The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (1977)

That word “modern”, of course, always raises problems. As soon as you label a book as “modern” it appears outdated very quickly. So the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, first published 1977, now looks very dated. Nonetheless, a title that survived three editions (1977, 1988 and 1999) and many reprints (11 reprints for the second edition) was clearly wildly successful. Is the format useful, and is it still valid?

In short, the answer is first, the format is amazingly useful, but it could have been better – and could still be useful today, as an online resource or even as a book. The problem with the book is not just that it is out of date; it is misconceived.

Here is an example of using it in practice. I was reading a review of the drift to dictatorship and totalitarianism in Eastern Europe over the past 20 years or so, with such leaders as Viktor Orban and Recep Erdogan. The review considered what political thinkers have made of the origins of totalitarianism, and mentions Hannah Arendt, Carl Friedrich, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Barrington Moore. What I would like in a dictionary of modern thought would be a couple of lines outlining their major work and what they are known for.  The review itself states “Hannah Arendt found the origins of totalitarianism in the mass politics and propaganda machinery of the modern state”, which would be fine in the FDMT as a summary. Yet the FDMT’s entry on totalitarianism does not mention any of them. It describes totalitarianism as “a theoretical view” of Nazism, fascism and Soviet communism (pretty much any “ism” is a theoretical view, and cryptically describes totalitarianism as “owing much to organic theories of the state” (which has its own article, although not shown as a cross-reference). The FDMT article is poor and not very intelligible to those who do not know the subject; nor does it list the major thinkers.

How does this compare with Wikipedia? The article for Hannah Arendt has some good summaries of individual books and describes how Arendt “argues that totalitarianism was a “novel form of government,” different from other forms of tyranny in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries”. In addition, Wikipedia has a section for major thinkers called “notable ideas” (although this idea about totalitarianism is not one of them).

One feature of the Internet is, of course, the top-ten list. You can find the top ten of anything on the Internet somewhere, and I had no difficulty finding lists of the top ten books about totalitarianism (there is an example of 100 books here) – listing such authors as Arendt, Margaret Atwood, Hayek, Karl Popper, and other familiar names not mentioned in FDMT.

Of course, it’s unfair to compare just one article. The FDMT article on “authoritarianism” is a model of concision, mentioning Plato’s Republic, Burke’s defence of tradition against the French Revolution, Lenin and Hitler – pretty good for an entry comprising only around 100 words. This article does not have the fault of many other dictionary-style definitions, which leave the reader none the wiser. Here is an example:

Autopoiesis: in cybernetics, a … special case of homoeostasis in which the critical variable of the system that is held constant is that system’s own organization.

That’s all they tell us. The result, for me, is complete incomprehension.

So, in summary the FMDT was a noble attempt, but sadly lacking in execution. And to have included more references to classic titles might have made it an indispensable guide to the critical landscape even today.

How Research could be navigated

Following the review in my last post of the report “Navigating Research”, here is a follow-up post to take the findings of the study and then to make some recommendations. The key question is: what is the place for reference in the browser world?

In summary, my recommendations would be:

  1. Place reference content at the point in the user journey where the user needs it;
  2. Provide an interactive glossary;
  3. Restructure reference content to fit the user’s precise needs at that moment;
  4. Adapt the reference by level (beginner, intermediate);
  5. Provide brief, appropriate, annotation where relevant

None of this is truly radical; it simply follows from the recognition that reference as a standalone collection of self-contained entries is today largely superseded.

There are of course already precedents for presenting reference content as part of a web search although these are limited in scope. Google promotes Wikipedia entries to the top of the hits list of any search, as a rule. Credo provides a series of Web pages that combine hits from a number of reference resources, such as encyclopedias and subject dictionaries, into “topic pages”. This approach is good, but limited because Credo has no control over the reference resources they are displaying. The result is good, but remains essentially a collection of print-based reference resources shown together on the screen.

Similarly, Wikipedia was not created with the goal of being sliced into reference-ready chunks – there is a lot of retro-fitting taking place to build such services as Wikidata, but this operation is cumbersome and would be easier if starting from scratch. A reference publisher, an organisation involved in creating reference content, could create some innovative content that meets the above criteria in a more direct way than simply opening a full Wikipedia article next to every mention of a topic such as “Paris” in a text article.

Here are a few examples. Imagine your topic is the French Revolution, about which you know little. You see whole shelves of books just devoted to introductions and overviews. How do you start? Following the Navigating Research terminology, as a user you want two things:

  1. Language context (the meanings of individual terms and phrases in the context of the French Revolution)
  2. Big picture context (understanding how the text you are reading fits into the bigger framework.

Thus, for language context, a glossary of French Revolution terms (Tennis Court Oath, Sans-culottes, Montagne/Mountain), each with a one-sentence definition, would be available to appear alongside each use of the relevant term.  There is no reason why these definitions could not be longer, as long as the first portion was self-contained and could be used standalone. What you don’t want is to overwhelm the function of a glossary with excessive information (something that Wikipedia does very frequently). Thus, the Tennis Court Oath (le Serment du Jeu de paume), one of the most notable incidents of the early Revolution, receives a range of coverage in introductory books:

  • no mention in the index to Davidson, The French Revolution (2016)
  • four mentions in Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989), which leaves the reader of trying to determine which is the primary reference.
  • a cross-reference (under Jeu de Paume) in Tulard, Histoire et Dictionnaire de la Revolution Francaise (1987).

You begin to see the need for key terms explained at the point where they are first encountered.

Books can usefully be summarised and placed in context in one sentence:

Alfred Fierro, “Historiography of the French Revolution” in Tulard (87): Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France “placed alongside each other the English 17th century revolutions in England with the upheavals in France, and discerned a difference in form between the wise empiricism of  his compatriots who maintained the national tradition but modernised and reworked it, compared to the willingness of the Constitutionnels to start from a tabula rasa. “ [interesting that a French writer describes 17th century England as “revolutions”, while 1789 is merely an “upheaval”].

Davidson (2016) on Francois Furet: “Furet was the leading historial of the revolution after World War II, and he was influential in breaking the grip of the Marxists on French historiography; his deep analyses and judgements are still essentially unchallenged.”

Such summaries do not exist in Google or in standard bibliographies such as the MLA. For these resources, there is too much information and not enough evaluation. Much of this work has still to be done by hand.

To conclude: there are several ways in which “reference” content, even if not labelled as such, can be introduced as part of the research navigation journey. it may need to be restructured, and held in smaller units, but for a dedicated reference publisher, all this can be done. In other words, Reference is dead; long live Reference!

Navigating Research

Navigating Research” is the name for an impressively large-scale report that sounds from the title as a study of how users find academic content. On reading the subtitle, and the main conclusions of the report, its real focus emerges. The subtitle is “how academic users understand, discover, and utilize reference resources” – not quite the same thing. The first bullet point in the executive summary states:

Recognition of ‘reference’ as a distinct category of resources is declining but the need for contextual information remains significant and some new needs are emerging

That’s an odd first conclusion for a report into “navigating research”. Who mentioned reference? Read the full post »

Marketing Encyclopedia Britannica

Hugh Chisholm, 1866-1924

Hugh Chisholm, the public intellectual

I was in a second-hand bookshop the other day, and there was a small multivolume encyclopedia piled in the corner. Probably nobody had looked in that corner for months, and quite right too. Who needs an out-of-date encyclopedia?

Yet what was out of date about it was not just that it reported facts and opinions up to the time it was printed – perhaps thirty or forty years ago. What was far more fundamentally out of date was the approach behind it.

Read the full post »

The Innocence of Wikipedians

By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

By © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Perhaps it is the innocence of Jimmy Whale,  Wikipedia’s founder, or perhaps it is an innocence shared by all the Wikipedia editors. Either way, Wikipedia is surrounded by a sweet optimism that is at odds with the reality of the actual articles. Yesterday the Financial Times published an article by John Thornhill praising Wikipedia’s truthfulness. Incredible though it may seem, Thornhill describes Wikipedia in the following idyllic way:

Its volunteer contributors stick to a neutral point of view and agree among themselves what constitute reliable sources.

I’m sure this is the view of the majority of Wikipedians – and it would appear to be the view of Jimmy Whale as well.

Mr Wales said the site was relatively impartial because it had shunned advertising. Wikipedians wrote entries according to the subject’s interest rather than from any impulse to chase clicks. “We all know that the DNA of any organisation tends to follow the money.”

Such a statement ignores the thousands of Wikipedia articles created by companies to promote their products and brands. Because the rules of Wikipedia allow anyone to compile or to edit any article anonymously, Wikipedia has become full of product placement, woefully untrue statements, and articles placed by PR departments as seemingly neutral endorsements of the product – see, for example, my posts Wikipedia v. a tube of toothpaste, for example; quite apart from the endless re-editing of articles when a possibly valid statement is repeatedly replaced by a statement that could never be validated – see Will Wikipedia ever get their facts right? .  I’ve also pointed out that the number of articles is growing far more quickly than the number of volunteer editors. A large, and growing, proportion of Wikipedia articles has never been edited by a Wikipedian, in other words. I hope they are unbiased and accurate. I’m sure they are.

Mr Thornhill quotes approvingly how the article for George W Bush has been edited over 45,000 times – concluding that “truth on Wikipedia is always a malleable commodity”. He seems to agree with Mr Wales that placing authors of diametrically opposed views in a room together will lead to an agreed viewpoint – the kind of attitude that most people lose by the time they get to university. He quotes Wales’s view:

It will take some time before they come to a consensus view but we are trying.”

My argument is that Wikipedia has created a world where some entries are battlefields between contributors, but also with thousands of articles that are flagrantly biased, and will probably never be corrected. Why should a volunteer edit the entry for a brand of toothpaste that a PR agency was paid to create? Don’t they have better things to do? Somewhere between the vision of Diderot’s Encyclopedia and Wikipedia something was lost, or perhaps, more precisely, some naivety crept in. I’m not surprised Wikipedia editors show it, but I am astonished that FT contributors can believe it as well.

Will Wikipedia ever get their facts right?


Image: Ryan McGuire

Editing Wikipedia appears to some (including me) to be an endless road – it goes on and on, and is never concluded. And that doesn’t mean it gets better – even when highly experienced Wikipedia editors are on the case. Here is an example.

Read the full post »

How not to find things with Pevsner

Pevsner Bedfordshire cover

I hesitate to criticize Pevsner’s Buildings of England series; I have used the books with immense pleasure for many years. Pevsner appears not only to have seen everything, but to have an informed and perceptive (and often pointed ) comment about what he sees. However, if I were to complain, it would be about the information navigation rather than the content. I’ve just bought the volume for Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough, which, as the title might suggest, was probably not the easiest volume to put together. After several years of using the series, this is the first time I’ve suggested some improvements to the navigation:

  1. Include one index per volume. If you must, have one index for people, one index for places. But having a separate index for Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire in one volume is just a nightmare. In fact, several aspects of this volume raise questions. According to the Foreword, the first edition of the book got off to a bad start; research began in 1964, then in 1965 the County of Huntington and Peterborough was formed. This county was then abolished in 1974. Given that Pevsner volumes were being published alongside all these county boundary changes, it is perhaps not such a surprise when publishers admit that three villages were omitted from Pevsner altogether in the muddle of changing county boundaries between editions of individual volumes.
  2. I can understand the problems of county reorganisation, but why does a 2014 edition stick with the county boundaries of 1974? Don’t stick to a superseded taxonomy. English county boundaries of 1974 is not a good organising principle.
  3. Perambulations (the glorious Pevsner term for guided walks) are a nightmare and I always get lost. I defy anyone to follow a perambulation in its entirety. The style is to list only buildings of interest, so whole rows of buildings, even whole streets, are ignored while we magically follow Pevsner in his quest for beauty. Trouble is, the building he refers to is often only by such cryptic terms as “further down” (not stating clearly that the next building described is several blocks away from where you are currently standing). For perambulations  follow the system in Pevsner city guides – a much clearer description of walks, and one that is easy to follow.
  4. Improve the maps – include some features such as roads and/or railways (to be fair, this is now starting to happen in the recent volumes). Drop the unique grid reference system and replace them by OS grid references. This would enable things to be found via satnav systems.
  5. We are steadily moving towards a digital world. There exists already an incomplete  Pevsner index ( from 1999, but this URL was broken, and of course, as the volumes are revised, the index will go out of date again.
  6. Have the pictures adjacent to the text they are describing. This is done very successfully in the Pevsner City Guides.
  7. Don’t start each entry for a town or village with the Church of England church, followed by Catholic and other denominations – it shows an outdated pecking order that is not appropriate or even very sensitive.Even the Pevsner City Guides start usually with the cathedral (at least, my City Guide to Sheffield does).

The final problem, perhaps one of the most challenging to address, is that in a book of several hundred pages, it is very difficult to find out which things to see. There is an introduction, which requires you to sit down and consider a county in its own right without any of its neighbours (and Cambridge has five counties within a few miles), but it is very easy not to notice a fascinating church or building just a few miles away. Simon Jenkins with his star ratings for the 1,000 best churches in England gives me the comfort that I haven’t missed anything major in the vicinity.

Histropedia – a new way to visualize history?

Histropedia is a site that enables you to create timelines from Wikipedia entries.  According to the two founders of Histropedia (a very klunky name, which makes me think of histrionics), it is “a new type of website that will transform the way we visualise history”. Well, it certainly enables history timelines to be created instantly; whether that means it has transformed the way we visualise history is another matter.

Read the full post »

How taxonomy becomes political

A recent book on Alfred Kinsey (Donna Drucker, The Classification of Sex, University of Pittsburgh Press) describes Kinsey’s great innovation as taxonomic.

By ordering individuals on a scale of 0-6 instead of a heterosexual-bisexual-homosexual triad model (or even a binary heterosexual-homosexual model), Kinsey shifted the modern conversation about sexual behavior toward a form of classification that re-envisioned a world in which multiple varieties and combinations of sexual desire, behavior, and fantasy would be culturally, scientifically, and politically normal.

[quoted by Ivan Crozier in the TLS March 20  2015]

A simple act of reclassification helped change the way society viewed sexual orientation. It would be good to think that every new taxonomy (linked, as here, to a new way of sampling and analyzing data) could change the way the world thinks!

A Brief History of Encyclopaedias – too brief, and not brief enough

Andrew Brown: A Brief History of Encyclopaedias

(Hesperus, 2011)

Anyone who includes spoof encyclopedia titles on the book cover (A Complete Guide to Dysslexia), and starts a book about encyclopedias with a joke can’t be entirely dismissed. Andrew Brown starts his book as follows:

I may not be the best person to write a history of encyclopaedias, however brief: I have never read one. Not all the way through.

Unfortunately, the jokes in the rest of the book are either more stretched, or rather overshadowed at times by the author drawing attention to his own learning. In fact, Mr Brown commits the crime of breaking one of the more important rules of encyclopedias: the task is to make the content accessible, not to persuade the reader that you are clever and they are not.  The author has chosen not to use footnotes or to quote his sources, but he nonetheless refers to authors he has read by their surname only. Now, regular readers of this blog will no doubt be aware of Tom McArthur, but how many readers of this book will identify a reference to him. It is surprising to encounter, in a book about encyclopedias, the statement “this etymology is, according to the best of today’s sources, correct.” Given Brown’s point about the relative nature of knowledge, it is impressive indeed that our age has reached the definitive statement of the truth, and Mr Brown doesn’t need to tell us which source that statement was derived from.

Brown’s brief history manages to be brief but nevertheless dull in parts.  It is all of 107 pages long, of which only 74 pages are the history (and at around 300 words a page, this totals just 22,000 words), while the last section, in keeping with the series style, includes some examples of the genre, labelled “A short dictionary of encyclopaedic themes”.  I thought these might be spoof encyclopedia entries, but unfortunately, they are not; they are simply discussions arranged in paragraphs labelled A to Z.

Regrettably, the author also fails to illustrate some of his key points. There is a good description of Pierre Bayle, and a fascinating link to Moliere, but not a line from any of Bayle’s works. In contrast, some of the wackier medieval encyclopedias are quoted in detail to show how much was copied from one compilation to another.

The division of space in this short book is curious. It would be a masterpiece of compression to keep the history of encyclopedias this short, yet Mr Brown devotes eleven pages to Arabic encyclopedias and eight pages to Chinese encyclopedias –  and in claiming that many of them are nothing but vast lists, he manages to create an interminable list himself. We learn little that is distinctive about the Chinese encyclopedia, and we aren’t encouraged to learn when the author uses terms without explaining them: we are told that the 1725 Gujin tushu Sicheng is the largest of the leishu to be still in existence. This is fascinating, but what is a leishu? More space is allotted to early editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica than to Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Yet Wikipedia, which could be described as the most radical encyclopedia ever, is given only two pages.

All in all, a fascinating subject, but covered in a quirky treatment that is only compelling in parts.

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