Mapping 18th Century Structures of Knowledge: the Renvois System in Diderot's Encyclopédie

  1. 1. Gilles Blanchard

    École Normale Supérieure

  2. 2. Mark Olsen

    University of Chicago

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One of the crowning achievements of the 18th century Enlightenment was the Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une Société de Gens de lettres, edited by Diderot and d'Alembert. Published in Paris between 1751 and 1772, in 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates, it contains 74,000 articles written by more than 140 contributors. The Encyclopédie was a massive reference work for the arts and sciences, as well as a machine de guerre which served to propagate Enlightened ideas. The impact of the Encyclopédie was enormous. Through its attempt to classify learning and to open all domains of human activity to its readers, the Encyclopédie gave expression to many of the most important intellectual and social developments of its time.

The scale and ambition of the Encyclopédie inspired the editors to adopt three modes of organization: dictionary, encyclopedic, and the renvois. The interaction of these three modes has led modern scholars to describe the Encyclopédie as the "ancestor of hypertext" and depict Diderot as "l'internaute d'hier"[1]. Diderot makes the importance of the organization of knowledge explicit in the Discours Preliminaire:

As an Encyclopedia, it is to set forth the order and connection of the parts of human knowledge. As a Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades, it is to contain the general principles that form the basis of each science and each art ... and the most essential facts that make up the body and substance of each. [2]

Of the three modes of organization, the dictionary mode (organization of entries in alphabetical order) is certainly the simplest. The second mode of organization is encyclopedic, where each entry is assigned a "class of knowledge", placing it within the "order" of human knowledge, as was described by d'Alembert's Systême Figuré des connoissances humaines. Reflecting Enlightenment theories of epistemology, the tree of knowledge has a three-fold trunk comprised of memory, reason, and imagination, from which spring many branches, twigs, and leaves (Image of Pank's tree). Simply placing an entry into this hierarchy of knowledge was insufficient to indicate the inter-connections of knowledge. Thus, Diderot created an extensive system of renvois (cross-references), the third mode of organization, providing a lattice of inter-connections between individual leaves of the tree as well as between classes of knowledge. The reader is encouraged to follow the renvois, which unite fields of knowledge into what was hoped to be a seamless totality.

The ARTFL Project's creation of a computer implementation of the Enlightenment's "war machine"[3] has attempted to provide this three-fold access and navigation to scholars and researchers. Furthermore, the electronic Encyclopédie provides a unique tool to study the interactions of these three modes of organization of knowledge. Systematic examination of Diderot's hypertext is important not only for the light it sheds on the function and construction of the Encyclopédie itself and the contours of 18th century knowledge, but may also be informative for modern conceptions of hypertext.

The two first modes of organization (dictionary order and encyclopedic classification of knowledge) can be envisioned directly by the reader of the Encyclopédie. The third, the structure of the renvois, is impossible to grasp as a whole because of its more diffuse nature. The 61,700 individual renvois are unevenly distributed across the 74,000 articles of the Encyclopédie, reflecting the wide variation in size and scope of articles. 22,955 articles or subarticles have one or more renvois. As might be expected, articles with renvois are significantly longer (568 words) than those without (158 words). The renvois simply refer to one or more articles by head word. Thus, these connections are what might be termed leaf to leaf (or node to node), which allow the user to traverse leaves, without regard to the classes of knowledge. As a reader, one can only see the links stemming locally from a particular entry: much as someone hiking in a chain of mountains, it is not possible to step back and get a general vision of the whole landscape.

The online version of the Encyclopédie allows us to draw a very coarse first map of the links "landscape". Our methodology was to group the entries into the classes of knowledge to which they belong and to measure the strength of relationships of all of the renvois between these classes of knowledge using a simple Z-score calculation. The resulting graph shows the statistically significant (or "privileged") links between classes of knowledge. A given renvois does not specify a precise sense of the word we should look for, and for any given word one often finds several distinct entries corresponding to different classes of knowledge (polysemy). There is no automatic way to determine the "true" link initially intended by the author - assuming that the author had a single sense in mind. However, a statistical study taking into account several independant renvois between classes allows us to get a more reliable picture and to disregard insignificant links.

The encyclopedic landscape shows some striking features. First, there is a high local connectivity between close classes - in other words, there are several different ways to go from "physique" to "géometrie", for example. Secondly we can see a clear division of the links landscape into two "hemispheres", namely, knowledge related to direct observation of nature (histoire naturelle), heuristic sciences (chimie, médecine), rural life (économie rustique) on the one hand; and knowledge related to or contructed by the human mind on the other (abstract sciences such as mathematics; philosophy; history; laws of human society). Not surprisingly, the "human hemisphere" is much more important than the "natural hemisphere" in terms of sheer size.

The general structure of the renvois can be related to the encyclopedic order pictured in d'Alembert's Systême Figuré. For example, mathematics, geometry, and arithmetic are closely grouped in our landcape drawn from the renvois and in the encyclopedic order defined by d'Alembert. The two hemispheres detected in this preliminary examination, however, do not clearly correspond to d'Alembert's general schema. The power of the Encyclopédie's "hypertextuality" arises from the combination of a general map of the structures of knowledge and the lattice of related cross-references. Rather than conceive of the renvois as simply node to node links, Diderot's hypertext assumes an abstract representation of knowledge. He writes, in the Discours Préliminaire,

On a tâché que l'exactitude & la fréquence des renvois ne laissât là - dessus rien à desirer; car les renvois dans ce Dictionnaire ont cela de particulier, qu'ils servent principalement à indiquer la liaison des matieres; au lieu que dans les autres ouvrages de cette espece, ils ne sont destinés qu'à expliquer un article par un autre. [...] Ainsi trois choses forment l'ordre encyclopédique; le nom de la Science à laquelle l'article appartient; le rang de cette Science dans l'Arbre; la liaison de l'article avec d'autres dans la même Science ou dans une Science différente; liaison indiquée par les renvois... [4]

The key role that abstract representation of knowledge plays in the construction of Diderot's hypertext may be particularly instructive for current hypertext designers. In addition to node to node links, hypertext design may be enhanced by working within the context of organizational framework such as Diderot's representation of classes of knowledge.


1. Brian, Eric (1998). "L'ancêtre de l'hypertexte". Les Cahiers de Science et Vie, 47 (oct. 1998), pp.28-38.
2. English translation cited in Nelly Hoyt and Thomas Cassier, "Introduction" to Encyclopedia (1965), p. xxiii (our emphasis).
3. Andreev, Leonid et al (1999). "Re-engineering a War Machine: ARTFL's Encyclopédie". Literary and Linguistic Computing Vol 14, No. 1 1999, pp. 11-28
4. Encyclopédie, Vol 1, p. xviii.

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Conference Info

In review


Hosted at University of Glasgow

Glasgow, Scotland, United Kingdom

July 21, 2000 - July 25, 2000

104 works by 187 authors indexed

Affiliations need to be double-checked.

Conference website:

Series: ALLC/EADH (27), ACH/ICCH (20), ACH/ALLC (12)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None