The explainable


Signature has an interview with Denis Boyles about his new book on the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Everything Explained That Is Explainable. The title of Boyles’s book was one of the marketing slogans used to sell the encyclopedia when it went on sale in 1910 and 1911. In the interview, Boyles talks about how the monumental reference work was very much a reflection of its time:

Signature: It was a period of great change. The 11th was essentially published in the heart of the Progressive Era.  How did that impact its success?

Boyles: That really is the subject of the 11th. When considered as a book, it’s something like forty million words, but the topic is a singular one: progress. It tells you all the different ways progress can be seen. And it was secular, overwhelmingly so. The 11th was all about what could be measured, what could be known.  And that made progress essentially the turf of technicians and scientists and technical and scientific advances became confused with progress. The latest idea was the best idea. Now, we’re far enough into this to realize that the “latest idea” is just another idea. It may be good, it may not. We’re more weary [sic] as a society, but largely still as secular.

I sense that that last bit, about how we’ve moved beyond the assumption that the latest idea is the best idea, may be wishful thinking on Boyles’s part, or at least a reflection of the fact that he lives in Europe. Here in the U.S. we seem more than ever convinced that progress is “essentially the turf of technicians and scientists.” We see the newness of an idea as the idea’s validation, novelty being contemporary American culture’s central criterion.

Boyles points out that the Britannica’s eleventh edition underpins Wikipedia, and in Wikipedia we see, more clearly than ever, the elevation of and emphasis on measurement as the standard of knowledge and knowability. Wikipedia is pretty good, and ambitiously thorough, on technical and scientific topics, but it’s scattershot, and often just flat-out bad, in its coverage of topics in the humanities. Wikipedia’s editors, as Edward Mendelson has recently suggested, are comfortable in documenting consensus but completely uncomfortable in exercising taste. The kind of informed subjective judgment that is essential to any perceptive discussion of art, literature, or even history is explicitly outlawed at Wikipedia. And Wikipedia, like the eleventh edition of the Britannica, is a reflection of its time. The boundary we draw around “the explainable” is tighter than ever.

“Technical and scientific advances became confused with progress,” says Boyles, and so it is today, a century later.