Denis Diderot and the Encyclopedia

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  • 0:02 Diderot & the Encyclopedia
  • 0:35 Diderot & the Enlightenment
  • 2:13 The Encyclopedia
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the life of the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot and the project that eventually consumed over 30 years of his life, the Encyclopedia.

Diderot and the Encyclopedia

'Everything' is a lot of stuff. If I told you I wanted to know 'everything,' you'd probably think I was crazy or a know-it-all on a power trip. After all, there are so many things - insects, ice cream, cars - to try to know everything is a ridiculous endeavor that could never be accomplished. While you or I likely won't embark on such a hare-brained plan any time soon, that did not stop a certain Frenchman in the 18th century whose determination to document the Western world's collective knowledge gave us the precursor to the modern encyclopedia.

Diderot & the Enlightenment

This man was Denis Diderot. Born in 1713 in Langres, France, Diderot received his education from local Jesuits before enrolling in the University of Paris. There, Diderot received a Master of Arts degree and then chose to eschew his father's wishes that he continue his study in either medicine or law. Instead, he chose the rather hard life of an 18th-century writer, wandering from writing job to writing job, sprinkling in tutoring early students and selling books along the way.

In the 1740s, Diderot began producing his own philosophical tracts, often publishing anonymously. His first, for instance, Pensées Philosophiques, was published without an author in 1746. In it, Diderot critiqued Christianity and competing ideologies of the Enlightenment, like deism. The work was considered too controversial and was subsequently burned by the French government. Diderot also dabbled in other forms of writing, once writing a novel for his lover to back up his boast to her that writing a novel was easy.

Diderot's eclectic writing tastes are representative of his period. Diderot is perhaps the best example of the typical philosopher of the Enlightenment period. The Enlightenment flourished in France and elsewhere in Europe from roughly the last decades of the 17th century until the French Revolution at the end of the 18th. Enlightenment thinkers, like Diderot, espoused reason and logic above all else. They questioned accepted truths, such as the teachings of Christianity, and instead built belief systems based on empiricism and logical reasoning.

The Encyclopedia

These new beliefs and the new learning of the Enlightenment encouraged Diderot to attempt to do the unthinkable. In 1747, Diderot and a colleague, Jean le Rond d'Alembert, were tasked with translating an English text by Ephraim Chambers that had attempted to compile a list of the arts and sciences. Shortly after beginning, Diderot and d'Alembert became deeply unsatisfied with Chambers' attempt, and they resolved to scrap the project and instead compile their own work detailing the arts, sciences, and early industry. The enormous project eventually attempted to document all human knowledge in general.

Indeed, Diderot intended the project, which he titled the Encyclopedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, as a compilation of knowledge for its own sake, stating it was meant 'to further knowledge, and, by so doing, strike a resounding blow against reactionary forces in church and state.' The Encyclopedia not only attempted to gather as much knowledge about the world as possible, but also tried to organize knowledge into working groups that corresponded to human abilities.

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