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Conjectural history vs. the Bible: eighteenth-century Scottish historians and the idea of history in the Encyclopaedia Britannica

Silvia Sebastiani

1. The third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as is well known, embodied a reaction to the French Revolution, seeing, as the Supplement did in 1801, the French Encyclopédie as the philosophical precursor of the massacres of the Terror. The critique of the French famous predecessor had already been clearly stated since 1771, when William Smellie in the "Preface" to the first edition criticized it for "the folly of attempting to communicate science under the various technical terms arranged in an alphabetical order" (1). Such an attempt was, to his mind, "repugnant to the very idea of science"(2). George Gleig, the editor of the third edition, claimed that the Encyclopaedia Britannica adopted a different method, which explained its success. It was, according to him, "a dictionary, in which the several arts and sciences are digested into distinct treatises or systems, whilst the various detached parts of knowledge are explained in the order of the alphabet" (3). The text compared classical knowledge with the lively contemporaneous debate and created an animated discussion in its pages, where "arguments and objections have been displayed in their full force" (4).

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