Big Data and the Search for Balanced Insight in the Digital Humanities: Macroscopic and Microscopic Reading of Citation Strategies in the Encyclopédie of Diderot (and Jaucourt), 1751-1772


  • Scott Richard St. Louis Grand Valley State University



Consisting of seventeen folio volumes and eleven volumes of engraved illustrations - over seventy-four thousand articles and twenty-one million words - the Encyclopédie (1751-1772) remains a monumental contribution to Western literature for its promotion of free inquiry into all areas of knowledge and human endeavor. At least one hundred and forty contributors produced this massive corpus, but (perhaps due in part to the pressures under which they worked) passages borrowed from other texts are occasionally included in Encyclopédie articles without attribution to their true authors or even acknowledment as quotation. This is a major shortcoming for which the Encyclopédie has been criticized since its very inception. Even so, its accessible framing of philosophical and political ideas with lasting importance make the Encyclopédie a work of enduring interest for cultural historians and literary scholars, some of whom are now utilizing digital technology to develop new insights on the colossal text.

This paper builds upon the groundbreaking work of scholars Dan Edelstein, Robert Morrissey, and Glenn Roe in the burgeoning field of the digital humanities. By utilizing the search capabilities offered with a digitized version of Diderot's Encyclopédie, I find that the "macroscopic" methodology of Edelstein et al. must be tempered by ongoing "microscopic" analysis of digitzed source material. The use of sequence alignment programs and massive online databases can yield important new insights in literary studies, but these findings must be balanced by "close" reading of documents relevant to the research question(s) at hand.






Short Critical Essays