World knowledge – that is to say, knowledge about the world – appears to be a rather unambiguous object, at least until one asks oneself the questions of whose knowledge and perspective are at stake here; for what this knowledge is generated and used; and, above all, which world is actually captured by it. For it is by no means the case that all people look at the world (i.e. the Earth) in the same way. This already results from their respective positioning on this planet or (since orbiting the Earth has become a habit) in relation to the globe rotating beneath them. And any universalisms may suggest that it is always about the whole world, but on closer inspection it is usually about a part of the world, namely one that was or became relevant for the producers of knowledge and their audience.
The problems posed by the term world knowledge experienced a considerable dynamization in the so-called early modern period, of which the present anthology covers the “long” eighteenth century between c. 1680 and c. 1830. It is a phase of intensified migration on sea routes and on land, but in both cases beyond the borders of each continent. As is well known, this long eighteenth century was marked in important parts of Europe by a boom in encyclopaedias, which continued in the following century with the mass dissemination of collected and ordered knowledge to educated circles and groups through the medium of conversational encyclopaedias. Other regions of the world experienced comparable upswings, as the contributions by Yihong Hu on China and Stefan Reichmuth on the Arab world report knowledgeably, but it seems important to note that it was by no means a single wave that swept across the entire world, nor was it a simple echo of the initial situation in Western Europe. Rather, it was a complicated network of efforts to systematically present and make known the new knowledge about distant countries and the connection with each region’s own globalization project.
The walk through the various European regions begins with a look at Janós Apáczai Csere’s encyclopaedia published in 1655 and then switches to Italy and from there to France, before turning to the German-speaking world and “the” Johann Zedler (supplemented by the concluding contribution on Brockhaus and his Konversationslexikon [Universal Lexicon]) as well as the Netherlands and moving on to Poland, Sweden, and Russia. This brings the respective intellectual networks into focus – primarily, within language communities and, secondarily, the many cross-border relationships. Sometimes the essays read like very successful advertising brochures for the respective encyclopaedia and thus quite rightly pay tribute to the enormous intellectual achievement of the editors – who by no means simply collected world knowledge and presented it to the readership in a pleasing way but had to generate a concept of world knowledge in the first place, to which the many newly arriving news items could be assigned.
To do this, they changed the forms of presentation – first by deciding in favour of the respective national languages (and against Latin, which had dominated up until then), thus also taking up a certain perspective of the knowledge presented because, undeniably, they also took note of the fact that similar projects were being worked on elsewhere. With the arrangement of knowledge according to alphabetically sorted lemmas, it was not necessary to work through the entire order of knowledge, but individual articles of interest could be easily found and looked up. These thick and multivolume books were rather for regular consultation than for a once-and-never-again read. It is therefore sometimes not at all easy for today’s researchers to make visible again the guiding ideas behind the selection of articles and the presentation of subject matter that the initiators of such mammoth undertakings had in mind at the time. Fortunately, secondary material in archives, in correspondence, and sometimes also in edited manuscripts offers countless clues to the editors’ intentions, which, however, first have to be found and evaluated in time-consuming research. Here, the anthology offers an enormous treasure trove of information that future encyclopaedia researchers will certainly not be able to do without.
This excellent volume introduces the reader to the world of the many encyclopaedias in Europe and points out the many references that their editors and authors created by observing each other, adopting successful models, and at the same time adapting them to the needs of their own readership. The fact that a greater variety than the already well-known Dutch-French-German cultural transfer chain is discussed is one of the characteristics to be emphasized as particularly fruitful and innovative.
However, the concept of world knowledge seems to have caused greater problems. In that the universal encyclopaedias sought to describe virtually everything that was relevant in the respective world, they provide good material for a certain, very broad understanding of the term world. Those authors who search for descriptions of concrete countries (such as Spain in Deborah Gerstenberger’s contribution) or of the many facets that went to make up an understanding of Asia (as in Tobias Winnering’s word field and network analysis, limited to parts of Zedler’s Universal Lexicon) have a somewhat narrower grasp of the term. However, they remain relatively isolated from the descriptions of national-cultural lexicon traditions. This suggests a step that remains to be taken in the future: that is to say, focusing on a comparison of what people in different (European and non-European) countries and world regions actually considered to be the relevant section of the world, together with the proposed descriptions. The book that Ina Ulrike Paul has composed with the support of the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel provides an excellent preparation for this.