Looking at Diderot’s “Encyclopédie”

During our class in the 24 hour reading room, one of the books we looked at was Denis Diderot’s “Encylopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers”. Published in France between 1751 and 1752, it was a general encyclopedia that also gave instruction on how to perform almost any task. We studied a long excerpt from this text in my French Literature class, and found that certain entries were infused with specific philosophy instead of simply unbiased disseminations of information.

This Encyclopedia provided thoughts that were considered to be controversial at the time, reflecting theories of the Enlightenment. According to Diderot, its aim was to “change the way people think.” The excerpt from my French class argued a concept that was widely debated at the time and still is today: if animals have souls. It also explicated René Descartes’s theory of animals being machines due to the way in which they live their lives by ‘mindlessly’ performing actions to sustain their survival – actions that could be dictated to a machine in steps.

Looking at one of the volumes in class today, I was fascinated by the versatile nature of this text. Not only do its in-depth instructions for certain tasks give us a window into what was valued at the time, but the philosophy also provides us with the emerging schools of thought. These, at the time, were all provided in an encyclopedia, which probably wouldn’t have been considered a cultural artifact. It raises the question of how or in what ways could our modern encyclopedia be deemed as antiquated in another 200 years from now?

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