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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


DIDEROT

(1713 — 84)

 

ECLECTICISM

Denis Diderot was born in Langres, France, the son of a master cutler, and educated by the Jesuits and at the University of Paris (1729-32). For many years, and often in poverty, he furthered his education by private study, especially in languages and the sciences, earning a meagre living as a translator. From 1746-72 he worked on his great Encyclopedia (with d'Alembert as co-editor). The appearance of this work led to much criticism and censorship by political and religious authorities. He was also a novelist and dramatist and the author of many satirical essays. Befriended by Catherine the Great of Russia, he visited that country in 1773, and returned to Paris the following year.

 

PHILOSOPHY OF NATURE AND MAN

[1] Diderot held no fixed philosophical position. However, in general he held that the universe (like his thought) is constantly in flux and is material. All things contain within themselves opposites [a] — being and non-being, growth and decay. Motion and 'sensitivity' are intrinsic (not given by God): he allows for the possibility that the smallest particles of matter, atoms, might possess some primitive inner force or consciousness and perceptual capacities [b]. Moreover the development of the world is evolutionary. Material things become more complex, leading to the emergence of animate beings. Man's cognitive and psychological life (sensations and association of ideas) is grounded in physiology. The self is thus understood ultimately in material terms [c]. The will, he says, is the final impulse of 'desire' or 'aversion' and is thus 'determined' [see D'Alembert's Dream] [d].

 

KNOWLEDGE/ LANGUAGE

[2] Because the universe is constantly changing (only the infinite totality can be regarded as permanent), science, Diderot says, cannot provide any ultimate knowledge of nature. Our limited knowledge, however, is to be obtained through the experimental method, which is rational, but not through pure reason on its own. As for mathematics, this can of itself give us no direct insight into reality [see Interpretation of Nature] [a]. He also warns against the using of abstractions [b], that is, symbols or linguistic signs, without regard to any content which can tie them to the empirical world; otherwise this can introduce obscurity into our thinking [D'Alembert's Dream].

 

ETHICS/ RELIGION/ POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY

[3] [See D'Alembert's Dream.] Diderot accepted that ethics should be grounded in the law of nature: but he located this in human nature — the unity of instincts, feelings, desires, and not in any absolute a priori moral principles of rationalist theology [a]. (As to his own religious beliefs, he was initially a deist but later turned atheist.) His approach tended to be pragmatic and empirical; and he appealed to the ideals of benevolence and humanity as guides to moral behaviour [b]. In his later years he advocated a form of Stoicism. In his political philosophy he anticipated social contract theories [c]. Sovereignty lies with the people, to whom legislatures should be subordinate. Critical of the power of organized religion, he argued in favour of the separation of church and state [d].

 

AESTHETICS

[4] [See D'Alembert's Dream and Encyclopedia article on 'the Beautiful'.] Diderot offers an empirical account of art and creativity. The genuine artist has the capacity to perceive relationships by means of association and analogies and to translate his emotions into works of art by means of his imagination. Using sounds, colours, words, gestures (depending on the kind of art he is working with) he can communicate subjective beauty — which relates to the works' inner rhythms or structures (harmony, proportion). Beauty is objective in so far as the totality of individual experiences of a work of art contributes to its utility in practical life (he rejects a priori transcendent 'realities'). The sublime relates to the emotions stimulated in the observers by a work of art [a]. Diderot also stressed the close association between aesthetics and ethics [b].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

An obvious objection is that Diderot's thought is in constant flux. Nevertheless, in his openness to new ideas, his reliance on empirical methods, and general eclecticism he epitomized, perhaps more than most, the best features of the French philosophes. His importance probably lies in his dissemination of Enlightenment philosophy through the Encyclopedia. He may also be seen as having anticipated Darwinism and modern theories of neural activity as the basis of mental phenomena. However, there is dispute as to the extent to which he was a materialist in his theory of knowledge and his account of human nature, and whether his 'reductionist' and determinist position is consistent with his ethics.

 

READING

Diderot: articles in the Encyclopédie; Penséees philosophiques (1746) (Philosophical Thoughts); Pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature (1754) (Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature); Rève de d'Alembert (1769) ("D'Alembert's Dream"). See Diderot, Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings, translated and edited by J. Stewart and J. Kemp, or editions by M. Jourdain, or J. Lough.

Studies

L. G. Crocker, Diderot, the Embattled Philosopher.

P. N. Furbank, Diderot: A Critical Biography.

 

 

CONNECTIONS

Diderot

 

Note: Arguably a central figure the French Enlightenment, Diderot was no doubt influenced by many of his contemporaries; certainly his thought has much in common with the ideas of, for example Voltaire (1694-1778), La Mettrie (1709-51), d'Alembert (1717-83), to name but a few. However, of the connections with other philosophes only those with Condillac and d'Holbach have been included below. [For comprehensive surveys see E. Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment and P. Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (2 volumes).]

General rejection of general scientific rationalism and principles of explanation characteristic of Enlightenment philosophers Hamann [1a b]

 

[1a] The material universe in flux; all things contain opposites

   Heraclitus

Holbach

[1a d]

[1a]

 

[1b] Motion intrinsic to matter (not given by God); inner force and perception in basic particles

   Descartes

   Leibniz

Holbach

[3e]

[2d]

[1a]

 

[1c] Cognitive and psychological life (sensations, association of ideas) grounded in physiology (self material); sensations and association of ideas

   Hobbes

   Locke

   Condillac

Holbach

[5a b]

[2a i]

[3a]

[1d]

 

[1d] Will as final desire or aversion; determinism

   Hobbes

Holbach

[5c]

[1b]

 

[2a] Knowledge limited (because universe changing) but through experimental science; maths on its own gives no insight

   Bacon (Francis)

   Descartes

[2e]

[1a c d]

 

[2b] Abstractions can lead to obscurity in thought    Bacon (Francis) [2c]

 

[3a] Ethics grounded in unitary human nature (feelings and manifesting law of nature; rejection of rationalism); virtue its own reward

   Seneca

   Shaftesbury

   Rousseau

   Condillac

   Holbach

[2b]

[1a b d]

[1b]

[4c]

[2a]

 

[3b] Benevolence and humanity guides to moral behaviour

   Seneca

   Shaftesbury

   Rousseau

   Holbach

[2c]

[1c]

[1c]

[2a]

 

[3c] The social contract and the general will    Rousseau [1f g]

 

[3d] Critical of organized religion; advocated separation of church and state

   Hobbes

   Rousseau

   Holbach

[7h]

[2a]

[2c]

 

[4a] Emotion and creative imagination; subjective beauty and objective beauty (in utility, not in transcendental 'reality'); sublimity and emotion

   Leibniz

   Shaftesbury

[5e]

[1e]

 

[4b] Aesthetics and ethics connected    Shaftesbury [1d]