U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Encyclopedists of the 1930s: The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences

The other day I was hunting up an encyclopedia entry written by the historian Carl Becker that I hoped would clinch a certain argument in the chapter I am writing. It appeared in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1930-1935), a tremendous, fifteen volume project edited by the economists E. R. A. Seligman and Alvin Johnson. But my curiosity got the better of my expedition and I began paging through the last volume, which contains indices organized both by entry and by contributor. What else did Becker write about, I wondered, and what interesting pairings might I find?

Probably the most notable—the headline—entry was W. E. B. Du Bois’s article on Booker T. Washington, though you have to remember that this is an encyclopedia entry, not an essay for The New Republic—there aren’t fireworks. But browsing through the contributors, I was astonished at how comprehensive the roster was: I’m sure a more systematic assessment would turn up more absences, but there were very few names from the social sciences I could come up with who did not write something for the project,[1] and its reach was both truly international—with especially large numbers of contributions from Germany and Italy, which was notable given the time of publication of these volumes—and relatively indifferent to formal institutional affiliation. Essentially, if you are interested in a social theorist, a public intellectual, or a social scientist who was alive at this time, you are likely to find him or her in this index. The only question, I suppose, is, should you bother? I think so, but I can also understand why the Encyclopedia has not shown up more often as a primary source in US intellectual history monographs.

For one thing, it’s unwieldy: fifteen cumbersome volumes. If your library is like the one I use, they are likely stashed in the reference section—it’s a blessing, actually, that they are not stowed in some off-site storage—so that, even if I were feeling intrepid about carrying one or two of the monsters home in a tote bag, I couldn’t: I have to use them on-site. And those are just practical considerations.

Historiographically, the project falls into an interesting kind of black hole: when it comes to the intellectual history of the social sciences, it seems, there have been two primary foci, with a third emerging more strongly of late. The first is, of course, the formative period of US social science, concentrated on the turn of the century, or, most expansively, the period between the conclusion of the Civil War and the petering out of the Progressive Era in the 1920s. The second is about the careers of European émigré intellectuals in the U.S. during the 1930s through the 1950s.[2] And the third is now the first couple of decades of the Cold War.

From a distance, that seems like a fairly comprehensive chronological coverage, but from closer up, what I think falls out is precisely this moment where US social science had matured into a position of global leadership, had found its footing in the new world of philanthropic foundations, but had also not turned fully away from the progressive energies of its formative years and toward the fight against totalitarianism. It’s a fascinatingly transitional moment, full of confidence and yet also somewhat undirected.

But there is also the awkward question of what kind of interest we might show in encyclopedia entries as primary sources. From personal experience, most of us are apt to treat them as a menial or workman-like kind of intellectual labor, more like a form of service to the profession than a platform for original thought. Like book reviews, we might glean a few facts from them and perhaps draw a very generic picture of the reception or status of a particular work or idea, but we would seldom expect to find the kind of richness and density of ideas that we presume is more properly found in essays or book-length treatments. If encyclopedias interest us, they do so as collaborative or institutional projects: we are interested in how they are put together, not what they contain; in the editing, not the writing.

I don’t know that this is wrong, and I frankly haven’t read enough of the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences to know whether it will repay close reading with any consistency. What the Encyclopedia might be best suited for is some kind of digital humanities project that maps the contributors as a kind of proxy for the Euro-American world of social thought in this moment, something like one of the projects in the Spatial History Project at Stanford.

But it is also true that, for the reasons sketched above and no doubt for other reasons as well, the Encyclopedia simply hasn’t been used, that we really won’t know if it is useful for your work, or mine, until we hunt up the entries pertinent to our projects and figure out whether they are just the dutiful syntheses of unoriginal interpretations which we tend to associate with encyclopedias… or if they are occasionally something else. So more than anything else, I simply want to call attention to the presence of the Encyclopedia, to communicate my interest. I hope you find it useful.

[1] Robert Lynd and Frederick Jackson Turner, two of the subjects of my project, were unfortunately among the missing, as was Walter Lippmann.

[2] Many of the contributors would become émigrés to the U.S., although I’m not precisely sure what their status and location was at the time they wrote their contributions. Some significant contributors, though, never left Europe.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andy, thanks for this. I had similar questions, and had also wondered why the Encyclopedia was not available in a fully digitized form, since it does seems to recognize a moment between Progressive Era and Cold War social sciences. I would say this: I came to it because I was looking for Becker’s entry on “Progress” (perhaps this was the same one you were looking at?). And the reason I was doing that is that almost all the secondary literature of the 1940s through 1960s (in journals like the AHR and in monographs) cited this entry (along with such classics as J.B. Bury’s _The Idea of Progress_ [1920]), as one of the main secondary sources for understanding the history of the idea of progress. I don’t think we’re used to seeing encyclopedia entries cited as authoritative scholarship in scholarly journals (I’m pretty sure that none of the encyclopedia entries I have authored has ever been cited!) so I thought perhaps the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences was not a run of the mill reference work. And when I saw that it was edited by Johnson and Seligman, major figures of the period, I wondered why I had never read anything about it as a comprehensive project in the consolidation of social scientific knowledge. I haven’t done a thorough search, so perhaps someone has written about it, but in thinking about the main works in 20th c. social science historiography, I couldn’t recall any discussion of it. Again, maybe this is just a person lacuna. One thing I discovered is that I had some problems even finding it in WorldCat–all the volumes wouldn’t appear, or it would be indexed under the editors’ names, or there appeared to be very few library holdings. This, too, seemed peculiar. Anyway, thanks for alerting the intellectual history community to this interesting source.

    • Dan,
      It was indeed Becker’s entry on “progress” that I was hunting down, but also his entry on Jefferson. He couldn’t write anything rote or tedious, so I can understand why even his encyclopedia entries continue to be cited!

      I am so relieved to be corroborated by you both in the absence of scholarship on this project and that it seems like there’s more to it than other reference works. As for its erratic cataloguing and lack of a digitized version, I guess that’s due to the fact that it’s still under copyright. I can’t imagine Macmillan’s still making money on it, so maybe this is even something S-USIH could pursue!

  2. There is a 1968 multi-volume work called the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, but I don’t know offhand, because it’s been years since I looked at it, whether it was/is an update of the 1930s encyclopedia or an entirely new thing.

    (p.s. Immanuel Wallerstein on the first page of the first chapter of The Modern World-System vol. 1 cites S.N. Eisenstadt’s entry on “Empires” from the ’68 encyclopedia.)

  3. Question: Who published The Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences? A trade publisher, or an early university press? I ask, of course, as someone who had to explore encyclopedia publishers and publishing for my own work. – TL

  4. Louis and Tim,
    Great questions, and I’m glad Dan and I are not the only ones interested in this little corner of intellectual history!

    Macmillan published both the 1930s Encyclopedia and the 1960s International Encyclopedia. The IESS was a wholly new thing, and the Social Science Quarterly ran a forum on it in 1969, including a piece by Gabriel Almond detailing its differences from the 1930s ESS. (Please email me, anyone, if you have trouble accessing these links.) David L. Sills seems to have been the primary editor of the IESS, and I have to confess I don’t know his work.

  5. Andy Seal’s interesting posting on the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences and the responses it elicited remind me of a parallel publication–the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a ten-volume production from Collier-Macmillan, which appeared in 1967. I began full-time teaching in 1968 and both the Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the 1968 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences were fascinating and invaluable. As far as I know, there wasn’t an earlier Encyclopedia of Philosophy to match the one in the late 1960s, but it has now clearly been superseded by the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which I find extremely useful, among other reasons because it is constantly updating and revising pieces.
    It is interesting to go through the 1967 Encyclopedia of Philosophy and see who wrote (about) what. The two Richards–Rorty and Bernstein–contributed with Rorty writing on “Intuition” and “Relations, Internal and External” and Bernstein profiling John Dewey. But Amelie Rorty was not among the contributors. Strangely, the recently deceased Hillary Putnam was not a contributor either, but Charles Taylor contributed a piece on “Psychological Behaviorism”. Finally, there is Richard W.Fox and James T. Kloppenberg’s A Companion to American Thought , which Blackwell published in 1995, making it just over two decades old. It should be fascinating to read through this invaluable one volume work and see how things have or have not moved on.
    Several unrelated issues come to mind: has Wikipedia pretty much taken over our “encyclopedic” needs? Second, is there a literary and/or cultural counterpart among encyclopedias? Third, some comparative work seems called for. As Andy and others imply, this would give us a better ideas of how disciplinary paradigms “slip and slide” around, including doubtlessly US intellectual history.

    • I too was going to bring up the Encyclopedia of Philosophy (reprinted in four volumes in 1972), which is very good (I consulted it often as both an undergrad and grad student) and is indeed now superseded by the SEP, as well as the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), although I still read its entries! Paul Edwards was the general editor and there was well over 100 members of the editorial board, including many of the best philosophers of the last century (alas, too few women). At least in one respect this reference work was far ahead of its time, including a fair number of entries in Islamic philosophy as well as both Chinese and Indian philosophy: most of the latter written by my later teacher and friend, Ninian Smart. I find it interesting that Ninian penned more entries than his better known (at least in the circles of professional philosophy) and older brother, J.J.C. (‘Jack’) Smart (appropriately enough, author of the entry on mind/brain identity for the SEP), whose respective worldviews could hardly be more different! Again with Richard, I enjoy learning “who” wrote “what.”

  6. On the question raised by richard king about Wikipedia, I’d say it doesn’t replace more carefully edited and more consistent encyclopedias — the quality of the entries is uneven (some fine, some not so good) and ditto for the quality of the writing. It’s quite different, I think, from a work in which scholars write about a particular subject within their expertise. Anyone can come along and, within certain limits, do anything to a Wikipedia entry — that can be both an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on the circumstances.

    There are a lot of published encyclopedias out there now, so I’m sure one can find them in virtually all the social-science and humanities fields, and probably some of the natural sciences also. (That doesn’t mean, of course, that they are all of the same quality.)

    • p.s. One example (of many possible examples, I’m sure): some years ago the Int’l Studies Assn. launched a multi-vol. encyclopedia, dubbed the ‘compendium’ project, covering the field or fields falling under the int’l studies rubric — it was finished, and exists in both online and print versions. (How much it’s actually been used I don’t know, but that’s a separate issue.)

  7. One small anecdote about the Encyclopedia’s importance: Simon Kuznets wrote an entry for the Encyclopedia on National Income. Writing the essay positioned him as the authority on the subject and is usually pointed to as the reason that the Commerce a Department asked him to lead the team working on the first official US estimates.

Comments are closed.