A walk through Diderot's Paris in search of understanding Enlightenment
Most of the French philosopher's own writing wasn't published until after his death
** This episode is Part 2 or Philip Coulter's series, The Invention of the World: Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely
What would happen if we could see the world through fresh eyes, and think about human experience in a new way, unencumbered by the old, discredited systems of knowledge? That question was part of what the Enlightenment was all about.
And the French philosopher Denis Diderot was one of a small group of 18th century thinkers who began to explore radical new ways of thinking about the sum of all knowledge.
What a time it must have been! Such excitement in the air, such a sense of sheer empowerment: here was this idea that we humans had a chance to rethink just about everything we thought we knew, and to begin to understand the world in an entirely new way.
Breaking away from the authority of the Church meant that for the first time in history, we could embrace the idea that human beings are at the centre of the process of understanding the world.
Denis Diderot explored this notion in books, essays and novels; in letters to Voltaire and Rousseau and the other great thinkers of the time; and also in the 7,000 articles he wrote for the great encyclopedia he was editing — all 28 volumes of it.
Diderot was largely forgotten for a few hundred years, largely because most of his own writing wasn't published until after his death — some of which wasn't discovered until the 20th century. Diderot decided early on that he would write a lot but publish little — that he was going to write for the future.
An unfinished journey
Many of his contemporaries did publish, but frequently had to pull their punches, for fear of imprisonment. Diderot's writings come to us fresh and modern-looking, and tell us a lot more about what was going on in the Enlightenment in France: he had advanced ideas about biology, foresaw Darwin and the idea of evolution, and had 21st century opinions about gender and the rights of women.
Diderot foresaw that inequality would lead to a revolution in France, and that the slaves in the Caribbean would eventually revolt. And looking into the future of the United States, he warned of the dangers of a tyrant to come.
The Enlightenment, Diderot reminds us, isn't something that happened 250 years ago: it's an unfinished journey, and it's our responsibility to carry it on.
Guests in the program:
- Sophie Audidière is a professor of philosophy at the Université de Bougogne.
- Andrew Curran is a William Armstrong professor of the humanities at Wesleyan University. He's also the author of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely (Other Press 2019).
**This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. Listen to Part 1 of Diderot and the Invention of the Modern World.