Ideas

All the World's Knowledge in 28 Volumes: Diderot's radical Encyclopédie

French philosopher Denis Diderot was one of a small group of 18th-century thinkers who began to explore a radical new way of thinking about the totality of human knowledge. In his magisterial Encyclopédie, he proposed a new way of organizing everything we know and experience. In part one of a two-part series, producer Philip Coulter goes on a walk around Diderot's Paris with philosophy professor and historian, Sophie Audidière. Part 2 airs Monday, June 17.

The Encyclopédie is considered one of the road maps for the French Revolution

Denis Diderot, portrait by Louis-Michel Van Loo. The French philosopher lived a bohemian life in Paris in 1735, after he abandoned his plans to become a priest. (Wikipedia)
Listen to the full episode53:59

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 ways of seeing the world? 

That question was in part what the Enlightenment was trying to answer. And the French philosopher Denis Diderot was one of a small group of 18th-century thinkers who began to explore a radical new way of thinking about the sum of all knowledge. 

The result was the massive Encyclopédie, written by the greatest writers of the age — in French — for anyone to read. 

Diderot writes in the Encyclopédie that his goal is to change the ordinary way of thinking.- Sophie Audidière

While modern democracy and the Declaration of the Rights of Man are the cultural waters we swim in now, the 18th century was a world dominated by the authority of the church, when thinking outside of the box of orthodoxy was discouraged. 

Fear of prison kept Diderot from publishing much in his own lifetime, apart from his magisterial Encyclopédie.

"The Encyclopédie took up all his energy ... but he believed in it. So he hated it but he loved it." 0:39

Diderot was the brilliant son of a master knife-maker from Langres in north-eastern France, who by 1735 had abandoned his plans to become a priest and was living an impoverished bohemian life in Paris. 

Diderot's 28 volumes of the Encyclopédie became one of the road maps for the French Revolution of 1789: humans, it asserted, could figure out the world for themselves.

Philosophy professor Sophie Audidière browses through Volume 1 of Denis Diderot's massive Encyclopédie, at the Mazarin Library within the Palais de l'institut de France. The full project includes 28 volumes and was completed in 1776. (Philip Coulter/CBC)

It's very hard for us now to reimagine the 18th century when everything changed. It was the century of the Enlightenment, a time of excitement when ideas about how to build a new world of thought — as well as a new model for reconstructing society — was growing.

At the heart of the Enlightenment (in France anyway) were two philosophers, Voltaire and Rousseau, and we're realizing belatedly that there was a third figure, Diderot.

Diderot was really pushing science and the thinkers of his era toward something revolutionary. Nature didn't really have a history before the 18th century.- Andrew Curran, author of Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

In the old order, the church was the guardian of truth and reserved the authority to judge on all matters. In the new order, which placed humanity at the centre, truth and information were to be shared among all, for all to read and understand and argue about — and in the common language, not Latin. 

Guests in the program:

  • Sophie Audidière, professor of Philosophy at the Université de Bougogne. 
  • Andrew Curran, 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 is part one of a two-part series. Part Two will broadcast on Monday, June 17.

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