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"Nothing is more indisputable than the existence of our senses" --Jean le Rond d'Alembert

"The Encyclopédie was interested in the scientific method" and "the greatest function of the work ... was that of making people more aware of the methodological problems that constantly beset the acquisition of knowledge and the pursuit of truth. Obviously this was a campaign that had to be conducted on many fronts. One of them was the attack on words or names that in reality were devoid of meaning. Diderot's technique was to call attention to names, especially of plants and animals, about which little more was known than simply the empty name itself. For example, he wrote about 'Aguaxima': 'A plant of Brazil and of the islands of southern America. That is all that we are told of it; and I would willingly inquire for whom such descriptions are made. It cannot be for the natives, who very likely know more characteristics of the aguaxima than this description includes, and who have no need of being told that the aguaxima grows in their country; it is as if one said to a Frenchman that the pear tree is a tree that grows in France, in Germany, etc. Nor can it be for us; for what does it matter to us whether there be in Brazil a tree named aguaxima, if we know only its name? What purpose does the name serve? It leaves the ignorant in the condition they were; it teaches others nothing. If it happens, then, that I mention this plant, and several others equally poorly described, it is out of condescension for certain readers who prefer to find nothing in a dictionary article, or even to find nothing but silliness in it, than not to find the article at all. [20] Similarly, of the word 'Aguapa': 'A tree that grows in the West Indies, the shadow of which is said to cause the death of those who sleep in it naked, while it causes all others to swell up in a prodigious fashion. If the natives of these countries do not know it better than it is identified for us by this description, they are in great danger.' [21] And in discussing the word 'Acalipse' he remarked, Here is another one of these beings ... of which one has only the name; as if one did not already have too many names empty of sense in the sciences, arts, etc. [22] --Diderot, the Testing Years, 1713-1759[1]

Taxonomy of the Encyclopédie, the so-called Figurative system of human knowledge
Taxonomy of the Encyclopédie, the so-called Figurative system of human knowledge

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Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopaedia or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts and Crafts) was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It was edited by Denis Diderot and, until 1759, co-edited by Jean le Rond d'Alembert.

The Encyclopédie was an innovative encyclopedia in several respects. Among other things, it was the first encyclopedia to include contributions from many named contributors, and it was the first general encyclopedia to lavish attention on the mechanical arts. Still, the Encyclopédie is famous above all for representing the thought of the Enlightenment. According to Denis Diderot in the article "Encyclopédie", the Encyclopédie's aim was "to change the way people think". He wanted to incorporate all of the world's knowledge into the Encyclopédie and hoped that the text could disseminate all this information to the public and future generations.



The introduction to the Encyclopédie, D'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse, is considered an important exposition of Enlightenment ideals. Among other things, it presents a taxonomy of human knowledge which was inspired by Francis Bacon's Advancement of Knowledge. The three main branches of knowledge are: "Memory"/History, "Reason"/Philosophy, and "Imagination"/Poetry. Notable is the fact that theology is ordered under 'Philosophy'. Robert Darnton argues that this categorisation of religion as being subject to human reason and not a source of knowledge in and of itself, was a significant factor in the controversy surrounding the work. Additionally, notice that 'Knowledge of God' is only a few nodes away from 'Divination' and 'Black Magic'.

Likewise, many contributors saw the Encyclopédie as a vehicle for covertly destroying superstitions while overtly providing access to human knowledge. In ancien régime France it caused a storm of controversy, due mostly to its tone of religious tolerance. The Encyclopédie praised Protestant thinkers and challenged Catholic dogma, and classified religion as a branch of philosophy, not as the ultimate source of knowledge and moral advice.

At the same time, the Encyclopédie was a vast compendium of knowledge, notably on the technologies of the period, describing the traditional craft tools and processes. Much information was taken from the Descriptions des Arts et Métiers.


The Encyclopédie played an important role in the intellectual ferment leading to the French Revolution. "No encyclopaedia perhaps has been of such political importance, or has occupied so conspicuous a place in the civil and literary history of its century. It sought not only to give information, but to guide opinion," wrote the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. In The Encyclopédie and the Age of Revolution, a work published in conjunction with a 1989 exhibition of the Encyclopédie at the University of California, Los Angeles, Clorinda Donato writes the following:

The encyclopedians successfully argued and marketed their belief in the potential of reason and unified knowledge to empower human will and thus helped to shape the social issues that the French Revolution would address. Although it is doubtful whether the many artisans, technicians, or laborers whose work and presence and interspersed throughout the Encyclopédie actually read it, the recognition of their work as equal to that of intellectuals, clerics, and rulers prepared the terrain for demands for increased representation. Thus the Encyclopédie served to recognize and galvanize a new power base, ultimately contributing to the destruction of old values and the creation of new ones (12).

But note Frank Kafker, who explains that the Encyclopedists were not a unified group:

despite their reputation, [the Encyclopedists] were not a close-knit group of radicals intent on subverting the Old Regime in France. Instead they were a disparate group of men of letters, physicians, scientists, craftsmen and scholars ... Even the small minority who were persecuted for writing articles belittling what they viewed as unreasonable customs—thus weakening the might of the Catholic Church and undermining that of the monarchy—did not envision that their ideas would encourage a revolution.

While it is debatable that the editors intended to have a radical influence on French society, it can hardly be denied that it did. The Encyclopédie denied that the teachings of the Catholic Church could be treated as authoritative in matters of science. The editors also refused to treat the decisions of political powers as definitive in intellectual or artistic questions. Given that Paris was the intellectual capital of Europe at the time and that many European leaders used French as their administrative language, these ideas had the capacity to spread.


The work comprised 35 volumes, with 71,818 articles, and 3,129 illustrations. The first seventeen volumes were published between 1751 and 1765; eleven volumes of plates were finished by 1772. Because of its sometimes radical contents (see "Contents" below), the French government suspended its privilège in 1759, but because it had many highly placed supporters, notably Madame de Pompadour, work continued "in secret." In truth, secular authorities did not want to disrupt the commercial enterprise, which employed hundreds of people. To appease the church and other enemies of the project, the authorities had officially banned the enterprise, but they turned a blind eye to its continued existence.

In 1775, Charles Joseph Panckoucke obtained the rights to reissue the work. He issued five volumes of supplementary material and a two-volume index from 1776 to 1780. Some scholars include these seven "extra" volumes as part of the first full issue of the Encyclopédie, for a total of 35 volumes, although they were not written or edited by the original famed authors.


See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Encyclopédie" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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