This paper represents an exploration of the contents and contexts of the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, the famed scholars' edition, edited by Thomas Baynes and William Robertson Smith between 1875-89.Significant statements of contemporary science and thought were contributed to the edition by writers either already established or subsequently to become leading figures in a wide array of disciplines: James Clerk Maxwell wrote on ether, Lord Kelvin on elasticity and heat; Swinburne contributed an article on Keats while the psychologist James Sully wrote articles on aesthetics and dream; George Saintsbury wrote on Corneille. James Fraser's article on ‘Taboo or Tabu’ formed the basis for his life's work The Golden Bough. In clear ways Baynes' and Robertson's mammoth text represents an intellectual clearing house for ideas and arguments within and between emerging disciplines in the sciences, physical and human, and in history and the arts. Sully's article on ‘aesthetics’ stands as a key statement for instance on the relation of criticism and artistic Aestheticism to contemporary psychological thought on states of mind and consciousness.
From the Enlightenment on the idea of the encyclopædia has been a powerful force in the creation and organisation of knowledge (Richard Yeo calls encyclopædias ‘arguably the most striking publishing enterprise of Western culture’). Diderot's preface to the Encyclopédie (1751) immediately identifies the encyclopaædic will both to a global reach and to setting all knowledge within a convincing, coherent map or network of relations; the tree of knowledge frontispiece to the Encyclopédie symbolises this organic whole. This ideal of the encyclopædic, always problematic, falters in the nineteenth century as distinct disciplinary identities emerge across the physical sciences and the humanities.
Drawing on recent work on the creation and consolidation of disciplines I will argue that this last scholarly edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica represents a privileged lens through which to examine struggles over the limits and definitions of kinds of knowledge at the end of the nineteenth century.