Chapter 12 – Aids to Reading (part 3 of 3)

HOW TO USE AN ENCYCLOPEDIA

Many people use a dictionary to find out how to spell and pronounce words. The analogous employment of an encyclopedia is to use it only to look up dates and places and other such simpler facts. But this is to under-use, or misuse, an encyclopedia. Like dictionaries, such works are educational as well as informational tools.

Encyclopedias present a different problem from wordbooks. An alphabetical arrangement is natural for a dictionary. But is the world, which is the subject matter of an encyclopedia arranged alphabetically? Obviously not. Well then, how is the world arranged and ordered? This comes down to asking how knowledge is ordered.

In an alphabetically-arranged encyclopedia, these relations are to a large extent obscured. In a topically-arranged encyclopedia, they are, of course, highlighted. But topical encyclopedias have many disadvantages, among them the fact that most readers are not accustomed to using them. Ideally, the best encyclopedia would be one that had both a topical and an alphabetical arrangement. Its presentation of material in the form of separate articles would be alphabetical, but it would also contain some kind of topical key or outline – essentially, a table of contents. (A table of contents is a topical arrangement of a book, as opposed to an index, which is an alphabetical arrangement.)

Any good encyclopedia includes directions about how to use it effectively, and these should be read and followed. Often, these directions require that the user go first the set’s index, before turning to one of the alphabetically-arranged volumes. Here, the index is serving the function of a table of contents, though not very well; for it gathers together, under one heading, references to discussions in the encyclopedia that may be widely separated in space but that are nevertheless about the same general subject. This reflects the fact that although an index is of course alphabetically arranged, its so-called analyticals – that is, the breakdowns under a main entry – are topically arranged. But the topics themselves must be in alphabetical order, which is not necessarily the best arrangement. Thus the index of a really good encyclopedia such as Britannica goes part of the way toward revealing the arrangement of knowledge that the work reflects. For this reason, any reader who fails to use the index has only himself to blame if the work does not serve his needs.

We noted several points about words that the user should keep in mind when he consults a dictionary. In the case of encyclopedias, the analogous points are about facts, for an encyclopedia is about facts as a dictionary is about words.

  1. FACTS ARE PROPOSITIONS – Statements of fact employ words in combination, such as “Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809,” or “the atomic number of gold is 79.” Facts are not physical things, as words are, but they do require to be explained. For thorough knowledge, for understanding, you must also know what the significance of a fact is – how it affexts the truth you are seeking. You do not know much if all you know is what the fact is.
  2. FACTS ARE “TRUE” PROPOSITIONS – Facts are not opinions. When someone says “it is a fact that,” he means that it is generally agreed that such is the case. He never means, or never should mean, that he alone, or he together with a minority of observers, believes such and such to be the case. It is the is characteristic of facts that gives the encyclopedia its tone and style. An encyclopedia that contains the unsupported opinions of its editors is dishonest; and although an encyclopedia may report opinions (for example, in a phrase like “it is held by some that this is the case, by others that that is the case”), it must clearly label them. The requirement that an encyclopedia report the facts of the case and not opinions about it (except as noted above) also limits the work’s coverage. It cannot properly deal with matters about which there is no consensus – with moral questions, for example. If it does deal with such questions, it can only properly report the disagreements among men about them.
  3. FACTS ARE REFLECTIONS OF REALITY – Facts may be either ( a ) informational singulars or ( b ) relatively unquestioned generalizations, but in either case they are held to represent the way things really are. (The birthdate of Lincoln is an informational singular; the atomic number of gold implies a relatively unquestioned generalization about matter.) Thus facts are not ideas or concepts, nor are they theories in the sense of being mere speculations about reality. Similarly, an explanation of reality (or of part of it) is not a fact until and unless there is general agreement that it is correct.
  4. FACTS ARE TO SOME EXTENT CONVENTIONAL – Facts change, we say. We mean that some propositions that are considered to be facts in one epoch are no longer considered to be facts in another. Insofar as facts are “true” and represent reality, they cannot change, of course, because truth, strictly speaking, does not change, nor does reality. But not all propositions that we take to be true are really true; and we must concede that almost any given proposition that we take to be true can be falsified by more patient or more accurate observation and investigation. This applies particularly the facts of science.

A good encyclopedia will answer your questions about facts if you remember the points about fats that we have outlined above. The art of using an encyclopedia as an aid to reading is the art of asking the proper questions about facts. As with the dictionary, we have merely suggested the questions; the encyclopedia will supply the answers.