions to the sum of human knowledge, must be content to cultivate his own plot of ground and see his neighbours do the same, looking across the fence, but not knowing what sort of crop the neighbour is raising.

This may seem to imply a sad narrowing of the intellectual horizon. Are we to be henceforth debarred from that wide outlook over the whole landscape of knowledge which the vigorous and industrious minds of former days enjoyed? Such an outlook was delightful, and it was also profitable, for there is nothing in the world that is not somehow related to very many other things; and many of the most fruitful ideas, ideas which sometimes led to great discoveries, have come to the students of some problem from remote and unexpected quarters. Curiosity moreover, the love of knowledge apart from any tangible result, is one of the strongest passions in cultivated minds, giving a pleasure which never palls, and which, unlike most pleasures, goes on increasing through life as long as the power of thinking remains unaffected by the inevitable decay of physical strength. Thus, though we must now be content with a knowledge which can be thorough and exact only in a far smaller field than that which it was possible to cover in earlier centuries, still no man with a mind both cultivated and alert will renounce the enjoyment of learning things that lie outside his own special field, and of trying to follow, however imperfectly, the general onward march of human knowledge.

This brings me to a question raised by the appearance in a smaller form of that great storehouse of knowledge, the Encyclopædia Britannica. Its most directly practical use is as a book of reference to which those engaged in some profession or business may go for information on a matter which they wish to understand for some business purpose. This is an obvious value, and needs no comment. But there is a further use suggested by what has just been said regarding that stupendous increase in the total volume of human knowledge which makes it more difficult than before to keep abreast of the intellectual progress of the world. I have referred to the desire, natural to every man with an active and cultivated mind, to know something about subjects outside the range of his own special profession or study, and to know that something, be it more or less, not indeed minutely, but soundly, with a due comprehension of its leading principles. What help can such a man receive from a systematically arranged storehouse of knowledge upon all subjects such as an Encyclopædia, the chief articles in which are compendious treatises, composed by persons each of whom is an expert in his own branch of study?

The sort of man I am contemplating may be himself a specialist in some department. Whoever has sufficient means and leisure ought to have a study or pursuit unconnected with his gainful occupation. Such a pursuit may be a branch of natural history — nothing gives more pleasure — or a particular line of reading or reflection, or an art, like painting or music, or perhaps the collecting of objects such as etchings, or minerals, or coins. Such a taste serves to divert the mind from its business preoccupations: and if it is a pursuit involving independent study and exactitude, it has the great merit of training him who follows it how to observe and how to reason from observation. In making him accurate it teaches him to know the difference in everything between thoroughness and superficiality. The old dictum, “I fear the master of one book,” conveys the truth that thoroughness in any one subject is a source and a mark of strength. Within the domain of his own peculiar study the specialist will not have much need of an Encyclopædia, for he will know what are the best books, and will be able to refer to them when necessary. But outside that domain he and the man without a special branch of knowledge will both stand on the same footing. They will alike desire to know more about the chief subjects of current human interest than newspapers and magazines will tell them, and to exercise upon events or doctrines that occupy the world's attention a judgment grounded on something better than the rumours or fashions or catchwords of the hour.

The obvious way of gratifying this desire is to have recourse to books. Books are more accessible as well as far more numerous in every branch of knowledge than they ever were before. No considerable town is without its public library. But the very profusion of books increases the difficulty of knowing which to procure, and which, when one goes to a public library to look for them, it is best to consult and rely upon. That process of specialization to which I have already referred has divided up the literature existing on any given topic into so many branches that the reader who has little previous acquaintance with the topic is bewildered. The titles of the books help very little, unless the author is a man of a reputation which guarantees excellence, for the most alluring title may cover the least helpful performance, a book perhaps too sketchy, perhaps so technical as to be intelligible only to experts.

Now-a-days, moreover, the men most eminent in the sciences of Nature are generally occupied in original investigations, and each of their works is likely to embrace so small a part of the field of their science as to be difficult of comprehension for any but expert readers. Let me try to illustrate the difficulty in which the man whom we are considering finds himself when in biology or geology, for example, some discovery has been made whose significance he desires to make himself able to appreciate; or when some new proposal in the field of economic legislation has been brought forward, or some grave political issue in one of the less known countries has arisen. Few men who are not specialists would know to what books to go for the information they need upon any of these topics; few would have the time to spend in hunting through a library for such books. In cases of this kind an Encyclopædia is invaluable. Presenting in its articles, prepared by writers of special competence, a mass of short treatises, each of which supplies a complete, though necessarily brief, view of its special subject, it supplies in each of the foregoing instances the facts which ought to be known in order that the reader, approaching the particular question with a due comprehension of the doctrines and principles involved, may be able to form a reasonable judgment upon it.

Such articles have one advantage not always to be found in books, even the best books. Those who contribute articles to an Encyclopædia are expected to state fairly all the views entertained by good authorities on matters of doubt or controversy, and they generally endeavour to do so. He who writes a treatise often writes it to prove his own theory and disparage the theories of others, but in a work of reference such exclusiveness or partisanship would be reprehended, and is therefore usually avoided. In the “advancing subjects” (those in which the progress of discovery is constantly bringing new facts to light) this is a point of no small consequence, for new facts give birth to new hypotheses, each of which is entitled to be stated till one or other is established.

A like spirit of fairness and latitude of view are also expected, and generally found in another great service which the articles in an Encyclopædia render. What is called the bibliography of the particular subject is in them an important feature, for one of the difficulties which the increase of specialization has caused is that of knowing what books to consult for a general view of any large subject, and what other books for its special departments. The reader must be guided by being told not only which are the most valuable works, but in what point each of them is strongest. Here the writer has a delicate task. Being himself a specialist, he probably has decided views of his own; yet he is bound to recommend, or at least to mention, books with whose doctrines he does not agree, if they represent thorough work done by competent men. The selection of the best becomes harder as the volume of literature upon every subject grows. There is no more lamentable waste of time than that spent on reading a second or third rate work when a first rate one is available, and there is no better test of the utility of an Encyclopædia article than the amount of help to the student which a carefully selected list of books supplies.

One further respect may be mentioned in which the short treatises finding a place in an Encyclopædia have a peculiar value which continues even when the additions to our knowledge have gone so far that a new edition of the Encyclopædia has appeared, and the old edition is relegated to a less conspicuous place. That value is historical. Each edition of an Encyclopædia is a sort of landmark in the history of knowledge. Indicating the point which scientific investigation or learned research had reached in each particular subject at a given date, it enables us to measure the progress which has been made from that date to the present day. A few instances will illustrate this. Take the Eighth Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica (published 1853 to 1860) and, setting beside it the present Eleventh Edition (1910-1911), compare the articles in these two editions which bear upon astronomy and note the additions which have been made to our knowledge of the sun and other (so-called) Fixed Stars by the use of more powerful telescopes, but still more by the use of those new methods which spectrum analysis has furnished and which enable us to discover the chemical composition of the stars as well as many novel facts regarding their relative motions. Compare similarly, in the same two editions, the account given of what is called the Atomic Theory advanced by Dalton early in the Nineteenth Century, and see how it has been now modified. So in prehistoric ethnology and archæology let a reader compare the accounts of the early peoples round the Eastern Mediterranean given in the Eighth and the Eleventh editions and he will see which of the old theories held their ground, and what new theories have now been established, and what points still remain unsettled.

In the sciences of Nature people have begun to expect a constant progress which will enable most of the problems that now perplex us to be ultimately solved; though some, such for instance as the relation between what we call mental processes and their material concomitants in the brain, seem no nearer solution now than they were before modern methods of investigation began to be applied, and may remain forever obscure. This progress is mainly due to the constant acquisition of new facts. In some of the human subjects, such as those pertaining to history, the new facts to be expected are comparatively few. But even in physical science, and far more conspicuously in the human subjects, progress comes not only by the discovery of new facts, but also by the steady application of thought to the old facts, because new ideas are always suggesting themselves to the most ingenious and penetrating intellects. A distinguished scientific man once observed that science advances through calling different things by the same name, i.e., through the finding of principles which cover sets of phenomena whose connections had not been previously grasped, a new basis of classification being thus obtained. In history we observe that even where the data available have been but slightly enlarged, the unceasing contributions made by many minds to the study of some problem is suggesting new aspects in which the facts may be viewed, constantly bringing about a more general agreement on points previously in controversy. Seventy years ago, in the days of Lachmann, scholars differed more widely than they do to-day as to the origin of the Homeric poems. Forty years ago the tendency of critics was to place the appearance of the Gospels in their present form at a date considerably later than that which the general consensus of learned men would now assign to them. So there is less discrepancy to-day than in the generation before last as to the characters of Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Jefferson, and so the time may come when even the controversies that have raged round Mary Queen of Scots will have been set at rest.

I must not, however, further pursue this line of enquiry. Enough to say that both the additions to knowledge recorded and the changes of view traceable, in successive editions of a work of established authority (such as this Encyclopædia) are among the features which constitute its permanent interest and value to the student.

The habit of frequently entering a vast storehouse of knowledge brings many thoughts to the mind. It gives a high sense of the power of the collective intellect of mankind, which has accumulated these treasures within the period, short when compared with the æons during which Man has occupied his planet, that has elapsed since the invention of writing. It suggests the reflection that the efforts of human intellect have done less than was hoped for a century ago to cure the ills that vex human society, for the progress of mankind towards liberty, peace and concord has not kept pace with the accumulation of knowledge upon all subjects, and with the increase of our power over the forces of nature. It enjoins modesty upon even the most learned by reminding them of how infinitely little they know of what is to be known, while it cheers the lonely student by the thought that every new truth he can establish is a stepping stone upon which others may mount higher. It opens up an endless vista of enquiry, for the more is known the more remains to be explored, as with every addition to the strength of his telescopes the astronomer descries new stars where there was darkness before. And to each of us, short as is his own span of life, it supplies a fresh incentive to curiosity, encouraging him to go on learning and tasting the joy of learning as long as life lasts.

  1. Copyright, 1915, by the Encyclopaedia Britannica Corporation.