Irony and encyclopaedic writing before (and after) the enlightenment

William N West*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


The trope of irony and the great volume of encyclopaedic writing before the Enlightenment probably do not immediately seem to have much to say to each other. Irony, of course, is a notoriously complicated way of using language, no less hard to define than encyclopaedism and maybe considerably harder to detect. My working definition here focuses on a kind of irony that I want to argue is apparent in many premodern encyclopaedic texts: by ‘irony’ in the context of encyclopaedism I mean the self-subverting stance that many early encyclopaedic works express towards the possibility of their projects, calling their efforts into question without abandoning their goals of coherence, comprehensiveness, usefulness, and universality. It is an attitude combining commitment and scepticism, resignation and enthusiasm. An example of such a mixed stance appears in what has become the defining encyclopaedic project of the Enlightenment, the great Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert (1751–77). One need only compare the optimism with which D’Alembert introduced its double project in the ‘Discours Préliminaire’ to its first volume (1751) – ‘to set forth as well as possible the order and connection of the parts of human knowledge…. [and] to contain the general principles that form the basis of each science and each art, liberal or mechanical, and the most essential facts that make up the body of each’ – with the much more complex ‘Foreword’ to its eighth volume a few years later, which acknowledged that ‘we may find ourselves in agreement with those who do not consider this dictionary a great work well done, so long as they grant us the merit of having collected the material’. This gesture of giving and taking colours the description of the Encyclopédie, a few sentences later, as ‘the finest compendium that has ever existed’, a phrase which, by itself, seems much closer to the tone of the Preliminary Discourse.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEncyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781139814683
ISBN (Print)9781107038233
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)

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