Thursday, April 24, 2008

On the Value of ANY "Encyclopedic" Reference

It has been some time since I have dwelled on the significant distinctions between the world of nouns and the world of verbs, but I am beginning to realize, in the context of my recent experiences, that these distinctions may be relevant to how one approaches this question of "encyclopedic" references. I would like to consider two perspectives that may highlight these distinctions. One concerns the "inertia" of reference sources; and the other deals with what to do about "volatile" content.

Through our "cultural memory," we have come to view an encyclopedia as a relatively static reference. True, the Britannica publishers have long issued their Book of the Year "addenda;" but we tend to consult an encyclopedia for things that don't change, rather than for "keeping up with the latest." Put another way, the world of the encyclopedia is a world of noun phrases, based on objects and their attributes (and, therefore, not unlike most of the databases upon which we all now depend so heavily). However, as Isaiah Berlin kept trying to remind us through our his study of the history of ideas, there is a "tragic flaw" in any worldview that is fundamentally static, even when it involves the objects and attributes described in an encyclopedia. What we learn when we study the history of ideas is that just about any subject area is always changing due to advanced scholarship. This can occur on the micro level (a cantata attributed to Bach later found to have been composed by Telemann) or the macro level (as in scientific theories that assign to information the same fundamental priority assigned to matter and energy). When the macro level involves a major shift in worldview (akin to Kuhn's paradigm shift), that would entail more than "surface-level" emendations in an encyclopedia, which is why there have been essays and books about "the encyclopedia problem" for at least the last fifty years. If Berlin has left us more comfortable with the fluidity of such worldviews, then it is easy to recognize that any reference source that is, by nature, static will never have more than limited value.

If we can accept fluidity, then we should also be able to accept volatility. At the very least we can use the Internet to make sure that we never have to be informed by a single source (at least when the information is critical to some aspect of our lives). However, if we accept that volatility, then we must also live by the caveat lector precept, which has been a recurring theme on this blog. There is a much greater risk in being a "casual reader" than there used to be; but we are well-equipped to deal with that risk. The good news is that on Wikipedia a reader can consult the discussion tab to get some sense as to how volatile the content is and adopt appropriate reading habits accordingly. Thus, the very premises behind the design and implementation of Wikipedia may allow it to sustain the nature of a fluid and volatile world, in which the verb phrases that capture the very nature of that fluidity and volatility engage in a Hegelian synthesis with the noun phrases of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, perhaps even to the point of prevailing over the recent Britannica "confrontation."

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