Structured knowledge in the eighteenth-century; Chambers Dictionary

Chambers Dictionary was first published in two volumes in 1728. This work is an early encyclopedia, a proudly ordered and condensed body of knowledge. Chambers describes his work as ‘A Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, containing definitions of the terms and accounts of the things signify’d thereby in the several Arts, both Liberal and Mechanical and the several Sciences, Human and Divine’.

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This fascinating work begins with a dedication to King George 11 and a lengthy preface in the form of a philosophical discussion of knowledge. The preface contains a detailed ‘map’ of knowledge, although as Chambers claims, not a complete one.

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Chambers wrote that without language we are only ever able to know what we perceive ourselves. Therefore, language extends and improves our knowledge; it teaches us information outside of our own perception and gives us a more whole and complete understanding on different subjects and matters that we may not attain from ourselves alone.

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Chambers Dictionary is ‘an attempt towards a Survey of the Republick of Learning’ an effort to organise and order information from varying sources into a condensed and accessible format.

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

His aim is ‘not to make a confused Heap of incongruous Parts, but one consistent Whole’ as structure and order is something previous lexicographers had not focused upon.

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Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Chambers placed a lot of emphasis on cross-referencing. He ensured organisation within his work by addressing each different matter relatively – as they respect each other and relate to each other – as well as what each one is independently.

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By doing this, ‘a Communication is opened up between the several parts of the work’. As a result, a greater amount of knowledge is accessible with a deeper level of understanding about subjects and matters as a whole.

Victoria Jones 

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