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PHILOSOPHES. Literary writers, scientists, economists, and political theorists, the philosophes of eighteenth-century France explored topics and issues that ranged across a broad spectrum of thought. Yet they shared the assumption that all beliefs and ideas had to be submitted to the test of rational examination, including those that were the most established and institutionally sanctioned. Their faith in human reason was unshakable, and they were confident that the scientific method could produce an accurate and useful understanding of the world and the individual's place within it. Committed to improving the secular order, the philosophes proposed social, ethical, and legal reforms to bring about greater happiness for the greater number. The more cautious, restrained tone of writers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu, who dominated the philosophe movement during the first part of the eighteenth century, gave way to more extensive and strident criticism. During the French Revolution of 1789, the more radical philosophes were viewed as having brought about the revolutionary upheaval. The philosophes were not radical revolutionaries, however, but, for the most part, liberal reformers who were committed to critical inquiry to promote a rational, progressive, and emancipatory reworking of the intellectual, social, and political order. As such they represent prototypical figures of the modern-day public intellectual.


In 1759 Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783), mathematician and coeditor of the Encyclopédie, whose first volume appeared in 1751, called his age "the century of philosophy." French writers had often before staked a claim for the modernity of their cultural moment and its break with past modes of thought, values, and forms of expression. In the seventeenth century, "ancients" debated fiercely with "moderns" over literary values. The eighteenth-century philosophes saw their own break with the past in an unstoppable spread of "philosophy," by which they meant not a limited discipline but a more general mode of understanding, a new manner of organizing, producing, and using knowledge.

The philosophes drew the impetus for this new relationship to knowledge from the work of René Descartes (15961650). In Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on method) and Meditationes de Prima Philosophiae (1641; Meditations on first philosophy), Descartes proposed that radical doubt must winnow out received ideas and opinions, freeing thought from traditional intellectual authority, before true knowledge can be attained. Pierre Bayle (16471706) pursued this strategy in Penseés diverses sur la comète (1683; Miscellaneous reflections occasioned by the comet), affirming that human beings are not at the center of the universe and are incidental to any divine plan. Exemplifying a corrosive skepticism, Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697; Historical and critical dictionary) employed a subversive technique of anecdote, quotation, and commentary to undermine orthodox Christian beliefs. This technique was later adopted in many of the articles of the Encyclopédie and in Voltaire's Dictionnaire philosophique (1764; A philosophical dictionary).

The philosophes embraced Descartes's liberating skepticism, yet they rejected the idealist, metaphysical tendency of Cartesianism. They favored a more empirical and analytical approach, based on experimental investigation rather than on abstract speculation. Many of the philosophes had serious scientific interests or even substantial scientific training. Extending the implications of the scientific method of inquiry to aesthetics, social and political theory, and ethics, they helped solidify the cultural ascendancy of science in the eighteenth century. The influence of seventeenth-century English empiricism on the philosophes was considerable. Francis Bacon's (15611626) Novum organum (1620; New instrument) and Isaac Newton's (16421727) Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687; The mathematical principles of natural philosophy) were viewed as groundbreaking works in the advancement of a more experimental science, and John Locke's (16321704) Essay concerning Human Understanding (1690) helped shift theories of knowledge away from Cartesian idealism towards a sensationalist epistemology, which was more experiential, empirical, and ultimately materialist. Voltaire helped popularize Locke's ideas in France, as did Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (17151780), author of Essai sur l'origine des connaissances humaines (1746; An essay on the origin of human knowledge). Julien Offray de La Mettrie (17091751) developed sensationalism into a more radical and atheistic materialism in L'homme-machine (1747; Man, a machine). Claude-Adrien Helvétius (17151771) attacked the religious foundation of ethics and promoted a hedonistic sensationalism. Paul Thiry, baron d'Holbach (17231789), hosted a coterie of similarly radical thinkers. His Système de la nature (1770; The system of nature) and his Système social (1773; The system of society) argued that religion was harmful and untrue, that self-interest was the highest utilitarian duty, and that individuals were machines devoid of free will. Toward the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, the influence of the philosophes would be felt in the economic and social reforms of the Physiocrats and the ideologues.


Author of many popular tragedies, epic poems, and histories, Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet; 16941778) was a tireless defender of human rights. Briefly imprisoned then forced into exile to England early in his career for expressing liberal opinions, upon his return Voltaire wrote Lettres philosophiques (1734; Philosophical letters), in which praise for English religious tolerance, science, and free commerce served as a critique of contemporary France. Voltaire's histories of Charles XII and Louis XIV helped found modern historiography. Employing biting wit and a masterful style, Voltaire wrote numerous satirical tales, such as Candide (1759) and Micromégas (1752), that treated moral and philosophical issues.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu (16891755), was a nobleman and member of the parlement of Bordeaux. His Lettres persanes (1721; Persian letters) painted a satirical portrait of French society, and his L'esprit des lois (1748; The spirit of the laws) established his importance as a political philosopher. He viewed societies as organic structures, shaped and governed by a complex set of factors whose workings could be comprehended through examination and rational investigation. Opposed to the injustices of despotism and slavery, Montesquieu's thought influenced the conception of the Declaration of the Rights of Man, written during the French Revolution, as well as the Constitution of the United States.

Denis Diderot (17131784) was the chief editor of the Encyclopédie (17511772), perhaps the most significant work of the French Enlightenment. Promoting useful and productive knowledge, and advancing the philosophes' battle against entrenched powers in church and state, the Encyclopédie project was a catalyst for a cohort of reformist writers. Diderot wrote numerous novels, dialogues, and tales. Proponent of a materialist, atheist philosophy, his Le rêve de d'Alembert (1769; D'Alembert's dream) anticipates nineteenth-century evolutionary theory. His innovative dramatic reforms, including the new genre of the drame bourgeois, promoted ways to heighten theater's moral and social impact. Diderot has been hailed as the first modern art critic for his commentary on Parisian art exhibitions. His dialogue Le neveu de Rameau (pub. 1821; Rameau's nephew) presents a cutting satire of contemporary society.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) was an outspoken critic of the moral excesses of refined civilization. In Discours sur les sciences et les arts (1750; Discourse on the sciences and the arts), he argued that the arts have no beneficial effect on civilization, and in Discours sur l'origine et les fondements de l'inégalité parmi les hommes (1755; Discourse on the origin and bases of inequality among men) he maintained that increasingly complex social organization tends to promote increased inequality. Rousseau enjoyed considerable popularity through his opera and ballet, the novel Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse (1791; Julie, or the new Eloise), and his autobiographical Confessions (published in 1782 after his death). He wrote on pedagogical reforms in Émile, ou de l'éducation (1762; Emile, or on education), and on sociopolitical theory in Le contrat social (1762; The social contract), which greatly influenced political thinking during the French Revolution.

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet (17431794), was an active participant in the Encyclopédie project, a leading member of numerous scientific and literary academies, and a fervent supporter of reformist views (concerning economic freedom, religious toleration, legal and education reform, and the abolition of slavery). He was active during the early phase of the French Revolution, presenting reform projects on state education and the constitution. Written in 1795 while Condorcet was in hiding during the Reign of Terror, the most radical phase of the Revolution, his Esquisse d'un tableau historique des progrès de l'esprit humain (Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind) argued that the human race progresses continually toward perfection.


The eighteenth-century philosophe emerged in part because of the absolutist state's decreasing will or power to control literary production and patronage. The philosophes did not generally advocate political equality, and they readily accepted the notion of royal sovereignty, as well as the tangible and symbolic privileges it bestowed. Their work contributed to producing a sphere of public discussion and critical debate not directly controlled by the state. Members of regional and national academies, meeting to discuss intellectual matters in drawing rooms away from court, the philosophes believed themselves to belong to a republic of letters, a society of world citizens, as Immanuel Kant called it. They called for their ideas to be judged by the court of public opinion, whose pronouncements were reached through the use of critical reason. The philosophes defined their social, political, and intellectual relation to state institutions not in terms of absolute opposition but instead as a set of complex negotiations of dependency, autonomy, and resistance. As expressed in the Encyclopédie article "Philosophe," the philosophes' own image of themselves was that of spokespersons for reason, essentially sociable citizens who were useful to a productive and refined society whose collective welfare they both enjoyed and sought to promote.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; Ancients and Moderns ; Bacon, Francis ; Bayle, Pierre ; Condorcet, Marie-Jean Caritat, marquis de ; Descartes, René ; Diderot, Denis ; Encyclopédie ; Enlightenment ; Helvétius, Claude-Adrien ; Holbach, Paul Thiry, baron d' ; Kant, Immanuel ; La Mettrie, Julien Offroy de ; Locke, John ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Newton, Isaac ; Revolutions, Age of ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Scientific Method ; Voltaire .


Primary Sources

Dumarsais, César Chesneau. "Philosophe." In Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des arts, des sciences et des métiers. Edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. Paris: 17511772.

Kant, Immanuel. "What Is Enlightenment?" In Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by Lewis White Beck. 2nd ed. New York, 1990. Translation of Was ist Aufklärung? (1783).

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Baker, Keith Michael, ed. The Political Culture of the Old Regime. Vol I of The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture. 4 vols. Oxford, 1987.

Besterman, Theodore. Voltaire. 3rd ed. Oxford, 1976.

Cassirer, Ernst. The Philosophy of the Enlightenment. Translated by Fritz C. A. Koelln and James P. Pettegrove. Princeton, 1951.

Chartier, Roger. The Cultural Origins of the French Revolution. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Durham, N.C., 1991.

Gay, Peter. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation. 2 vols. New York, 19661969.

Goodman, Dena. The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. Ithaca, N.Y., 1994.

Vovelle, Michel, ed. Enlightenment Portraits. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Chicago, 1997.

Wade, Ira Owen. The Intellectual Origins of the French Enlightenment. Princeton, 1971.

Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot. Oxford, 1972.

Daniel Brewer