Spotlight on Research: From the 18th century’s Encyclopedia to today’s Wikipedia

Posted on Friday, July 21, 2017


Professor Mitia Rioux-Beaulne posing next to one of the rare copies of the first Encyclopédie

In 1751, when Diderot and d’Alembert published the first edition of the Encyclopédie, a work that reflected the philosophy of the Enlightenment, they changed the world forever. Today, Wikipedia is considered the modern equivalent of the encyclopedia published by these two philosophers. Department of Philosophy Professor Mitia Rioux-Beaulne explains whether Wikipedia can be considered a valid successor to the 18th century Encyclopédie.

1. The philosophy of the Enlightenment and the Encyclopédie

The philosophy of the Enlightenment was a current of thought that arose during the 18th century. This movement gave rise to several key elements of modernity, such as the Rights of Man and the concept of religious freedom. The Encyclopédie, a work directed by Diderot and d’Alembert, has been called the “battering ram” of the philosophy of the Enlightenment because it included so many articles or elements in which this philosophy was expressed.

Diderot realized that by the time of its publication, his work would already be outdated. Professor Rioux-Beaulne explains that “knowledge was evolving so quickly. Some of the items that its writers were producing were refuted by science before they could be published.” Hence the advantage of Wikipedia, a virtual encyclopedia whose works are continually being updated.

2. Why a modern philosopher would work on a philosophical project like the Encyclopédie (1751-1765) of Diderot and d’Alembert

A re-examination of the Encyclopédie helps us understand the philosophical underpinnings of Wikipedia as a symbol of current modernity. “Wikipedia gives any individual on the planet the amazing possibility of gaining access to any knowledge, on any topic, by overcoming censorship issues that prevail in certain countries,” Professor Rioux-Beaulne explained. He went on to describe the three fundamental characteristics of Wikipedia, namely:

1. Knowledge is universally available on Wikipedia.
Everyone has access to the knowledge. 

2.  Knowledge appears as a collective project.
Everyone works on the production of this encyclopedia, for free. Most of its contributors work on it anonymously, without any recognition.

3. Wikipedia demonstrates that knowledge is evolving
When new knowledge about a topic arises, an article can easily be changed and updated with a few clicks.

By comparing these three characteristics with Diderot’s motivations, we see that his philosophical project was based on the same principles as Wikipedia.


3. The role of the Encyclopédie in shaping the modern world

The Encyclopédie embodies the philosophy of the Enlightenment, which was characterized by a vigorous critique of obscurantism and absolutism. In other words, it is a work that allows everyone to have access to the same knowledge, and to ensure the quality of that knowledge.

With the arrival of Wikipedia, can we assume that knowledge is accessible to everyone? Of course, the answer is no, since there are language barriers and not everyone has the background to grasp scientific concepts. Moreover, not everyone has equal access to the Internet or to communication methods, and not everyone has a voice.

4. Does reading the Encyclopédie help us imagine the world of tomorrow?

Studying the Encyclopédie and the philosophy of the Enlightenment in general reminds us of those who laboured to establish democracy as a political system for modern societies. Moreover, by studying this philosophy of the past, we can make recommendations for the future.

However, Mitia Rioux-Beaulne does not believe that the Encyclopédie should be considered infallible. “The aim of the Encyclopédie was never to provide the very latest in knowledge, but rather to make knowledge more understandable to people everywhere.”

Finally, Professor Mitia Rioux-Beaulne believes that Wikipedia approaches the ideal of knowledge as expressed by Diderot because it meets the three fundamental characteristics stated when the Encyclopédie was published. Wikipedia is indeed the noteworthy successor of the grand aspirations of Diderot and d’Alembert because it is a platform where knowledge is freely shared, voluntarily contributed, and progressively updated.

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