Diderot, Deni (1713–1784)

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DIDEROT, DENI (17131784)

DIDEROT, DENIS (17131784), philosophe and encyclopedist. Denis Diderot was born in Langres on 5 October 1713, the son of Didier Diderot, a master cutler. Although Diderot's fate will forever be linked to his role as general editor with Jean Le Rond d'Alembert of the Encyclopédie (17511772), he was perhaps the French Enlightenment's most profound thinker and most innovative writer, making remarkable contributions in the domains of philosophy, art criticism, theater, the essay, and prose fiction. Some of Diderot's greatest works, however, were not published until as late as 1830; he is simultaneously one of the most brilliant and (in his time) one of the most overlooked writers of the eighteenth century.

Educated by the Jesuits first in Langres, then in Paris at the Collège d'Harcourt or the Collège Louis-le-Grand (or both; biographers are uncertain), Diderot showed great intellectual talent from an early age. Following his studies, he was encouraged by his father to pursue a career in law, but Diderot, whose heart was devoted to humanistic study, was unwilling to commit himself to mercenary aims. His father refused to support him in undertaking a life without financial security, and the young Diderot had no choice but to subsist by his own lights, independent but poor.

Diderot frequented cafés such as the fabled Procope and the CafédelaRégence, making the acquaintance of the day's Parisian luminaries. He surreptitiously married Antoinette Champion in 1743; the only surviving child of that unhappy marriage, Angélique, would later write Diderot's memoirs. In 1746 he published his first major work, the Philosophical Thoughts, in which he embraced theological skepticism; the later Addition to the Philosophical Thoughts (1762) is a far more vehement critique of the church and of Christian dogma.

It was also in 1746 that Diderot was commissioned, with d'Alembert, to edit a translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728). This initial project developed over the years into the Encyclopédie, the Enlightenment's most audacious attempt not only at mapping but at restructuring human knowledge in a secular and often rabidly anticlerical schema. It was part polemic and part a summa of existing knowledge, drawing on Baconian organization. Perhaps because of Diderot's artisanal and provincial family background, the Encyclopédie paid special attention to the mechanical as well as the liberal arts, to agriculture as much as philosophy, and to the rapidly expanding bourgeois economy as much as theology and mathematics. The fourteen years it took to produce the seventeen volumes of text, and the further seven to produce eleven volumes of plates (other editors added additional volumes of text, plates, and an index, so that by 1780 the Encyclopédie stood at thirty-five volumes), saw d'Alembert's abandonment of the project in 1758, condemnations and revocations of the work's royal privilege, and countless hours of Diderot's labor. In the end it was to become the Enlightenment's single greatest monument, in spite of heavy-handed censorship, which was circumvented in part by an elaborate system of subversive cross-references.

In 1749 Diderot was imprisoned for three months at Vincennes, primarily for his Letter on the Blind. In 1755 he met Sophie Volland, who became the love of his life and with whom he maintained a brilliant correspondence; indeed, some of Diderot's finest sentences are to be found in his letters to her. She remained his lover and intellectual interlocutor until her death in February 1784, five months before Diderot's on 21 July.

Much of Diderot's work appeared only posthumously. His writings that were known to his contemporaries were generally undervalued, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, despite a bitter break with his friend in 1757, later wrote that Diderot's genius would only be understood in centuries to come. Diderot's contributions to philosophy and literature are many. In the theory and practice of the theater, he rejected the rigidity of classical forms, proposing instead le drame bourgeois (bourgeois drama), a form of theater abandoning both the aristocratic values and the Aristotelian formality of the previous century. His play The Natural Son (1757), and the analytical texts Commentaries on the Natural Son (1757), the Discourse on Dramatic Poetry (1758), and the Paradox on the Actor (published 1830), articulated his new vision of the theater, which was to have a profound impact on the Romantics of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Diderot is also widely hailed as the first modern art critic, with his Salons (17591781), written for Friedrich Melchior von Grimm's Literary Correspondence (17531790), his 1766 Essays on Painting, and his 17761781 Detached Thoughts on Painting. In his fiction Diderot experimented with dialogic and conversational forms (most remarkably in Rameau's Nephew, published in 1821, retranslated from German), and with narrative style in Jacques the Fatalist and His Master (published 1796), which was heavily influenced by Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy (17591767). Diderot's philosophy finds its richest and most mature expression in D'Alembert's Dream (written 1769, published 1830), in which he proposed a biological "continuism," arguing for the connection between all forms of matter, prefiguring, but also more radical than, Darwinism and modern genetics. The scientific experimentalism of his Letter on the Blind, considered the first scientific treatise on blindness, and Letter on the Deaf and Dumb (1751), supports a materialism far bolder than that suggested in the Philosophical Thoughts, resulting in a worldview marked not only by the deep unity of matter but in which there seems little place for God or Christian morality. Materialism therefore naturally posed moral questions: In a society in which Christian dogma may well be obsolete, how is one to account for ethical behavior? Diderot concluded that one is simply "well or ill born": morality is also a function of matter. In the Supplement to Bougainville's Voyage (1796), he showed the arbitrariness of Western sexual mores, pointing to the factitious quality of any morality not deriving from the natural system, and adumbrating the more radical materialism and rejection of conventional morality of Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade (17401814). Considering the inventive audacity of his works, it is understandable that Diderot preferred to keep many of them relatively private until after his death.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; French Literature and Language ; Philosophes .


Primary Sources

Diderot, Denis. Correspondance. Edited by Georges Roth. 16 vols. Paris, 1955.

. Diderot on Art. Edited and translated by John Goodman. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1995.

. Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers. Edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. Repr. 5 vols. Paris, 1969.

. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master. Translated by Michael Henry. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York, 1986.

. Oeuvres. Edited by Laurent Versini. 5 vols. Paris, 19941997.

. The Paradox of Acting. Translated by Walter Herries Pollock. New York, 1957.

. Political Writings. Edited and translated by John Hope Mason and Robert Wokler. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

. Rameau's Nephew, and D'Alembert's Dream. Translated by L. W. Tancock. Harmondsworth, U.K., and New York, 1966.

Secondary Sources

Anderson, Wilda. Diderot's Dream. Baltimore, 1990.

Darnton, Robert. "Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge: The Epistemological Strategy of the Ency-clopédie." In his The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York, 1985.

Fellows, Otis. Diderot. Rev. ed. Boston, 1989.

Furbank, P. N. Diderot: A Critical Biography. London, 1992.

Rex, Walter E. Diderot's Counterpoints: The Dynamics of Contrariety in His Major Works. Oxford, 1998.

Patrick Riley, Jr.