Because of his public leadership of the philosophe party in eighteenth-century France, Voltaire stands today as the iconic example of the French Enlightenment philosopher. He also worked, like Voltaire, as a writer and critical intellectual who willingly positioned himself against the grain of established authority, and one who used philosophy as a vehicle for political and social activism. He also left behind a corpus of philosophical writings that marks him out as arguably the most sophisticated of all the Enlightenment philosophes , and as one of the great philosophical thinkers of the eighteenth-century. Like many Enlightenment philosophes , Diderot also worked as an homme de lettres first and foremost, and only as a philosopher narrowly construed in certain instances. Yet Diderot made important contributions to modern philosophy, and if they are to be grasped, the historical differences separating his writing from philosophy today must be transcended, and his eclectic manner of working accepted and embraced.
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Because of his public leadership of the philosophe party in eighteenth-century France, Voltaire stands today as the iconic example of the French Enlightenment philosopher. He also worked, like Voltaire, as a writer and critical intellectual who willingly positioned himself against the grain of established authority, and one who used philosophy as a vehicle for political and social activism. He also left behind a corpus of philosophical writings that marks him out as arguably the most sophisticated of all the Enlightenment philosophes , and as one of the great philosophical thinkers of the eighteenth-century.
Like many Enlightenment philosophes , Diderot also worked as an homme de lettres first and foremost, and only as a philosopher narrowly construed in certain instances. Yet Diderot made important contributions to modern philosophy, and if they are to be grasped, the historical differences separating his writing from philosophy today must be transcended, and his eclectic manner of working accepted and embraced. Diderot wrote works that we recognize today as philosophy, but he also wrote a great deal more than that, and the challenge presented by his eighteenth-century philosophie is to see the modern philosophy contained in all of it.
For Diderot did not simply write plays, art criticism, prose fictions, and highly imaginative works of literature alongside his work in philosophy; he pursued philosophie through these ostensibly literary works as well. He experimented with genres, including philosophical genres, when crafting his thought, and his writing overall is redolent with a self-consciousness that makes any easy separation of his explicitly philosophical writings from his literary work well-nigh impossible.
His publishing habits were similarly complex, for as a writer who suffered personally under censorship that made the traffic in illicit ideas a prosecutable offense in Old Regime France, Diderot often had very good reason to leave his work unpublished—and very often did. By contrast, the works of Diderot tend to be studied only in literature or history departments. Our entry seeks to go beyond such oppositions in dealing with Diderot as a philosopher. He also manifests an awareness of the new and emergent disciplinary taxonomy arising at the time, targeting his philosophie on many occasions at an interrogation of these developing epistemological divisions.
This reflexivity often makes his thought even more relevant today than it was when it was written. It will proceed in two parts. To simplify the reading of this biography, the text is offered in a two-level presentation. This is followed by brief concluding remarks in Section 3. Born to an artisan cutler in in Langres, a city kilometers southeast of Paris, Diderot began his life with very little pointing him toward his future as a world-renowned writer and intellectual.
His first steps were supported by a university education under the supervision of the Jesuits and training in scholastic philosophy and theology through the M.
Having moved to Paris as a teenager to pursue his studies, Diderot began to forge his career as a piece writer in the vibrant but economically constrained world of Parisian publishing. During the s, he struggled continuously to eke out a minimal existence through occasional work with his pen, especially finding work as a translator, and his financial hardship was increased after his marriage in to an equally poor woman and the arrival of a daughter soon thereafter.
In the s, poor and still marginal, Diderot began to build the career as a writer and intellectual that would make him famous. In , he met the young Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a key moment in the genesis of the philosophe movement, which Rousseau immortalized for posterity in his Confessions. Etienne Bonnot de Condillac also joined their circle at this time.
Diderot further began to write and publish his own books in this period, establishing his name and reputation as a philosophical author, one who was perennially associated with the most radical and controversial ideas. The Lettre , which presents itself as a series of reflections on the blind mathematician Nicholas Saunderson, is perhaps best described by Diderot biographer Arthur N.
He was imprisoned for three months starting in July , before being released the following November. When Diderot was released from prison in November , he was already at work on a new project, the one that would launch him to global intellectual fame.
The middle of the eighteenth century has appeared to many as a watershed moment in French intellectual history. During the same years, the volumes of accompanying plates appeared since they were not subject to the ban, and by the final volumes of the plates were published to accompany the seventeen volumes of text that were already in print. But he was also gradually able to step back, retreating in some respects to the background of the philosophe movement.
With this liberation, a highly productive period in his life began as new and original books began to flow from his pen. Taken as a whole they reflect his lifelong preoccupation with questions of life, liberty, purpose, and order within an Epicurean cosmos that may not be governed by a providential creator, along with his continuing interest in the epistemological problem of discerning the nature and principles of such a world, especially as they related to the emerging biological sciences of the eighteenth century.
One important cluster concerns the theory and practice of theater. These were moralizing melodramas advocating the ethical value of the conjugal family and the virtues of thrift, domestic love and piety. His plays are not major touchstones in the history of theater, but his meta-theoretical writings about theater itself, which provide many interesting points of departure for his philosophy, are important contributions to aesthetic theory.
In both, Diderot manifests an interest in the nature and limits of representation itself, and a self-aware consciousness regarding the tenuous interaction between language, experience, and their ability to merge or not into coherent representations. Diderot displayed the same philosophical-literary tendencies in his art criticism. His work in this area began in when the journalist F. Staged in the Louvre, these shows allowed painters and sculptors to showcase their work in a setting that gave a broad public audience access to the work of the best artists of the day.
Others had written commentaries about the exhibitions before, but no one before Diderot had provided anything like the critical philosophical assessment of the art of the salons. A new academically centered art theory had developed in the seventeenth century, and by it was joined by a new persona, the connoisseur, who was helping collectors to hone their judgment when separating truly great art from mere craft.
The bi-annual Parisian salons had already become a site of Enlightenment aesthetics and connoisseurship by , yet before Diderot no one had brought together the job of the connoisseur and the aesthetician with that of the public writer reflecting on art in relation to ordinary human experience. The result was also a new and pioneering notion of philosophy of art. The result was a general understanding of aesthetics and its relationship to ethics that was integrally connected to his philosophy overall.
Indeed, as the exchange carries on, the two characters are revealed to be different sides of a deep existential dialectic. Diderot did not publish Le Neveu de Rameau in his lifetime, but the text found its way to Germany where it was read by Schiller and Goethe.
Further helping Diderot after was the generosity of Catherine the Great of Russia, and his trip to her court in St. Petersburg in marks the passage of Diderot into the final stages of his career. Fate provided her with an occasion to express her appreciation directly to Diderot when a financial burden forced him to sell his library.
Catherine made the purchase, giving Diderot an annual pension in addition. This made him a wealthy man for the rest of his life. Diderot traveled to St. Petersburg to meet with Catherine in —74, and this trip marks his entrance into a leisured retirement in Paris where he continued to write. The resulting work was a pioneering world history defined by its argument that the transformations triggered by the Colombian Encounter were the decisive agent of world historical development.
The Atlantic slave trade also attracted his attention, and some of his most passionate contributions involve imagined dialogues about the horrors of the European imperial slave system spoken by oppressed Africans. The text offers an imagined dialogue between Tahitians and Europeans about the different sexual, marital and familial mores of the two cultures, and Diderot anticipates through fiction the figure of the native ethnographer who asks comparative questions about the foundations of morality and civilization so as to generate universal cultural understandings through comparison.
He is also a passionate abolitionist with no tolerance for the crimes of the Atlantic slave trade. Nature does not work through hierarchy, Diderot insists in these texts, and connecting politics with his natural philosophy he argues for a radical decentralization of political authority, and a fully bottom-up, egalitarian understanding of social order.
These convictions are also manifest in his thinking about race and slavery. He rejected altogether the new anthropology promulgated by Kant and others that spoke of biologically and civilizationally distinct races, offering instead a monogenetic understanding of humanity where difference was a matter of degree rather than kind. Diderot was by nature a writer and thinker, not a political activist, and his political philosophy, while suggestive of emerging radical political trends, appears as the least developed aspect of his thought.
When revolution erupted in France in , the memory of Voltaire and Rousseau led to their inclusion in the pantheon of revolutionary heroes worthy of immortal commemoration. Diderot, by contrast, was at best forgotten and at worst treated as a figure hostile to the new political movements afoot. This combination of neglect and outright hostility pushed Diderot to the margins of French culture in the nineteenth century, and it would take another century before retrospective interest in his work would be renewed.
Too systematically committed to his materialism, too vigorous in his irreligion, and too passionate and principled in his embrace of egalitarianism and universal democracy to be acceptable to anyone with the slightest worry about the rising tides of radical socialism and materialist freethought, Diderot became a pariah for many in nineteenth-century France and Europe. Only after was interest in his work revived, thanks in part to the new editions of his writings, which made him newly available to scholars and readers, and to the changing cultural and political climate.
Soviet Marxists, for example, played a key role in reviving Diderot scholarship after , and contemporary Diderot studies, which is thriving today, is largely a twentieth-century creation. For a more complete biography of Diderot, see the Biographical Supplement. By the time of the Lettre sur les aveugles , Diderot has launched upon a philosophical project, or a set of intersecting projects, which will endure to the end of his life: a radicalization of empiricism in the direction of a materialist metaphysics, which also remains at times skeptical or at least anti-foundationalist with regard both to the possibility of an intellectual system, and to the existence of order or totality in the universe.
This reflects his deep awareness of the complexities of language itself, especially the immanent tendency for speech to refute itself and subvert its stated convictions. In brief, to reason like god is to reason like an advanced mathematician, especially one trained in the new analytical mathematics of the period, and to the extent that this kind of reasoning is adaptable to human language itself, it allows for human thinking to connect with the divine order of things through a proper practice of rigorous cognitive and linguistic discipline.
He was especially attentive to the crucial role that language plays in rendering experiential phenomena suitable for human knowledge, and if he was critical of the over-emphasis upon mathematics as the supreme model for a fully rigorous scientific language, he was nevertheless Malebranchian in treating the relation between experiential phenomena, linguistic description, and human knowledge in all its variety as the epistemological zone that mattered most.
He also explicitly ties eclecticism to an attention to language and discursivity in philosophy. Founders of discursivity are eclectics, distinct from syncretists Diderot mentions Luther and Bruno as examples. V: It is a powerful kind of relativism. Diderot expresses his materialism in this work through the character of a blind man, also because he is like a living counterexample to the argument from design.
In a further twist, Diderot also equates the blind man with idealist metaphysics since it is also cut off from direct sensory engagement with the world. Here, empiricism is no longer just a doctrine about the sources of knowledge, i. The world of a blind man is different from that of a deaf man, and so forth. Further, an individual who possessed a sense in addition to our five senses would find our ethical horizon quite imperfect DPV IV: My idea would be to decompose a man, so to speak, and examine what he derives from each of the senses he possesses.
I recall how I was once concerned with this sort of metaphysical anatomy, and had found that of all the senses, the eye was the most superficial, the ear the most proud, smell the most pleasurable, and taste the deepest, most philosophical sense. It would be a pleasant society, I think—one composed of five people, each of whom only possessed one sense.
They would undoubtedly call each other mad, and I leave you to imagine how right they might be. Yet this is an image for what happens to everyone: one only has one sense and one judges on everything. DPV IV: Experimental philosophy does not know what its work will yield or fail to yield; but it works without pause. On the contrary, rational philosophy weighs the possibilities, makes pronouncements, and stops there. It boldly declares, light cannot be decomposed ; experimental philosophy listens, and remains silent for centuries; then suddenly shows us the prism, and declares, light is decomposed.
He is often confronted with the need to continue his analysis of phenomena beyond the limits of strict empiricism: the nature of matter, the limits of animation or on the more internal scale, the functioning of the nervous system or the mechanics of generation. And here the need for metaphysical imagination comes into play, which is not the same as a strictly abstract metaphysics.
But his articulation of all of these in a materialist project does not belong to or open onto an episode amongst others in the history of science. Diderot opposed the novelty and conceptual significance of the life sciences to what he incorrectly judged to be the historical stagnation of mathematics:. We are on the verge of a great revolution in the sciences. Given the taste people seem to have for morals, belles-lettres , the history of nature and experimental physics, I dare say that before a hundred years, there will not be more than three great geometricians remaining in Europe.
We will not go beyond. In these passages, he is also squarely locating his materialist preoccupations within the former. The entry does not bear his name, but large parts of the content occur elsewhere in his writings, and it is included in all editions of his works.
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