Introduction: Encyclopedias and what they are missing
“The aim of an encyclopedia is to assemble knowledge scattered across the earth, to reveal its overall structure to our contemporaries and to pass it on to those who will come after us; so that the achievements of past ages do not become worthless for the centuries to come, so that our descendants, in becoming better informed, may at the same time become more virtuous and content, and so that we do not leave this earth without having earned the respect of the human race.”1
That was the lofty aim of the 18th century Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, edited by Diderot and d’Alembert, a work called “the most influential publication of the Enlightenment”2. In contemporary times, Wikipedia has emerged as a new kind of encyclopedia, freely editable and accessible to all. The encyclopedia of Diderot and d’Alembert had 71,818 articles all in a single language, French, written by less than a hundred contributors3. In contrast, Wikipedia currently has an astonishing 38 million articles in 290 languages and 70,000 active contributors4.
Despite the obvious differences between the two, the final output of both is relatively static. Sure, Wikipedia offers users the ability to edit the content and interact with a community of contributors. However, the output of that process is nothing more than a webpage with text, video and audio. The result is information you can change — but can’t reason with.
The Abilities and Limitations of Human Teachers
The ability to engage in rational argument is a key advantage human teachers have over encyclopedias. On the other hand, encyclopedias like Wikipedia can accommodate 374 million unique visitors per month5 whereas a human teacher would find it hard to reason with more than one student at the same time — to reason with millions of unique students simultaneously is simply beyond human limitations.
However, it becomes obvious to anyone who teaches anything, that the rational arguments they use with every new student in the course of teaching a certain material are not unique to each new student but tend to recur. Thus, a human teacher wouldn’t need 374 million unique arguments for 374 million unique students but would definitely need to repeat a number of arguments countless times, which, in addition to being practically impossible, can get rather boring.
What if there was a way to overcome human limitations and offer a more interactive alternative to current encyclopedias?
“Dialectic (διαλεκτική) is a form of reasoning based upon dialogue of arguments and counter-arguments, advocating propositions (theses) and counter-propositions (antitheses). The outcome of such a dialectic might be the refutation of a relevant proposition, or of a synthesis, or a combination of the opposing assertions, or a qualitative improvement of the dialogue.”6
I coined the term autodialectics to refer to any attempt to automate dialectical reasoning thereby overcoming some of the issues and limitations already mentioned.
The attempt I propose, Socrates, involves creating a system with a simple and intuitive interface that provides anyone the ability to convey arguments once and for all, surpassing human limitations, and allowing for the endless scaling of interactive argumentation on any topic which can eventually lead to a dialectical encyclopedia that would enable everyone to reason and stay in touch with the accumulating knowledge of mankind.
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- D. Diderot, “Encyclopédie” from Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, 1751-66, as found in translation in Denis Diderot: Political writings, p.21, ed. by J.H. Mason and R. Wokler, Cambridge University Press, 1992
- From the Wikipedia entry on the Enlightenment
- See Wikipedia article on the Encyclopédie and the Encyclopédistes
- From the Wikipedia About page
- From the Wikipedia About page
- From the Wikipedia article on Dialectic