1.6 A Tour de Force, a waste of time?

Wednesday, 12. August 2009


It was in the late 1740s that Diderot and Jean d’Alembert were selected as co-editors of the Encyclopédie, a taxonomy of human knowledge with three main branches of knowledge: Memory from which comes History, Reason from which comes Philosophy and Imagination from which comes Poetry. Diderot formulated the taxonomy as follows:

“The universe is the infinite work of God. A science is a finite work of human understanding. There are first principles, general notions, given axioms. These are the roots of the tree. The tree must ramify as much as possible; it must shoot off from the general object as from a trunk, rise first to the large branches or primary divisions; go on from these master branches to smaller ones; and so on, until it has reached out to the particular terms which are like the leaves and crown of the tree.”

Diderot conceived a scheme of an universal compendium of human knowledge in his day. It took him took twenty-five years (1748-1772) to carry it out.

He was the living cornerstone within of this collective structure, and also the target of all the persecution, all the threats from outside. D’Alembert, who may have joined him mainly from self-interest, deserted when the work was not even half-executed, leaving Diderot to contend against the frenzy of the pietists, the cowardice of the booksellers and the struggle beneath an enormous increase of editorial labour. Think of the history of philosophy (which included science), the description of the mechanical arts; over four thousand plates which he caused to be drawn under his own eye… in short, it was Diderot who carried the responsibility and superintendence of the whole affair.

He contrived to incorporate `dangerous’ views in seemingly minor articles to which the reader is directed by cross-references given in the more prominent, orthodox ones. Thanks to his prodiguous activity and to the universality of his knowledge,  thanks to his talent to rally all the contributers, to inspire and arouse them, he succeeded in completing that daring edifice.


Twenty-five years… it takes a stubborn mind to keep going for such a long period… What do you think, is this a strength?

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