Last March, Encyclopedia Britannica announced the final publication of its print edition. After 244 years, the 32-volume edition will abandon its shelf-swallowing format for a web presence exclusively. Unlike Wikipedia’s crowdsourced commons, Britannica’s gated community in the cloud will offer fact-freaks access for $70 a year, although some content will be free for all users.
So it’s with perverse pleasure that I recently staggered away from a library book sale with a 1972 edition of The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, after talking a staffer down from 50 to 25 bucks.
“That’s the thing about philosophy,” she said as I heaved the heavy volumes onto the counter. “It never goes out of date.” Absolutely. For example, the ancient Greek philosopher ARISTOTLE (Volume 1, Abbagno to Entropy) was flat wrong when he said the brain is a device for cooling blood. But it’s a cold, hard fact that he promoted this innovative notion in his essay “On Sleep and Sleeplessness.”
This magisterial set from Collier-Macmillan has been described online as “the highest achievement of 20th century philosophy,” and so far no one’s turned it into an app—4,300 pages, 1,500 contributors, one myopic reader.
So why would someone with over 2,000 books, dozens unread, want to weigh down his nonexistent shelf space with more obscure knowledge? Glad you asked. As a scribbler for the press, I may not find anything directly relevant to Rupert Murdoch’s misadventures in the entry, THE CORRESPONDENCE THEORY OF TRUTH, but the entries on DEMOCRACY and SOVEREIGNTY might prove useful for a future rant about Canada’s current prime monster.
There’s also such a thing as knowledge for knowledge’s sake, although that’s an increasingly quaint idea in the digital age, when people are using their iPhones and Android devices as back-up brains. (Who needs personal memory when you have Apple’s Siri to answer any question, from the status of the God particle to the location of your parcel?)
When it comes to philosophical digressions, whether it’s rambling in print or buttonholing dinner companions, I always can use some printed help. But don’t get me wrong. As a fully qualified nerd, I can recite “The Philosopher’s Drinking Song” by Monty Python from memory. It’s just that I’ve always considered my knowledge of western philosophy a bit spotty. I’m more likely to fill in the blanks with a tome and table lamp than I am with a tablet and power chord.
Plus, I can safely say the chances are precisely zero I will come across anything in these volumes about Simon Cowell or Snooki. You can’t get that kind of certainty from digital media.
The other night in bed I pored over a long entry on GNOSTICISM, a pre-Christian belief system. The article wasn’t written in a breezy, page-turning way, but I managed to learn some interesting things about the ancient world. This doesn’t mean I’ll be studying these spleen-squashing cinderblocks from end to end. That would be madness. This encyclopedia set is for quick dips, not marathon swims.
Alas, the irresistible force of my book collecting sometimes collides with the immovable object of my partner. She’s no slouch at higher reasoning herself. In so many words, she recently offered this gem of a syllogism:
1. All hoarders obsessively collect things, and some hoarders collect books. 2. Geoff obsessively collects books. 3. Therefore, Geoff is a hoarder.
I’m hoping The Encyclopedia of Philosophy will act as a microscope to magnify little holes in my partner’s logic into lunar-sized craters. Perhaps I’ll counter with the entry on EDDINGTON, ARTHUR STANLEY, a knighted British physicist who argued that the table he wrote upon was 99.99999 percent empty space, due to the vacuum-like structure of the atoms composing it. From that perspective, all material objects—books included—are whill o’ the whisps, hardly there at all. (It’s a risky line of defence, so a word of caution to any guy with a cluttered man-cave and a neat-freak partner: your excuse mileage may vary.)
Or I may go for a more practical defence: I’ve managed to eke out a published column from a cheaply acquired, out-of-print encyclopedia set that’s unavailable online, with used editions going for $158 upwards on Amazon.ca.
Fine print deadweight or steal of a deal? Really, it’s all about PERCEPTION (Volume 3: Logic to Psychologism).