What is Encyclopedism?

He Encyclopedism Was an intellectual movement of Western philosophy whose set of ideological and philosophical principles were promulgated by thinkers called encyclopedists.

The encyclopedia was written and edited in the second half of the eighteenth century, with the contribution of many renowned writers, being the most illustrious Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (1717-1783).


The emergence of encyclopaedism takes its name from The Encyclopedia or, reasoned dictionary of the arts, sciences and trades , Which was published between 1751 and 1772.

The book consists of 17 volumes of text to which 11 of sheets are added. In turn, between 1776 and 1780 were added another 7 volumes of supplements, divided in 4 of text, 1 of sheets and 2 of indices. Total, The encyclopedia Comprises some 28 volumes, at least in its initial stage of production.

However, prior to this illustrated project, there were previous initiatives. On the other hand, in France it was where the encyclopedist initiative was more successful thanks to the support of personages of the nobility, like Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), who counterbalanced the promoters of his censorship, including the government and the clergy.

Thus, the main motive of the opposition lay in the revolutionary character of enlightened ideas. In this way, encyclopedism was within the framework of the illustration where its concepts clashed directly with the religion and the French monarchy of its time.

For their part, encyclopedists had as their main purpose to compile and disseminate knowledge to combat ignorance. The main objective was to undermine the bases of tyranny imposed through institutionalized faith and absolutism. In this sense, the principle of authority was questioned.

With encyclopedism, intellectual acts of similar size were carried out in later years, in many languages ​​and countries. Efforts were also made to update indexed entries and to make encyclopedias reach more people.

To this end, a greater number of specialists were required. In more recent times, technology was in charge of renewing the spirit and essence with which encyclopedism was conceived.

History of encyclopedism

The first encyclopedia was not French or arose in the eighteenth century, but has remote origins dating to Pliny the Elder with its Natural History , In Ancient Rome.

The Middle Ages Saw similar efforts between Arabs and Byzantines; Even the Chinese had done the same during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). In Europe, works of an encyclopaedic nature are published between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, under the influence of the Renaissance and classical ideas.

However, none of these precursors had the impact of Cyclopaedia , Which came out in 1728 and was made by the English Ephraim Chambers (1680-1740).

In this way, the first modern encyclopedia was Anglo-Saxon and published in other languages ​​until the French thought to translate it into their language. However, it was Diderot who decided to go further and make this project a true compilation of all the knowledge existing in his time, with original content.

Ideological framework

As mentioned, Encyclopedism has a close relationship with the Age of Enlightenment and therefore with Enlightenment. Made entirely valid for French encyclopedism as in English encyclopedism, which followed the footsteps of Chambers.

In exchange the encyclopedia receives the ideological nutrients of French-speaking philosophy, which revives its appreciation for the cosmovisions of Greece and Rome during its years of political splendor.

Encyclopedism was noted above all for adhering to a fundamental ideological precept: secularism.

In this sense, knowledge had to be totally independent of the prevailing scholasticism in times past, so that the contents of the encyclopedia would not be designed according to particular religious doctrines but according to universal knowledge that are based on facts verified through observation.

Consequently, it can be said that encyclopedism was an epistemological, philosophical and non-theological movement.

When reason prevails over faith, the facts have more relevance than personal beliefs or religious denominations, which lend themselves to subjectivities and impositions that are usually implanted by powerful sectors that do not always know what they do.

Knowledge, in this way, is disclosed and written by those who really know its structure.


The fundamental goal of encyclopedism, indistinctly from its original state in England or from its modernized version in France, was to gather in its many volumes all possible knowledge.

To this end, an inventory was made of how much was known at that time, that is, in the eighteenth century. The idea was to obtain all this wisdom and to relay it to the generations to come, so that it could be found useful in the future.

Therefore, the compilation of knowledge in the encyclopaedia was, for Diderot himself, a way of making people more educated, of providing them education, so that their enlightened state gives them virtue and consequently happiness.

To this it is worth to add that the encyclopaedism responded to the necessities of his time. If encyclopedists sought the happiness of men, it was because there was a consciousness that the monarchical state did not provide.

According to ideologues, the creation of an encyclopaedia served to disseminate that set of ideas that were the target of governmental and ecclesiastical censorship, including those related to the abolition of slavery or equality between men.

In this way, and according to the above, the characteristics of encyclopedism can be summarized:

  • Compile all the knowledge that has been known to date, in a systematic and orderly manner, in different branches of knowledge.
  • To disclose knowledge to the masses, so that they may do the same with the generations to come, and those with which they follow, for there is no useless knowledge.
  • Educate the population so that it acquires civil virtues from which happiness is achieved and its state of ignorance, barbarism and submission abandoned.
  • Breaking the barriers of political and religious censorship, which prevented certain knowledge from being publicly disclosed as revolutionary, subversive, sinful or contrary to the interests of the absolutist monarchy and the church.
  • Publicize the work and thought of those authors who were commonly censored and persecuted by the established regime.

Encyclopedia facts

The use of reason and not of faith

Attached to the principles of the Enlightenment, encyclopedists are rationalists, so the entries in his encyclopedia explain nature by ignoring the theological or religious implications that used to prevail in medieval scholasticism.

Presence of a secular ideology

In secularism, secularism implied that encyclopedism was not for religious proselytism, but to be a source of knowledge written by philosophers and scientists, not by clerics.

This knowledge, therefore, is not canonical nor immovable like the Bible, quite the opposite; Lends itself to updates incorporating recent inventions and discoveries in science and technology.

Revolutionary spirit

Encyclopedism brought with it ideas that displeased monarchs and priests, for these constituted a challenge to the existing system, which could be endangered if it fell into the hands of the masses.

This is so because the encyclopedists were ideologists and thinkers committed to the cause of the Enlightenment, in which rights were proclaimed and wielded arguments that at that moment were believed inconceivable.

Prolific in entrances

Being exact, the encyclopaedia of France had 75,000 entries, of which 44,000 were main, 28,000 were secondary and 2,500 were indexes of illustrations.

The verbal count amounts to the astronomical figure of 20 million words discharged in its 18,000 pages that are contained in its 17 volumes of articles. That is much more than Chambers could have imagined.

Systematicity of definitions

The knowledge disseminated by encyclopedism was systematically ordered, according to the alphabet and the area in question. One of its pages, in fact, has a complete scheme in which all human knowledge is organized.

Encyclopedia Authors

The authors of the encyclopedia were about 150 authors. Encyclopedism was a multitudinous and multidisciplinary work. Among these writers were Diderot and d'Alembert, who were also their editors.

Other participants in this company were Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire. It should be noted that the encyclopedists had differences of opinion, but not of intellectual intentions, in the elaboration of this colossal project.

It is known so far that the French encyclopedist with more entries written for The encyclopedia Was Louis de Jaucourt (1704-1779), with 17,288 articles.

Many of the authors who were within the encyclopedism had no interest in changing the delicate situation that crossed France.

Nevertheless, The encyclopedia As such it did achieve that goal, since it was an important ideological foundation that served the French Revolution.

In sum, Encyclopedism was the summit of the Enlightenment and its usefulness is compared to that nowadays does Wikipedia, whose philosophy is that in which knowledge is free.


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  3. Burke, Peter (2000). A social history of knowledge: from Gutenberg to Diderot. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Inc.
  4. Donato, Clorinda and Maniquis, Robert M. (1992). The Encyclopedie and the Age of Revolution. Boston: G.K. Hall.
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  6. Lough, John (1971). The Encyclopedie. New York: D. McKay.
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  8. Pontificia Universidad Javeriana Cali (No year). History and philosophy of science; Century of reason; Encyclopedists - The Enlightenment. Cali, Colombia, PUJ, Department of Humanities. Recovered from pioneros.puj.edu.co.

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