The Wiki will be upgraded to a new version on Wednesday, September 18th 2019, from 4:00pm - 5:00pm, and will be briefly unavailable during that time.

This version includes a critical security fix, but no major functionality changes.

This site will be unavailable during the upgrade, visit the Wiki Test instance ( for a read-only copy of the wiki.

Page tree
Skip to end of metadata
Go to start of metadata

The philosopher, according to Marsais, is one who not only longs for knowledge, but longs for its universality. The philosopher is a man of ambition and scope, who seeks not only to expand his mind, but to provide his fellow man with the resources to do so as well. This is, perhaps, no better exemplified than by the production of a dictionary.

Samuel Johnson saw himself up for the mammoth task. He set out to write a comprehensive study of language at work, providing not only proper spelling, origin information and definitions for words, but their contextual meaning as well. Each entry includes literary examples of the word’s use. This connection forming is very in line with the Enlightenment ideas. As Diderot and d’Alembert claimed, all knowledge is connected. Progress is achieved and discoveries are made “by our own discoveries and by the investigations of other men.” Knowledge builds on itself; learning about one thing leads to learning about another and another and another, until you’ve learned everything. Johnson’s examples serve as a reminder that to truly understand a word (or any concept, for that matter) one must understand how other contemporaries view, use and expand on its meaning.

When he set out to write A Dictionary of the English Language, Johnson planned on finishing in three years. He didn’t make this deadline, but he still finished the dictionary (it took him nine years). What makes Johnson’s dictionary so impressive is his solitude in creating it. With the exception of some clerical copying work done by secretaries, the entire dictionary was created by Johnson and Johnson alone. He learned quickly into his endeavor that the creation of a complete dictionary by one man was next to impossible. If, as he believed, the English language was constantly and exponentially changing, both in the evolution of already established words and the creation of new words, then it would be nearly impossible to finish a dictionary at all, let alone by oneself. Johnson could never truly be finished with the project, because on completion, new words would have been formed and old words would have changed. In order to truly include every word, Johnson would have to continue work on the dictionary for his entire life, and, even then, would not be able to keep up with the language’s evolution.

Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman explores this idea in a similar way. After the death of his oldest son, Walter Shandy sets out to write a vast and expansive book detailing how Tristram should be educated. He dubs it the “Trista-paedia.” Walter struggles with the superstitious ill fortunes that he believes plague his son. Following his disturbed conception, broken nose and accidental naming, Walter becomes obsessed with overcoming these challenges and raising Tristram meticulously, according to the exact guides. In an effort to make sure that nothing is left out, he forgets the most important part of the plan: Tristram. Three years after beginning his project, Walter is only halfway finished. In the time he spent slaving over an education plan for Tristram, he forgot to pay him any attention at all. Instead of having the perfect education plan for his son, all Walter has managed to do is spend three years neglecting his son.

The same concept is illustrated throughout the entire novel as well. The concept of writing a comprehensive chronicle of one’s life and opinions is absurd. Tristram’s attempt to chronicle his whole life is, he realizes, an impossible feat. By the time we reach the fourth volume of the book, we have only gotten to the first day of his life. He works at the rate of one book a year, so, his life is progressing far faster than he is recording it. He is not making any progress, he’s only falling further and further behind. He tells us that “the more I write, the more I shall have to write.” This is also true for the audience: if the chronicle continues to add a book each year, the reader would have more and more to read, and would never truly finish.

Of course, this is funny. But it serves a bigger purpose than humor. In an age where man is learning more by the second, how can one possibly expect to understand all of it, let alone record it? Is the philosopher naïve to believe in this wide and accessible breadth of knowledge?

This may be so, but the spirit of Tristram Shandy approaches life itself with the same attitude as the enlightened philosopher. As mirrored by the content and form, Sterne paints a picture of life as one big cock and bull story, a roundabout collage of random events, impossible to fit into any sort of shape or trajectory. D’Alembert saw knowledge and enlightenment in a similar way, claiming that “the general system of the sciences and the arts is a sort of labyrinth, a tortuous road which the intellect enters without quite knowing what direction to take.” The philosophers creating the encyclopédie encountered a similar, albeit slightly more serious, structural issue to Tristram Shandy. Both works attempt to chronicle incredibly vast terrain: a lifetime and the whole of human knowledge. Rather than framing this idea in a nihilistic way, Sterne sees it as reason to exult in the pleasures life provides.

D’Alembert and Diderot pursued this dream in a much more collaborative form. Where they sought a network of thinkers combining their knowledge and collaborating on its production and distribution, Johnson and Sterne’s Walter or Tristram set out to do it alone. As a result, their trials prove that the quest for access to a condensed and comprehensive record of knowledge is not only ambitious, but impossible.

If, as Diderot and d’Alembert believed, this truly was an age of unrestrained Enlightenment, then that means that keeping a comprehensive record of the exponentially growing human knowledge would prove to be an impossible task.

The sheer mammoth size of the task is illustrated by d’Alembert when he asserts that “it is not enough for us to live with our contemporaries and to dominate them. Being animated by curiosity and self-esteem, we try, in our natural eagerness, to embrace the past, the present, and the future at all the same time. We wish simultaneously to live with those who will follow us and to have lived with those who have preceeded us.”  This sort of sweeping ambition is what makes it so impossible for either man to reach success. If belief in an ever changing, ever expanding and ever deepening societal pool of knowledge is correct, then one could never anthologize and distribute a definitive collection (whether it be a dictionary, encyclopedia, etc.), because it would be simply impossible to advance at all, let alone keep up with the pace at which language is growing.

Here we can see an important idea surrounding the philosopher- he cannot exist in solitude. His very nature revolves around expanding the minds of others and sharing what he’s learned. Understanding the vast scope of human knowledge means understanding that one cannot control it on his own. D’Alembert asserts the importance of collaboration, saying that “the system of our knowledge is composed of different branches, several of which have a common point of union. Since it is not possible, starting out from this point, to begin following all the routes simultaneously, it is the nature of the different minds that determines which route is chosen. Rarely does a single mind travel along a large number of these routes at the same time[…]they were obliged to divide it among themselves, and each one moved forward in almost equal step with the others.” The philosopher needs others- both to help him fulfill his tasks and to give his tasks meaning. Otherwise, his endeavors are pointless. The knowledge of a true philosopher is meant to be shared.