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ENCYCLOPÉDIE. Beginning as a modest business venture, the Encyclopédie was planned to be simply a French translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia, published in England in 1728. Entrusted to Jean Le Rond d'Alembert (17171783) and Denis Diderot (17131784), the project quickly took on far vaster proportions, becoming ultimately one of the greatest commercial and intellectual enterprises of early modern French culture.

The encyclopedists' goal was to make available to the greatest number of readers the most complete account possible of all current knowledge. The first volume of the work appeared in Paris in 1751. When the project was completed two decades later, in 1772, the encyclopedists had produced the most massive single reference work in Europe to date. The Encyclopédie ran to seventeen folio volumes containing 71,818 articles, eleven folio volumes of 2,885 plates, and five supplemental volumes, published in 1776 and 1777 under editors other than Diderot. Sold by subscription to a readership in France and throughout Europe that totaled at least 4,500 individuals, the Encyclopédie was the product of more than 150 collaborators who worked under the sole editorship of Diderot after d'Alembert withdrew from the project in 1758. The Encyclopédie met with significant opposition, primarily from the Jesuit order and the antiphilosophe movement. It was placed on the Catholic Church's Index librorum prohibitorum (Index of forbidden books), and on two occasions the crown revoked (but soon restored) the work's privilège or royal authorization to publish. Five subsequent editions, either reprints or revisions, were produced in Switzerland and Italy prior to the French Revolution of 1789, and roughly half of these 25,000 copies went to readers in France.

In philosophical terms, the Encyclopédie reflected the most powerful tenet of the European Enlightenment, the belief in human reason as an individual and innate critical faculty. The world the encyclopedists represented was thoroughly subjected to the rule of reason. It was knowable, able to be ordered and mastered by the rational mind. The Encyclopédie thus contributed to consolidating the reformist values of the Enlightenment by testifying to the belief in the progressive and beneficial results of rational inquiry into all sectors of human activity. In the area of technology, the articles and plates devoted to the "mechanical arts"including the crafts and trades, anatomy and surgery, the exact, natural, and military sciencesprovided a remarkably complete account of eighteenth-century French technology, in a style aimed at a relatively broad readership. In this way the Encyclopédie spurred the development of French industry, which was lagging behind that of Britain.

The work's full title was Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des arts, des sciences et des métiers. As an analytic or descriptive dictionary, it was designed to compile and transmit as complete a version as possible of all existing human knowledge; as an encyclopedia, it was to reveal how that knowledge could be rationally ordered and the interrelations of its various parts displayed. Articles were arranged in alphabetical order, and each article was classified according to the category of knowledge to which it belonged. An extensive cross-reference system made explicit the linkages between articles. These cross-references were often employed to produce a subversive critique of established positions through the ironic juxtaposition of apparently unrelated articles, such as religion and mythology. The article "Aius Locutius," for instance, which deals with a minor Roman god of speech, is referred to in another article on casuistry, which itself is linked to articles on certainty (certitude) and moral judgment (cas de conscience). This critique was part of the encyclopedists' overarching aim to have their readers think freely, to become "undeceived," as Diderot put it. For him, this critical thinking involved resisting any authority, whether divine or human. Thus, in the area of religion the encyclopedists tirelessly denounced fanaticism in the name of religious tolerance, attacked Christian doctrine and the Catholic Church and its institutions, and presented other beliefs more favorably. The encyclopedists reorganized the cognitive universe, rejecting the authority of all systems and institutions that claim to deliver up any absolute order of knowledge, and setting in their place more secular, empirical, and arbitrary ones, judged according to the values of technological productivity and social utility.

The best-known major contributors to the project were Diderot himself (with 10,000 articles), Louis de Jaucourt (17,395), d'Alembert (1,600), and Paul Thiry, baron d'Holbach (17231789) (425). Other significant contributors included Georges Louis Leclerc de Buffon (17071788), Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (17161800), Charles-Marie de La Condamine (17011774), Charles-Pinot Duclos (17041772), François Quesnay (16941774), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778), and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (17271781). Parisians, provincials, and foreigners, the encyclopedists were a heterogeneous group. They were not members of a revolutionary Third Estate, one of the three orders or "estates" that, along with that of the nobility and the clergy, reflected the political division of pre-Revolutionary France. Most were bourgeois, if not by source of income, then by lifestyle and by their conception of property and work. Jurists, doctors, professors, engineers, merchants, manufacturers, specialized technicians, upper civil servants, military officers, and philosophes, the encyclopedists played important roles in economic, cultural, and political institutions, from which they derived material benefits and prestige. This situation also allowed them a certain independence, both economic and intellectual, making it possible for them to imagine and promote other ways of thinking. Although the encyclopedists criticized arbitrary state power, they did not question the monarchical system.

See also Alembert, Jean Le Rond d' ; Buffon, Georges Louis Leclerc ; Diderot, Denis ; Dissemination of Knowledge ; Enlightenment ; Holbach, Paul Thiry, baron d' ; Index of Prohibited Books ; Philosophes ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques .


Primary Source

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des arts, des sciences, et des métiers. Edited by Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d'Alembert. Paris, 17511772.

Secondary Sources

Darnton, Robert. The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 17751800. Cambridge, Mass., 1979.

Diderot Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry. Edited by Charles Coulston Gillispie. 2 vols. New York, 1959.

Diderot, Denis. Encyclopedia: Selections by Diderot, D'Alembert, and a Society of Men of Letters. Translated by Nelly S. Hoyt and Thomas Cassirer. Indianapolis, 1965.

Kafker, Frank A. The Encyclopedists as a Group: A Collective Biography of the Authors of the Encyclopédie. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 345. Oxford, 1996.

Kafker, Frank A., and Serena Kafker. The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 257. Oxford, 1988.

Lough, John. The Encyclopédie. New York, 1971.

Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot. New York, 1972.

Daniel Brewer


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Encyclopédie, or the French Encyclopedia, is a famous and controversial work of reference embodying much of what the French Enlightenment liked to call "philosophy."

Purpose, History, and Influence

Begun simply as a commercial undertaking to translate and adapt Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728), the Encyclopédie was first entrusted to the Englishman John Mills and the German Godefroy Sellius, and then to the Abbé Gua de Malves of the French Academy of Sciences. Denis Diderot became chief editor in 1747 and, with Jean Le Rond d'Alembert as his principal colleague, greatly expanded the scope of the enterprise. Diderot's prospectus (1750) promised, as a principal and novel feature, a description of the arts and especially the crafts in France, with numerous illustrative engravings, and was accompanied by an elaborate "Chart of the Branches of Human Knowledge," which Diderot referred to as "the Genealogical Tree of All the Arts and Sciences." This Système figuré des connoissances humaines was avowedly inspired by the work of Francis Bacon, whose empiricism greatly influenced the entire work. Assuming that all knowledge comes originally from sensations, the Système figuré subsumed all branches of learning under either memory, reason, or imagination, to which corresponded, respectively, history, philosophy, and poetry. The correlation of philosophy with reason, while history was associated merely with memory, was very characteristic of the Enlightenment.

The first volume of the Encyclopédie, which included d'Alembert's influential "Discours préliminaire," was published in 1751, and revealed at once that the work would be carried on in the spirit of John Locke's sensationalistic psychology and epistemology. Pierre Bayle, in addition to Francis Bacon and Locke, also served as a model and inspiration for the Encyclopédie, though its editors rarely found it expedient to admit the fact. The Encyclopédie was greatly influenced by Bayle's skepticism, while falling short of his thoroughgoing Pyrrhonism. The work went much beyond him, however, in its attention to natural science, to the nascent social sciences, to economic processes, and to social reform.

The first volume established the Encyclopédie at once as a work that was both controversial and indispensable. It was much more comprehensive than previous works of reference, and even included copious articles on grammar, synonyms, and gazetteer-like articles concerning countries and cities. It constantly attempted to explode vulgar errors (see the article "Agnus Scythicus"), to be as precise in definition as possible, to make exact technological explanation an accepted part of the language, to suggest social reforms (see the article "Accoucheuse") or greater civil liberties (see "Aius Locutius"), and to weaken dogmatisms. In biblical criticism (for example, see "Arche de Noé") or in articles touching upon political theory (for example, "Autorité politique") or materialism (for example, "Âme "), the Encyclopédie proved itself to be adventuresome and bold.

As a result, the Encyclopédie encountered much opposition and suspicion, especially from orthodox religious groups. In particular, the Jesuits, whom Diderot and d'Alembert suspected of wanting to take over the editing of the work for themselves, delighted in exposing plagiarisms in the Encyclopédie and in insinuating that it was subversive. In 1752, just after the publication of the second volume, the Royal Council of State prohibited further publication, although, a few months later, this decree was tacitly rescinded. Thereafter, the Encyclopédie was published at the rate of a volume per year until 1757, when it had reached through the letter G. By this time it was evident, as Diderot himself had stated in his remarkable article "Encyclopédie" in volume five, explaining the intentions and editorial policies of the work, that the object of the Encyclopédie was "to change the general way of thinking."

In 1757 there commenced a long and complicated crisis that resulted in d'Alembert's retiring from his part in the editing and finally in the suppression of the work by royal decree, on March 8, 1759.

Nevertheless, through the courage and tenacity of Diderot and the publishers, and as a result of the authorities studiously looking the other way, the work continued to be written, edited, and printed in secret, pending the time when it might once more be authorized. In 17651766, the rest of the alphabet (ten volumes of letterpress) was published. Meanwhile, the 11 volumes of plates were also being prepared and published under Diderot's supervision, the first appearing in 1762 and the last in 1772. About 4,225 sets of the original edition were sold, the price being 980 livres (326 for the 17 volumes of letterpress and 654 for the 11 volumes of plates). Inasmuch as the purchasing power of a livre was roughly equivalent to rather more than a dollar in current (1966) purchasing power, it is evident that this was a large commercial undertaking.

Each of the first seven volumes of the Encyclopédie had been subjected to previous censorship, but this was impossible with the last ten volumes, because they were edited secretly. There was, therefore, a considerable risk that the government might outlaw the whole edition if the articles were too forthright on theology and politics. In the end, there was little difficulty: By 17651766, when the final volumes were distributed, the order of the Jesuits had been suppressed and public opinion generally was moving irresistibly toward the point of view represented by the philosophes. But Andre-François Le Breton, the printer and chief publisher of the Encyclopédie, had meanwhile surreptitiously altered many of the most controversial articles after Diderot had edited them and read the proofs. Diderot discovered this treachery in 1764, too late to undo it. The subsequent discovery of a volume of proof sheets permits a before-and-after comparison of some of the articles mutilated by Le Breton; a study of these shows that the changes were substantial. The exact number of Le Breton's alterations is not known even yet, though Diderot always remained convinced that the publisher's depredations had been extensive. In spite of the maiming of the text, however, the articles in the last ten volumes are rather more sharp and critical about religious, social, and political topics than the first seven volumes had dared to be.

One of the novel features of the Encyclopédie was that it identified many of its contributors, the most famous being Diderot, d'Alembert, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau ("Économie politique" and articles on music), Baron de Montesquieu ("Goût"), François Quesnay ("Fermiers," "Grains"), Baron de L'Aulne Turgot ("Étymologie," "Existence"), Jean-François Marmontel, Baron d'Holbach, and Louis de Jaucourt. After the suppression of the work in 1759, many of the contributors (a total of 160 have been identified) discontinued their collaboration, thus greatly increasing the burden on Diderot. The Encyclopédie represented the greatest feat in the technology of printing and publishing up to that time. It was a symbol of the intellectual preeminence of France in the eighteenth century. But it was also the symbol of a new public philosophy; and its final publication, with editorial policies and practices consistent and unchanged, was a triumphant vindication of the energy and moral courage of Diderot and even, though to a lesser extent, of his publishers.

Philosophy in the EncyclopÉdie

The numerous and lengthy articles in the Encyclopédie concerning philosophers or schools of philosophy, from "Aristotélisme" to "Zend-Avesta," constituted in themselves a stage in the development of recording the history of philosophy. Most of these articles were written by Diderot himself. In the compilation of them, he avowedly relied upon works by Thomas Stanley and Boureau Deslandes and, very heavily, upon Johann Jacob Brucker's Historia Critica Philosophiae (Leipzig, 17421744). But Brucker's work, relaxed in style and blandly deistic, was changed by Diderot into a history of philosophy that was nervous and sometimes edgy in style and, in its implicit challenging of idealism and in its inclination toward materialism, very representative of the point of view of the Enlightenment in France. Some of the articles not written by Diderot are flabby or conformist in their thought (for example, "Aristotélisme," "Spinoza"), but Diderot's own most famous ones ("Chaldéens," "Cyniques," "Cyrénaique," "Éclectisme," "Éléatique," "Épicuréisme," "Hobbisme," "Leibnitzianism," "Platonisme," "Pyrrhonienne") substantiate the claim that through the Encyclopédie Diderot was one of the creators of the history of philosophy in France.

ontology and epistemology

It was a favorite sport of the Encyclopedists to inveigh against "metaphysics." This criticism was primarily an expression of their dislike for the great rationalistic constructions of the seventeenth century, the systematic philosophy of René Descartes, Nicolas Malebranche, Benedict Spinoza, and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. In reality, since the Encyclopedistslike the logical positivists of the twentieth centuryhad a theory of being and a theory of knowledge, they were more metaphysical than they acknowledged or perhaps realized. The Encyclopedists predicated a real world of brute fact, and steadfastly resisted the Berkeleian philosophy, although they were familiar with it (see d'Alembert's article, "Corps"). This real world was knowable, according to the Lockean system of epistemology, through the testimony of the senses and reflection thereon. Diderot stated, for example, in the article "Inné" that "there is nothing innate except the faculty of feeling and of thinking; all the rest is acquired." Such reference to external reality interpreted by reason, led to the great emphasis given by the Encyclopedists to expérience, which in the French of their day had the double meaning of experiential and experimental (see d'Alembert's article, "Expérimental").

With this empirical approach to the problems of reality and knowledge, the Encyclopédie contributed greatly to the strengthening of the rationale of scientific hypothesis and scientific method (see, for example, "Hypothèse"). In this respect, especially noteworthy in the articles written by d'Alembert (for example, "Cosmologie" and "Cartésianisme"), the Encyclopédie was a forerunner to the development of positivism. Nor were the Encyclopedists lamed by Humean skepticism. They knew David Hume personally and loved him and had read his books, but they simply overlooked the implications of Hume's philosophy in respect to their own ontology and epistemology. The sensationalistic psychology of the Encyclopedists, in combination with their view of the world, strengthened them in their faith in reason, by which it was deemed possible to know and evaluate objective reality, while making it unnecessary for them to have much faith in faith. The philosophy of the Encyclopédie was about as far from fideism as it is possible to be.

opposition to religious dogmatism

The Encyclopédie was often accused by its enemies of favoring a philosophy of materialism. This it never did outright, yet many of its articles pointed that way, especially those that had to do with the mind-body problem (for example, "Spinosiste," "Âme"). Moreover, the Encyclopedists were constantly eager to undermine dogmatic and intolerant religious orthodoxy. This function they considered as one of their most "philosophical," and it is in this connection that they helped to establish a new historiography. The Encyclopedists often wrote as though they were historical pessimists and indeed distrustful of history: "One can scarcely read history without feeling horror for the human race," wrote Voltaire in "Idole, idolatrie." Nevertheless, in their desire to shake religious dogmatism, they used criteria of historical criticism, for example, in trying to establish the correct chronology of the Bible (see "Chronologic sacrée"), and explored the nature of historical evidence (for example, as to miracles) in a way that secularized and modernized historical techniques. (In this respect the articles "Bible," "Certitude," "Mages," "Syncrétistes," are of particular interest.) As for the philosophy of history, the Encyclopedists' convictions regarding the spread of enlightenment led to a faith in progress which became one of the conspicuous features of eighteenth-century thought.


The Encyclopédie was much concerned with ethics, especially because of its insistence, as expressed by Diderot in "Irréligieux," that "morality can exist without religion; and religion can coexist, and often does, with immorality." In ethical theory many of the articles still spoke in terms of jus naturae, and sometimes, as in "Irréligieux," identified this moral law as "the universal law that the finger of God has engraved upon the hearts of all." But this rather conventional ethics was constantly being blended with, or superseded by, utilitarianism. The articles in the Encyclopédie advanced a theory of ethics that was founded not so much in the will of God as in the nature of man. And inasmuch as man was conceived of as being by nature sociable, it logically followed that an ethic grounded in man's nature was also socially conscious and other-regardful. The Encyclopédie also endeavored to undermine notions of free will, teaching that man, precisely because he is modifiable and educable, is capable of virtue even in a deterministic universe (see "Liberté," "Modification," "Malfaisant").

social and political theory

The social philosophy of the Encyclopédie was shaped in like manner by the conviction that man by his nature is sociable (see "Philosophe"). As a result, the Encyclopédie was much interested in theories of social origins, and devoted a good deal of attention to the ethnography of primitive peoples, using travel books as a principal source. The article on "Humaine espèce" is a remarkable exercise in physical anthropology; and articles such as "Laboureur," "Journalier," and "Peuple" are examples of a groping toward a recognizable sociology. Thus, the Encyclopédie figured importantly in the development of the social sciences, as well as in the dissemination of a utilitarian social philosophy. The Encyclopédie had a passion for improvement and constantly applied to institutions the criterion of social usefulness.

The Encyclopédie also possessed a quite clearly articulated political theory, even though it was difficult to discuss political philosophy critically in a country that was professedly an absolute monarchy and exercised censorship. This political philosophy was, as might be expected, greatly influenced by Locke. Articles such as "Droit naturel" and "Égalité naturelle" spoke of "inalienable rights" and continued, as Locke and Samuel von Pufendorf had done, to explore the implications to political philosophy of new and emerging insights into the nature of man. In articles such as "Autorité politique" and "Loi fondamentale," the Encyclopédie praised limited monarchy and suggested that proper government rests upon consent (see "Pouvoir"). In the article "Représentants" a theory of representative government was advanced, and numerous articles suggested the guarantee of civil liberties (for example, "Habeas corpus," "Aius locutius," "Libelle") or advocated reforms ("Impôt," "Vingtième," "Privilège"). An English writer, reviewing the Encyclopédie in 1768, remarked that "whoever takes the trouble of combining the several political articles, will find that they form a noble system of civil liberty."

linguistic theory

The Encyclopédie was much engrossed in theories regarding the origin of language, and devoted a great deal of space to articles on grammar and on synonyms. In part this was social philosophy, in the sense that it was hoped that such speculation would throw light upon social origins; even more, it was an early manifestation of scientific and philosophical interest in the nature of language. In articles such as "Étymologie," "Élémens de science," and "Encyclopédie," Turgot, d'Alembert, and Diderot, respectively, analyzed problems of definition, semantics, and nomenclature in the attempt to explore accurately the relationship between words, concepts, and things. The Encyclopedists were remarkable for realizing that knowledge itself depends upon the correct use of language.


Aesthetic theory was not systematically developed in the Encyclopédie, although there were numerous articles on belletristic subjects, especially those contributed by Jean-François Marmontel (see his article "Critique") and Voltaire. Special mention should be made of Diderot's articles "Beau" and "Beauté," which reviewed extensively the aesthetic theories current in the first half of the eighteenth century and argued that it is the perception of relationships that is the basis of the beautiful.


The philosophy of the Encyclopédie was strongly humanistic in tone. Oriented toward science, and progressive (in the sense of believing in progress), the work was integrated by the particular philosophy of man that underlies the whole. It was a philosophy, Protagorean in savor, that made man the measure of all things. This point of view was summed up by Diderot in the article "Encyclopédie": "Man is the sole and only limit whence one must start and back to whom everything must return."

See also Aesthetics, History of; Alembert, Jean Le Rond d'; Bacon, Francis; Bayle, Pierre; Berkeley, George; Descartes, René; Diderot, Denis; Enlightenment; Epistemology; Ethics; Holbach, Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'; Humanism; Hume, David; Language; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Locke, John; Logical Positivism; Malebranche, Nicolas; Metaphysics, History of; Montesquieu, Baron de; Ontology; Pufendorf, Samuel von; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques; Semantics; Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Turgot, Anne Robert Jacques, Baron de L'Aulne; Utilitarianism; Voltaire, François-Marie Arouet de.



Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres , 35 vols. in folio. Paris, 17511780. Diderot was editor-in-chief for 17 volumes of letterpress (17511766) and 11 volumes of plates (17621772); these 28 volumes were reprinted in folio at Geneva (17721776). The remaining volumes consist of four volumes of Supplément, one volume of supplementary engravings, and two volumes of index. Other editions, all published in French, appeared at Lucca (28 vols. in folio, 17581771), Livorno (33 vols. in folio, 17701779), Yverdon (58 vols. in quarto, 17701780), Geneva (45 vols. in quarto, 17771781), and Lausanne and Berne (36 vols. in octavo, 17781781). Reproductions of 485 of the original engravings are available in the admirably edited and inexpensive Diderot, Denis, Pictorial Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry, edited by Charles C. Gillispie. 2 vols. New York: Dover, 1959.

history of the encyclopÉdie

Gordon, Douglas H., and Norman L. Torrey. The Censoring of Diderot's Encyclopédie and the Re-established Text. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947.

Grosclaude, Pierre. Un audacieux message. L'Encyclopédie. Paris: Nouvelles Editions Latinos, 1951.

Kafker, Frank A. "A List of Contributors to Diderot's Encyclopedia." French Historical Studies 3 (19631964): 106122.

Le Gras, Joseph. Diderot et l'Encyclopédie. Amiens: Malfère, 1928.

Lough, John. "Luneau de Boisjermain v. the Publishers of the Encyclopédie. " Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 13 (1963): 115177.

Venturi, Franco. Le origini dell'Enciclopedia. Florence: U Edizioni, 1946; 2nd ed., 1963.

Wilson, Arthur M. Diderot: The Testing Years, 17131759. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957.

intellectual and philosophical aspects

Barker, Joseph E. Diderot's Treatment of the Christian Religion in the Encyclopédie. New York: King's Crown Press, 1941.

Delorme, Suzanne, and René Taton, eds. L'Encyclopédie et le progrès des sciences et des techniques. Paris, 1952.

Havens, G. R., and D. F. Bond, eds. A Critical Bibliography of French Literature. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1951. Vol. IV, The Eighteenth Century, pp. 139141.

Hubert, René. Les sciences sociales dans l'Encyclopédie. Lille: Au Siège d'Université, 1923.

"Numéro spécial à l'occasion du 22 centenair de l'Encyclopédie. " Annales de l'Université de Paris October 1952.

Proust, Jacques. Diderot et l'Encyclopédie. Paris: A. Colin, 1962. Especially valuable.

Schalk, Fritz. Einleitung in die Encyclopädie der französischen Aufklärung. Munich, 1936.

Schargo, Nelly. History in the Encyclopédie. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947.

Weis, Eberhard. Geschichtsschreibung und Staatsauffassung in der französischen Enzyklopädie. Wiesbaden: F. Steiner, 1956.

Arthur M. Wilson (1967)


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There is little evidence to suggest that the twenty-eight volumes of the first folio edition of the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Explanatory Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Trades) (1751–1772), compiled by Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert, circulated widely in British North America. A London translation of Diderot and d'Alembert's preface, The Plan of the French Encyclopaedia (1752), could be ordered from colonial booksellers, however, and the single-volume Select Essays from the Encyclopedy (1772) could be found in subscription libraries. British North American readers might also have encountered excerpts of articles from the Encyclopédie in such publications as Sir William Blackstone's four-volume Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765–1769) or in the numbers of The Annual Register. But far more common as reference works were the two volumes of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia: or, a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), of which the original Encyclopédie project was to be a translation, and the three volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica; or a Dictionary of the Arts and Sciences (1771), for which the Encyclopédie served as a model.

The improved commercial and cultural relations between France and the new United States, which flowed from their alliance during the American Revolution, made the Encyclopédie more readily available to Americans during and after that conflict. Booksellers in Alexandria, Virginia, and Philadelphia advertised copies for sale, including the less-expensive thirty-nine volume quarto (1771–1781) and octavo (1778–1782) editions. The Société Typographique de Neuchâtel, which was involved in publishing those editions, discussed the prospects of marketing them in America with Benjamin Franklin. In 1781 Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, convinced that state's council to purchase the Encyclopédie for the public's benefit. Jefferson subsequently obtained a copy for personal use, as did James Madison.

Greater interest was expressed in the United States for the successor to Diderot and d'Alembert's compendium, the Encyclopédie méthodique, ou par ordre de matières, par une société de gens de lettres, de savans et des artistes. Unlike the original Encyclopédie, which was arranged alphabetically, the Encyclopédie méthodique (Methodical Encyclopedia, arranged by subjects, by a Society of Men-of-Letters, Scientists and Artist) was a collection of dictionaries written on specific subjects. Ultimately it would consist of 102 parts, or livraisons, which appeared in 1661/2 volumes of text and 51 volumes of illustrations. Charles Joseph Panckoucke, the editor-in-chief, began publication in 1782, but the series was not completed until 1832. The Encyclopédie méthodique headed the list of books that James Madison, Thomas Mifflin, and Hugh Williamson recommended for purchase by the Continental Congress in 1783. Madison, Benjamin Franklin, Francis Hopkinson, and James Monroe were among those who subscribed to its volumes, as were the College of William and Mary and the American Philosophical Society. By far the most active American promoter and supporter of the Encyclopédie méthodique was Thomas Jefferson. In 1783 he suggested that Panckoucke appoint an agent in Philadelphia to solicit subscriptions and to supervise the distribution of the respective livraisons in the United States. While no such arrangements were made, Jefferson did take up these tasks informally during his residence in Paris from 1784 to 1789.

Jefferson was also a contributor to the Encyclopédie méthodique, which he described as a "valuable depository of science." Early in 1786 Jean Nicholas Démeunier, the editor of Économie politique et diplomatique (1784–1788), one of the dictionaries constituting the Encyclopédie, asked for his advice on drafts of articles on the United States and on a number of the states. Jefferson agreed. In a series of exchanges with Démeunier, he provided documentation for, corrections of, and comments on the Articles of Confederation, the debt of the United States, their population and their codes of law—including the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, of which he was an author. But Jefferson's most extensive and substantive revisions to the "États-unis" (United States) entry concerned the remarks on "l'association des Cincinnati et des dangers de cette institution" (the Society of the Cincinnati and the dangers posed by that organization). In preparing the materials for this section of the États-unis article, Démeunier had relied on the Comte de Mirabeau's Considerations sur l'Ordre de Cincinnatus (1784), a pamphlet that portrayed the Cincinnati as enemies to republican equality. Although Jefferson also opposed the order and hoped for its dissolution, he objected to Démeunier's "unjust and incorrect Philippic" against George Washington and his fellow officers. In its place he provided a more generous construal of the history of the Cincinnati based upon correspondence and conversations with Washington and Lafayette. Démeunier went on to incorporate most of the recommended changes in the final draft.

During the summer of 1786, the "États-unis" article appeared in volume two of Économie politique et diplomatique. His participation notwithstanding, Jefferson expressed strong reservations about some of the article. Yet when Panckoucke also printed copies of the article separately, Jefferson forwarded them to correspondents in Europe and the United States. He also arranged to have the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom excerpted from the Encyclopédie méthodique and distributed to embassies in Paris. Jefferson's collaboration with Démeunier could be seen as well in the article "Virginie," large sections of which were taken verbatim from the former's Observations sur la Virginie (1786), the French edition of his Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). The entry "Virginie," published in the fourth and final livraison of Économie politique et diplomatique (1788), also included the text of the new Constitution of the United States. Démeunier subsequently reprinted all the entries on America in pamphlet form as L'Amérique Indépendante, ou Les différentes constitutions des treize provinces … sous le nom d'États-Unis de l'Amérique (Independent America, or the Different Constitutions of the Thirteen Provinces … Called the United States of America)(1790). This pamphlet, and the original Encyclopédie articles, would prove to be important resources in the course of debates over constitutional reform in the National Assembly in the early years of the Revolution in France.

Although Jefferson predicted that the Encyclopédie méthodique would be "universally diffused" and would "go down to late ages," its impact in the United States was less than he anticipated. The factors of cost, delays in publication and distribution, and the barriers of language combined to limit its circulation and influence. The standard reference collection in the new American nation would be the Encyclopaedia; or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature (1798), based on the third edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

See alsoEuropean Influences: Enlightenment Thought; Jefferson, Thomas .


Boyd, Julian. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. Vol. 5 (1952); Vol. 6 (1952); Vol. 9 (1954). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950–.

Darnton, Robert. The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775–1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.

Jackson, Sidney. "The Encyclopédie Méthodique: A Jefferson Addendum." Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 73 (1965): 303–311.

Lundberg, David, and Henry F. May. "The Enlightened Reader in America." American Quarterly 28 (1976): 262–271.

Lutz, Donald. "The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought." American Political Science Review 78 (1984): 189–197.

Watts, George B. "The Encyclopédie Méthodique." PMLA 73 (1958): 348–366.

——."Thomas Jefferson, the Encyclopédie and the Encyclopédie Méthodique." French Review 38 (1965): 318–325.

Wilson, Douglas. "Thomas Jefferson's Library and the French Connection." Eighteenth-Century Studies 26 (1993): 669–685.

Martin J. Burke


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en·cy·clo·pe·di·a / enˌsīkləˈpēdēə/ (also chiefly Brit. en·cy·clo·pae·di·a) • n. a book or set of books giving information on many subjects or on many aspects of one subject and typically arranged alphabetically.