Worlds of Reference

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information on it.” So wrote Samuel Johnson, compiler of one of the world’s most famous dictionaries and an authority who might be expected to know something about the sources of knowledge.

Those sources, especially reference works such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, are the starting point for Tom McArthur’s comprehensive, challenging study, Worlds of Reference: Lexicography, Learning, and Language from the Clay Tablet to the Computer. From that point, however, McArthur proceeds to a general survey of human knowledge: how we approach it, how we organize it, and how it affects us. More than a review of the work and works of the lexicographer, Worlds of Reference is a wide-ranging, provocative study of how human beings have gathered, considered, cataloged, and developed from their learning.

Since human beings are unique in having the system of language, our learning is both part of that system and displayed through it. As McArthur notes early in his book, “words are everywhere, on walls, on pages and on display screens. How did they get there? What processes of history have led to the reference and information systems that we use today, and in particular the systems in which words are central—encyclopaedias, textbooks and dictionaries?” Exploring the track of these words is McArthur’s central theme and guiding principle, and Worlds of Reference follows a chronological path in charting how Western civilization has preserved and presented its knowledge.

Developing concepts from science historian Karl Popper, McArthur explains that “information” is the result of the interaction of the world of material things around us and our internal, mental world which considers those things. Human beings have developed many forms and containers for storing information; words are by no means the only method. The earliest records are on the cave walls in southern France: the strangely beautiful, bafflingly perfect paintings of Cro-Magnon man. In a sense, the cave paintings at Altamira are the first reference works of Western civilization.

Impressive as they are, however, they fail in one significant test: They are not easily accessible, either in their location or in their meaning. Neither the paintings, nor the notched bones and stones found with them, can be fully understood. The information they contained, obviously of great importance to its recorders, is now lost. The containers of cave painting and bone notching were simply not strong enough.

Language combined with a writing system is a strong enough container, as the Sumerians and Egyptians discovered almost simultaneously some six thousand years ago. The two societies differed in their choice of writing materials—clay for the Sumerians, pounded papyrus for the Pharaohs—and this inevitably led to different forms of writing. Clay tablets are best inscribed with a pointed stylus, so the cuneiform (“wedgeshaped”) writing system was developed by the ancient Mesopotamians. The Egyptians, on the other hand, seem to have transferred their hieroglyphic style from stone to papyrus, leading to a more pictorial system. Behind these differences, however, as McArthur points out, are universal factors that connect all systems of writing and reference: “ordering, listing, display, hierarchy of arrangement, edge and margin, sectioning, spacing, contrasts—these transcend the contingent world of clay and reeds.”

These universal factors constitute what McArthur refers to as the “taxonomic urge” to organize and, thus, evaluate knowledge. Apparently this urge is itself a universal factor of our humanity: from Confucian China to pre-Socratic Greece to classical Arabic culture, systems of hierarchies and arrangements of knowledge were developed. Their heritage remains with us in modern times. There are obvious reminders, such as the seven liberal arts from the Greeks, but there is also a more pervasive legacy: We expect our reference books to be in some sort of order, some sensible arrangement.

Over the centuries, McArthur demonstrates, this taxonomic urge has displayed itself in varied schemes. The Greeks had their “enkyklios paideia,” best translated as all-around or general education. (Ultimately the word encyclopedia was derived from this term; concepts, as do people, live on in their descendants.) During the Middle Ages, a Scholastic philosopher, Thomas Aquinas, would compile a “summa,” or orderly compendium of all truth, arranged in a way that both reflected, commented upon, and celebrated the larger divine order of creation.

It is with the coming of the modern age, however, that the taxonomic urge has been subject to its greatest possibilities and greatest stresses. The chief reason for these tensions is the powerful combination of vastly increased knowledge and rapidly developing technology, a tension that is most notably caught in the printing press, that “novel triumph of taxonomy and technology together.”

The advent of the printing press brought with it three fundamental differences in the way people approached information. First, there was again new knowledge in the world. During the Middle Ages, learning was preserved rather than expanded. Forms of language and thought were essentially set and...

(The entire section is 2202 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXIII, September 15, 1986, p. 110.

British Book News. May, 1986, p. 279.

Choice. XXIV, February, 1987, p. 865.

Times Literary Supplement. May 9, 1986, p. 492.