Article

Alan Jacobs


"The Centrifugal Experience of Knowledge"

Education as "character-forming."

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Marshall McLuhan famously wrote that "the 'content' of any medium is always another medium." The content of print is speech; the content of the telegraph is print; the content of the music video is the radio song. The point may be more generally true of technologies and institutions, in such a way that the advent of a new technology or a new institution allows us to become conscious of the nature of its predecessor. So once the internet becomes the primary means by which written messages are exchanged, people become fascinated by typewriters, pens, notebooks, posted letters—all the technologies and practices that the internet has displaced.

Similarly, the movement of much education and scholarly research online—online lectures, courses, and degrees; digital images of museum collections and archives; PDFs of scholarly articles; digital texts of primary sources sliced and diced in every imaginable way—has led to deep reflection on the structures, methods, and institutions of earlier generations of scholars. The topics may be narrow—Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History (1997)—or vast—James Turner's Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities (2014)—or somewhere in between—Adrian Johns' The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (1998)—but they have in common an interest in scholarly method and the material and social and institutional contexts in which scholars worked.

If there is one theme that all these investigations share, it may well be summed up in the title of Ann Blair's Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age (2010). We who believe we live in an age of "information overload" may be surprised, and even consoled, by understanding how many people felt precisely the same way three or four or even five hundred years ago. (Or we can go much further back if we choose: saith the Preacher in Jerusalem, "Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.")

One of the most compelling entries in this new genre appeared in 2015: Organizing Enlightenment: Information Overload and the Invention of the Modern Research University, by Chad Wellmon, a professor of German at the University of Virginia. (Disclosure: Chad and I have become friends in the past couple of years.) I have said that this scholarly genre is interested in technology and in institutions; among the several distinctive and illuminating features of Wellmon's book is his insistence that an institution, in this case the research university, can best be understood as a technology.

Early in the book he writes,
The ideal of the German research university was a response to a pervasive Enlightenment anxiety about information overload. This anxiety was particularly acute in late eighteenth-century Germany. Just as today we imagine ourselves to be engulfed by a flood of digital data, Germans of the late eighteenth century saw themselves as having been infested by a plague of books, circulating contagiously among the reading public.

A few decades earlier, other answers to the problem were proposed and pursued: while the Enlightenment, in its various versions, certainly promoted key ideas such as freedom of thought and emancipation from bondage to superstition, "Enlightenment also referred to an array of technologies—encyclopedias, dictionaries, taxonomies, philosophical systems—designed to manage the centrifugal experience of knowledge."

Perhaps the best example of the ideals of the "encyclopedic" strategy for mastering information is the Système Figuré des Connaissances Humaines—"Figurative System of the Varieties of Human Knowledge"—that accompanied the great Encyclopédie created in Paris between 1751 and 1772. The "figurative system" is a great, horizontally branching tree that begins by dividing all knowledge, as Caesar had divided Gaul, into three parts: Memory (the ruling discipline of which is History), Reason (Philosophy), and Imagination (Poetry). From there a detailed set of subdivisions give the sense that, no matter how overloaded we are by information, such information will always find a place in a rational and orderly system.

Wellmon points out that this system had many advantages, but was by no means perfect. Divisions and subdivisions could ramify forever, new data could always be added, at the risk of making the "figurative system" no more comprehensible than the masses of disorganized data it was supposed to deal with. This problem could be avoided by acknowledging that no encyclopedia can cover everything—but then, at what degree of limitation does it cease to be encyclopedic?

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