That word “modern”, of course, always raises problems. As soon as you label a book as “modern” it appears outdated very quickly. So the Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, first published 1977, now looks very dated. Nonetheless, a title that survived three editions (1977, 1988 and 1999) and many reprints (11 reprints for the second edition) was clearly wildly successful. Is the format useful, and is it still valid?
In short, the answer is first, the format is amazingly useful, but it could have been better – and could still be useful today, as an online resource or even as a book. The problem with the book is not just that it is out of date; it is misconceived.
Here is an example of using it in practice. I was reading a review of the drift to dictatorship and totalitarianism in Eastern Europe over the past 20 years or so, with such leaders as Viktor Orban and Recep Erdogan. The review considered what political thinkers have made of the origins of totalitarianism, and mentions Hannah Arendt, Carl Friedrich, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Barrington Moore. What I would like in a dictionary of modern thought would be a couple of lines outlining their major work and what they are known for. The review itself states “Hannah Arendt found the origins of totalitarianism in the mass politics and propaganda machinery of the modern state”, which would be fine in the FDMT as a summary. Yet the FDMT’s entry on totalitarianism does not mention any of them. It describes totalitarianism as “a theoretical view” of Nazism, fascism and Soviet communism (pretty much any “ism” is a theoretical view, and cryptically describes totalitarianism as “owing much to organic theories of the state” (which has its own article, although not shown as a cross-reference). The FDMT article is poor and not very intelligible to those who do not know the subject; nor does it list the major thinkers.
How does this compare with Wikipedia? The article for Hannah Arendt has some good summaries of individual books and describes how Arendt “argues that totalitarianism was a “novel form of government,” different from other forms of tyranny in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries”. In addition, Wikipedia has a section for major thinkers called “notable ideas” (although this idea about totalitarianism is not one of them).
One feature of the Internet is, of course, the top-ten list. You can find the top ten of anything on the Internet somewhere, and I had no difficulty finding lists of the top ten books about totalitarianism (there is an example of 100 books here) – listing such authors as Arendt, Margaret Atwood, Hayek, Karl Popper, and other familiar names not mentioned in FDMT.
Of course, it’s unfair to compare just one article. The FDMT article on “authoritarianism” is a model of concision, mentioning Plato’s Republic, Burke’s defence of tradition against the French Revolution, Lenin and Hitler – pretty good for an entry comprising only around 100 words. This article does not have the fault of many other dictionary-style definitions, which leave the reader none the wiser. Here is an example:
Autopoiesis: in cybernetics, a … special case of homoeostasis in which the critical variable of the system that is held constant is that system’s own organization.
That’s all they tell us. The result, for me, is complete incomprehension.
So, in summary the FMDT was a noble attempt, but sadly lacking in execution. And to have included more references to classic titles might have made it an indispensable guide to the critical landscape even today.