Reference works are way cooler than we’d generally assume.
Reference works give us details about history and biography and context and internal coherence that can be challenging to find otherwise. It’s the sorts of details we’re supposed to get when taking a college class on a subject.
In my experience, reading through a single good encyclopedia article once or twice will easily impart as much knowledge as I would take away from even a very good college class (and considerably more than I would get from a poor class). And it’s so much cheaper, and easier to access!
Let’s keep in mind, furthermore, that even if a person is reading for only a few minutes a day, it’s hard not to get through an encyclopedia article within a couple weeks. If I’m right about how much knowledge we gain from each article relative to a college class, think how much knowledge could accumulate after just a couple years of reading like this.
(Of course, there can be other benefits to learning in the classroom that aren’t found in an encyclopedia, such as getting experience writing, reading primary sources, and receiving feedback on one’s work. I don’t mean to downplay those factors.)
Speaking of primary sources, what about the Great Books approach to education? Why rely on all these lesser intellectuals to summarize when it is possible to get into the original texts in full and in detail?
I love the Great Books approach. It’s what I was recommended at the time when I first became truly interested in philosophy. I spent the first several years of my philosophical journey reading complete books by the great minds of philosophical history, and I’m glad I did so, since the experience taught me a lot about how to think and about what is worth thinking about.
So I believe that primary texts really are a good place to start, and I recommend always continuing to keep a habit of reading them. But I think that supplementing with reference works can add to the process of self-instruction immeasurably, in a way that even monographs and journal articles cannot.
The goal of a reference work is to summarize fairly, where the goal of a monograph or journal article is rather to say something novel. This means that looking at even a considerable number of books and articles making good arguments is liable to leave the reader with less of a grasp of the overall topic than a person will have who’s read just one or two encyclopedia articles on the subject. Argumentative works still certainly have their place, but they cannot fully replace reference works, as I once assumed they might.
Someone who embraces a Great Books approach, furthermore, is at least early on under the sway of a lesser intellect, but in a less obvious way: it is not a great philosopher who told us which books are worth reading first, but a scholar or educator who applied some principle of selection which must inevitably ignore many great works from the history of philosophy in favour of those judged to be the greatest. That may sound like a small point, but as someone who began in that way, I know just how challenging this can make things. While reading Hegel, for instance, there are many other important aspects of Hegel’s intellectual and political context which cannot be learned, or can hardly be learned, by a strict focus on primary texts, making it difficult to understand much about what he is replying to or whom he is trying to convince.
Reference works support primary source reading in a wonderful way. After years of drowning in the great books, learning so much and yet also having difficulty seeing how each thought fits into the conversations of the day, or how the words used in one author are being used differently in another, finally reference works allowed me to get some perspective. I don’t think reference works can replace great books, but I also don’t think great books should entirely displace reference works in our quest for knowledge.
As I said, the person who’s writing an encyclopedia article is striving to write something that will capture the main relevant lines of scholarly discussion on the subject, to summarize those ideas and their detractors clearly and somewhat impartially, and to provide the beginner with a solid grasp of the broad outlines of the topic. The writers have motivation to do a good job; if they succeed at these goals consistently then over time there will be praise and celebration and respect and ultimately advancement, and if they fail there will be derision and public shame. Those are some powerful motivators working to produce this sort of writing at a high level of excellence.
Since writings like this already exist out there, just waiting to be read, how foolish are we to pass them over without consideration?
PS: I am compelled to note that something like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is obviously immeasurably superior to something like Wikipedia. Only read the best.