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Denis Diderot - Biography

Denis Diderot (October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784) was a French philosopher, art critic and writer. Born at Langres and was schooled by Jesuits. He attended the University of Paris and was awarded a masters of art degree. An avid reader of classics like Horace and Homer, Diderot's insatiable appetite for reading and literature also extended to women, thereby disappointing his father who had hoped he would continue on into medicine or law. Instead, Diderot lived the life of a bohemian, bouncing from tutorships, freelance writing gigs also working at one time for Clement de Ris a prominent attorney and as a bookseller's hack. By 1743 he married Anne Toinette Champion although the relationship did not prosper and Diderot found a new love, Madeleine de Puisieux a fellow writer. It was in the 1740s that he also became a translator of English books which began to gain him some notoriety.

Diderot is most recognized as the force behind the Encyclopédie, the foremost encyclopedia to be published in France at the eve of the French Revolution, but he also published a other works, comedies and bawdy tales as well as to assist his friend Friedrich Grimm in his collection of tales. Before the monumental task of putting together the Encyclopédie, Diderot became known for Essai sur la merite et la virtu (1745) and then the publication of Pensees philosophique (1746), a work that both atheism and Christianity alike but was still burned by the Parisian parliament. He also gained interest for his support of John Locke's theory of knowledge in his Lettres sur les aveugles (1749) where he attacked conventional morality and as a result was imprisoned at Vincennes for three months. His network of friends included Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Claude Adrien Helvétius, Abbé Raynal, Lawrence Sterne, Jean-François Marmontel, and Michel-Jean Sedaine.

In 1747, the project of what would become the massive Encyclopédie was initially offered up to Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert (a mathematician who eventually dropped out of the project) as a chance to co-edit the French translation of Chamber's Cyclopedia, or Universal Dictionary of the Arts and Science, but they were disenchanted with the material in the tome and preferred to set out to compile their own encyclopedia. The Encyclopédie was finally published in 1750s but the first edition of Encyclopédie was greatly amended by the editor, Andre Le Breton, (to Diderot's dismay) due to concerns about its content and the second full edition. This massive set of volumes at the time of publication were sold by subscription to not only wealthy individuals but they were also bought by small private libraries that gave access to the public, perhaps for a small fee. The impact of the Encyclopédie was widespread in France and Europe at large for by 1789 more than 25,000 copies had been distributed. There was talk about a distribution center in the United States through Benjamin Franklin, but there is no evidence that this came through.

What Diderot accomplished was to create one of the most important books of the Eighteenth Century. For Diderot along with his contributors, the common purpose of which was "to further knowledge and, by so doing, strike a resounding blow against reactionary forces in church and state." How Diderot imagined this happening was by providing educational materials on technologies for what Proust broke down into three goals: "(a) to reach a large public; (b) to encourage research at all stages of production; and (c) to publish all the secrets of manufacturing." By researching trades and breaking down their application and uses, the makers of the Encyclopédie hoped to propel liberal economic views rather than mercantilist system that had been in place protecting guilds and craftsmen. We can see the effects of the philosophy that drove the work, one of rationalism and "faith in progress of the human mind" at play in the French Revolution, hence the towering importance of this tome.

What this comes down to in the Encyclopédie itself is intellectual work, that of curating and explaining the different jobs, crafts, or otherwise known to the writers as mechanical arts. While this was not the sole concern for entries for such inquires as natural sciences were included, the largest proportion of the 2,900 plates were dedicated to technology. D'Alembert writes in the "Preliminary Discourse of the Encyclopedia" that "The discovery of the compass is no less advantageous to the human race than the explanation of the properties of the compass needle is to physics." This is first noticeable in the book by the fold out page that lays out the structure of the Encyclopédie. Following Bacon's lead, Diderot broke down human faculties by memory, reason and imagination, corresponding them to history, philosophy and poetry. In his Aristotelian diagram, a reader can see that the most worked out of these is reason and the mechanical arts and while history and poetry are present, the focus of the Encyclopédie was to explicate varying technologies as to make them understood by anyone. Also concerning the breakdown of knowledge in this diagram, it is important to note that while this organization of information was paid a great deal of attention, the articles in the Encyclopédie were still laid out alphabetically for ease of use; their category of knowledge would then be shown next to its heading.

The most important way in which Diderot was able to make clear the workings of technologies within a craft or mechanical art was by supplementing the text with engravings of the tools used. It is from these engravings that we can see the beginnings of modern technological and mechanical instruction. For example, the section on agriculture represents not only a pastoral scene of hills and people in the fields, but also shows a catalog of the machinery used to do the work. The implements are not illustrated in use, but lined up categorically. Many of the plates that show technology represent the elements of each in a similar fashion although those that show the details of a craft usually show an overview of a shop in lieu of the workers in the fields. This type of explication of craft was received by some with fear that with secrets unveiled, people would lose their jobs, but Diderot writes in his Prospectus that "It is handicraft which makes the artist, and it is not in Books that one can learn to manipulate." This was part of the reason that Diderot had such problems with Chamber's Encyclopedia, for he thought Chambers was too stuck in books and hence Diderot's emphasis that his contributors visit the shops and study particular mechanical arts in depth before writing about them.

The material chosen to include in the Encyclopédie and the engravings that accompany them is enough to prove it to be a groundbreaking work, but there is another element that is of particular interest to contemporary scholars. This element is the renvois which in old French means to send back. Today we are most familiar with this concept as labeled "hyperlink" and it has its basis in the Encyclopédie. For instance, in the article "Agriculture" there is a place when the reader is directed to an article on leaves to learn more about pruning." In a 2009 article concerning this fact, Michael Zimmer argues that this is not any different than so-called new media, the Internet and its applications based on hypertext and hyperlink for these connections "[allow] readers to relinquish their position as passive receivers of preorganized information, to subvert traditional knowledge structures and hierarchies, and to become active and integral participants in the production of knowledge." So while the Encyclopédie attempted to structure thought into memory, imagination and reason which was revolutionary in itself in that it explicated previously privileged information, it was also laying the groundwork for the revolutions in thought that we undergo today.

At the time, however, Diderot was not able to make much of a living off of the Encyclopédie and long-time friend, Grimm appealed to Catherine of Russia who bought his library in 1765 as well as to provide him with a salary and use of the library as long as he lived. He continued to be a source of inspiration for the French revolution as Saint-Beuve remarked, "the first great writer who belonged wholly and undividedly to modern democratic society." He died of emphysema in Paris in 1784.



Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic and writer (October 5, 1713 – July 31, 1784)