The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 2

Edi­tor’s Note: This month, MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kauf­man has pub­lished The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge, a book that takes a his­tor­i­cal look at the pow­er­ful forces that have pur­pose­ly crip­pled our efforts to share knowl­edge wide­ly and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. In the com­ing days, Peter will be mak­ing his book avail­able through Open Cul­ture by pub­lish­ing three short essays along with links to cor­re­spond­ing sec­tions of his book. Today, you can read his sec­ond essay “On Wikipedia, the Ency­clopédie, and the Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty of Infor­ma­tion” (below), plus down­load the sec­ond chap­ter of his book here. Read his first essay, “The Mon­ster­verse” here, and pur­chase the entire book online.

When the ideas that mat­ter most to us – lib­er­als, democ­rats, pro­gres­sives, repub­li­cans, all in the orig­i­nal sense of the words – were first put for­ward in soci­ety in order to change soci­ety, they were advanced fore­most in print. The new rules, new def­i­n­i­tions, and new cod­i­cils of human and civ­il rights that under­gird many of the free­doms we val­ue today had as their heart text and its main deliv­ery mech­a­nism, the print­ing press.

In that sense the first Enlight­en­ment was based upon the foun­da­tion of the print­ed word. And of the 18th century’s con­tri­bu­tions to knowl­edge and soci­ety – Newton’s physics, Montesquieu’s laws, Linnaeus’s tax­onomies, Rousseau’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, the Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Man – there was per­haps no greater print­ed offer­ing than the 22-mil­lion-word Ency­clopédie that the French Enlight­en­ment philoso­phers start­ing writ­ing, com­pil­ing, and offer­ing to the pub­lic in 1750.

The Ency­clopédie was mon­u­men­tal. Not just from a con­tent-assem­bly per­spec­tive – an effort to gath­er all the world’s knowl­edge and to print and pub­lish it – but also from a sociopo­lit­i­cal one, giv­en the pow­er­ful forces sup­press­ing knowl­edge that such an effort would pro­voke. The Ency­clopédie found the state and the church ban­ning at one time or anoth­er almost every one of its 72,000 arti­cles, 18,000 pages, and 28 vol­umes and invok­ing a hun­dred ways to for­bid its dis­tri­b­u­tion.

The encyclopedia’s entire approach to col­lect­ing and pre­sent­ing knowl­edge was rad­i­cal.  The arti­cles pre­sent­ed truths – some hereti­cal, some blas­phe­mous – that aston­ished con­tem­po­rary read­ers.  And its inno­v­a­tive approach to the ver­i­fi­ca­tion its own con­tent, to prov­ing what could be proved, which was real­ly its nuclear core, rocked the West­ern world.

The Ency­clopédie smote 18th-cen­tu­ry ortho­doxy with ink-and-paper sledge­ham­mers. The arti­cle on “RAISON,” or “REASON,” for exam­ple, told every read­er who for cen­turies had been steeped in church doc­trine and the divine rights of roy­als that:

No propo­si­tion can be accept­ed as divine rev­e­la­tion if it con­tra­dicts what is known to us, either by imme­di­ate intu­ition, as in the case of self-evi­dent propo­si­tions, or by obvi­ous deduc­tions of rea­son, as in demon­stra­tions.  It would be ridicu­lous to give pref­er­ence to such rev­e­la­tions, because the evi­dence that caus­es us to adopt them can­not sur­pass the cer­tain­ty of our intu­itive or demon­stra­tive knowl­edge…

Cler­ics and kings, need­less to say, were not fans. Arti­cles on reli­gion, phi­los­o­phy, and pol­i­tics and soci­ety chal­lenged the gov­ern­ment and the church even as the cen­sors watched.  Direct swipes at the monar­chy and the church appeared even where you might not expect – in arti­cles on CONSCIENCE, LIBERTÉ DE; CROISADES; FANATISME; TOLÉRANCE; etc.  The entry for FORTUNE spot­light­ed the gross inequal­i­ties of wealth already evi­dent in 18th-cen­tu­ry Europe. And a zing­ing con­dem­na­tion of slav­ery in the arti­cle on the SLAVE TRADE made few friends among any who had a hand any­where in the busi­ness.

Slave trade is the pur­chase of Negroes made by Euro­peans on the coasts of Africa, who then employ these unfor­tu­nate men as slaves in their colonies. This pur­chase of Negroes to reduce them into slav­ery […] vio­lates all reli­gion, morals, nat­ur­al law, and human rights.

The Ency­clopédistes announced from day one that this new work would be, as we would say today, fact-based. There would be an under­ly­ing and over­ar­ch­ing com­mit­ment on the part of all con­trib­u­tors and the work as a whole to the ver­i­fi­ca­tion of all of its source mate­ri­als. Ver­i­fi­ca­tion is poten­tial­ly “a long and painful process,” Diderot wrote in his intro­duc­tion to the whole enter­prise – the famous “Pre­lim­i­nary Dis­course” that these philoso­phers used to sell in the whole project:

We have tried as much as pos­si­ble to avoid this incon­ve­nience by cit­ing direct­ly, in the body of the arti­cles, the authors on whose evi­dence we have relied and by quot­ing their own text when it is nec­es­sary.

We have every­where com­pared opin­ions, weighed rea­sons, and pro­posed means of doubt­ing or of escap­ing from doubt; at times we have even set­tled con­test­ed mat­ters.… Facts are cit­ed, exper­i­ments com­pared, and meth­ods elab­o­rat­ed … in order to excite genius to open unknown routes, and to advance onward to new dis­cov­er­ies, using the place where great men have end­ed their careers as the first step.

What this meant in prac­tice was rev­o­lu­tion­ary.  There would be no accept­ed truths but for those that could be proven and cit­ed. Fact-based ver­sus faith- and belief-based: the start and spark of the Enlight­en­ment.  One of Diderot’s biog­ra­phers explains that approx­i­mate­ly 23,000 arti­cles had at least one cross-ref­er­ence to anoth­er arti­cle in one of the encyclopedia’s 28 vol­umes. “The total num­ber of links – some arti­cles had five or six – reached almost 62,000.” And all while retain­ing a sly sense of humor.  The arti­cle on CANNIBALS end­ed with “the mis­chie­vous cross-ref­er­ence,” as anoth­er his­to­ri­an would lat­er describe it: “See Eucharist, Com­mu­nion, Altar, etc.”

That com­mit­ment to ref­er­ence cita­tion con­tin­ues in the Enlightenment’s most impor­tant suc­ces­sor project – Wikipedia, found­ed by Jim­my Wales and col­leagues 20 years ago this year. It’s the foun­da­tion of what today’s Wikipedia terms ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty, and in many key ways it’s the foun­da­tion for truth in knowl­edge and soci­ety today:

“Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty” … mean[s] that mate­r­i­al added to Wikipedia must have been pub­lished pre­vi­ous­ly by a reli­able source. Edi­tors may not add their own views to arti­cles sim­ply because they believe them to be cor­rect, and may not remove sources’ views from arti­cles sim­ply because they dis­agree with them.

[V]erifiability is a nec­es­sary con­di­tion (a min­i­mum require­ment) for the inclu­sion of mate­r­i­al, though it is not a suf­fi­cient con­di­tion (it may not be enough).

In 1999, free-soft­ware activist Richard M. Stall­man called for this uni­ver­sal online ency­clo­pe­dia cov­er­ing all areas of knowl­edge, along with a com­plete library of instruc­tion­al cours­es – and, equal­ly impor­tant, a move­ment to devel­op it, “much as the Free Soft­ware Move­ment gave us the free oper­at­ing sys­tem GNU/Linux.”  That call (repro­duced in full as the appen­dix in my book) is cred­it­ed by Wikipedia as the ori­gins of the work that is now the largest knowl­edge resource in his­to­ry.

The free ency­clo­pe­dia will pro­vide an alter­na­tive to the restrict­ed ones that media cor­po­ra­tions will write.

Stall­man pub­lished a list of what that the ency­clo­pe­dia would need to do, what sort of free­doms it would need to give to the pub­lic, and how it could get start­ed.

An ency­clo­pe­dia locat­ed every­where.

An ency­clo­pe­dia open to anyone—but, most promis­ing­ly, to teach­ers and stu­dents.

An ency­clo­pe­dia built of small steps.

An ency­clo­pe­dia built on the long view: “If it takes twen­ty years to com­plete the free ency­clo­pe­dia, that will be but an instant in the his­to­ry of lit­er­a­ture and civ­i­liza­tion.”

An ency­clo­pe­dia con­tain­ing one or more arti­cles for any top­ic you would expect to find in anoth­er ency­clo­pe­dia – “for exam­ple, bird watch­ers might even­tu­al­ly con­tribute an arti­cle on each species of bird, along with pic­tures and record­ings of its calls” – and “cours­es for all aca­d­e­m­ic sub­jects.”

1999, and it sounds famil­iar. Wikipedia, of course, is one of the world’s most pop­u­lar web­sites (the world’s most pop­u­lar non­com­mer­cial one) now and an irre­place­able source of ver­i­fi­able infor­ma­tion – open to any and all.  Its process­es are trans­par­ent, and thanks to hack­ers affil­i­at­ed with the project, you now can watch and lis­ten to its edits live online:

Com­mu­ni­ties that work with Wikipedia are like­ly to ben­e­fit from this com­mit­ment to cita­tion, and new col­lab­o­ra­tions that take effect around it are like­ly to ben­e­fit soci­ety. The Inter­net Archive is work­ing with Wikipedia now, dig­i­tiz­ing books so that links to sources in Wikipedia link all the way through to the books them­selves – and ren­der images and text on the cit­ed pages. The ref­er­ence link to a biog­ra­phy by Tay­lor Branch at the bot­tom of a Wikipedia arti­cle on Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., for exam­ple, now hotlinks to the read­able book online at  That work is essen­tial.  “Only the use of foot­notes and the research tech­niques asso­ci­at­ed with them” – as Prince­ton his­to­ri­an Antho­ny Grafton writes – “makes it pos­si­ble to resist the efforts of mod­ern gov­ern­ments, tyran­ni­cal and demo­c­ra­t­ic alike, to con­ceal the com­pro­mis­es they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tor­tures they or their allies have inflict­ed.…  Only the use of foot­notes enables his­to­ri­ans to make their texts not mono­logues but con­ver­sa­tions, in which mod­ern schol­ars, their pre­de­ces­sors, and their sub­jects all take part.”

Can we take ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty fur­ther now, espe­cial­ly as our epis­temic cri­sis deep­ens?  Can we improve cita­tion for the medi­um that’s begin­ning to over­take us all, which is video?  Can we make resources on the web – also a new thing – ver­i­fi­able?  What is a cita­tion like in a … pod­cast?

The great his­to­ri­an of the Ency­clopédie, Robert Darn­ton, tells us in his new book, “When the print­ed word appeared in France in 1470, the state did not know what to make of it.”  So, 700 years from now, what will tomorrow’s his­to­ri­ans say about us?  Fur­ther thoughts about how we can start more con­scious­ly col­lab­o­rat­ing with one anoth­er and pro­duc­ing – but imme­di­ate­ly – for our bur­geon­ing knowl­edge net­works: next week.

Peter B. Kauf­man works at MIT Open Learn­ing and is the author of The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge. This is the sec­ond of three arti­cles. You can find the first one in the Relat­eds below:

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge: Part 1

An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Voltaire: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher of Plu­ral­ism & Tol­er­ance

The Diderot Effect: Enlight­en­ment Philoso­pher Denis Diderot Explains the Psy­chol­o­gy of Con­sumerism & Our Waste­ful Spend­ing

Social Media in the Age of Enlight­en­ment and Rev­o­lu­tion

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  • Dominic says:

    i have been read­ing this essay in con­junc­tion with chap­ter two of the book being pro­mot­ed while at work and i feel dis­tract­ed by what is going on around me and also con­flict­ed with my inter­est in the mate­r­i­al, i keep think­ing how much one of those brochures would fetch today at an auc­tion while remind­ing myself of the true val­ue of the move­ment being cov­ered and pro­mot­ed here, the avail­abil­i­ty of knowl­edge.

    i am still at work. i won­der how much i would get if i owned all vol­umes of the orig­i­nal Ency­clopédie?

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