Western philosophy and cultural life

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How significant was Denis Diderot (1713-1784) in the development of the Enlightenment?

The Enlightenment which is centred around the seventeenth and eighteenth Century is used to describe a time in Western Philosophy and cultural life where a series of changes in European thought and letters. The enlightenment was an intellectual movement which is an in the Free from feudal obligations that bound the peasants and the nobles their land, members of the new urban middle class wanted to develop their individual potentials. The Enlightenment also had a significant influence on the scientific revolution and by the aftermath of the long religious conflict that followed the Reformation. It also led to developments in art and philosophy which was mainly seen in the works of Denis Diderot.

One of the most radical philosophers of the Enlightenment was Denis Diderot. Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic and writer in the 18th century. Diderot is argued amongst historians as to how much of a significant role he played in the enlightenment was considered to be a important figure for the enlightenment. Diderot's effect can be seen to have affected all aspects of society by the enlightenment.

One factor why Diderot was the most significant leader of the Enlightenment can been seen here with a passage take from one of diderots early philosophical works."That, says the atheist, is my case; what have you say to it? "That I am a miserable wretch and if i had nothing to fear from God, I should not be debuting his existence." Let us leave such an answer to orators; it may be untrue; politeness forbids it and it has no savour of charity about it. Because a man is mistaken in his denial of god, should we insult him? People only take refuge in invective when they are run short of proofs"[1] Diderot also had created religious tensions but on the other hand this was positively significant. The source of Diderot above is an example of Diderot's idea of free will and that people can believe what they want to believe and that proof needs to be provided in order for things to be believed. When Diderot takes his standpoint its clear, in that seizes his hypothesis and will take it to the end regardless of its consequences.

Denis Diderot was clearly the one of the most significant people to contribute to the enlightenment. An example of Diderot's significance in the Enlightenment is the fact he had to be imprisoned at Vicennes for 3 months in 1749 because of his Lettre sur les aveugles (An Essay on blindness) which was one of his popular early works. This also shows one that impression of taking his standpoint . The Lettre sur les aveugles It was an attempt to teach the blind how to read through the sense of touch along lines. It was also an attempt which questioned God and supported Lockes theory. "Diderot recognises the determining effects of the market on culture during his own time and anticipates the appearance of mass markets in the late nineteenth century. In this respect he shares with Rousseau an anticipatory vision of cultural modernity"[2] Diderot was clearly a significant figure in the enlightenment positive social and cultural improvements were unconscious motives can be seen in his work. Whether he was seeking to help others or just for his own interest Diderot was significant in the enlightenment.

Another factor of Diderot significance is In 1745, when Diderot's published his first piece of work was the Essai sur le merite et la vertu. The same year that he began working on the encyclopede. Emmet Kennedy cites Diderot as a turning point in the eighteenth- century scientific theory as well as philosophy. He writes "In 1754 Diderot predicted that 'we are approaching the moment of a great revolution in the sciences...I would dare almost to assert that before one hundred years are up, we will not count three great geometricians in Europe. 'this has often been interpreted as the clue to a change, around mid-century, when a mechanistic, natural philosophy like that of laplace gave way to vitalistic biology like that of lamarack" [3] Diderot, nonetheless, owes a tremendous dept to his contemporaries. "From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step."[4]Here is an example of the radicalism of Diderot which affected the religious aspects of the world yet his attitude to religion is a poor one. "The philosopher has never killed any priests, whereas the priest has killed a great many philosophers."[5] This is an example of how the church despised his writings on questioning god following Locke and on the thought of evolution.

"if ever a philosopher, blind and deaf from his birth, were to construct a man after the fashion of Descartes, i can assure, madam, that he would put the seat of the soul at the fingers' ends, for thence the greater part of the sensations and all his knowledge are derived. Who is to inform him that his head is the seat of thoughts? If the labours of the imagination tire our brain, this is because the effort we make to imagine is somewhat similar to that to perceive very near or very small objects. But this would not be the case with a man blind and deaf from birth, for the sensations which he gathered from touch will be their world"

Another reason why Diderot was the most significant figure of the enlightenment can be found in the interpreatation made by specialist historian Daniel Brewer who comments on the depth which Diderot goes to into when he writes which makes him the significant figure of the enlightenment. "Diderot cannot just write 'about' it, that is, as if he were outside it, as if the subject of knowledge occupied some transcendental position from which to survery, master, and comprehend nature. Rather, Diderot will write "de la nature," from within it, so to speak, thereby marking the link between knowledge and its object. Diderot's insight here is to refuse the kind of knowledge that claims to know nature as such, and he does so in the name of another kind of knowledge, that of nature as representation"[6] Diderot was a very significant writer of the Enlightenment with dedicating his life to the enlightenment. The interpretation made by Daniel Brewer is a fair interpretation on the enlightened way of thinking that Diderot had and this is why he was one of the most significant people of the enlightenment.

One must begin to understand that Diderot dedicated much of his life to writings of the enlightenment More famously known for being the editor to the Encyclopédie, Diderot also did many other writings on the enlightenment and especially having a philosophical look into the ideas of free will .Yet can one consider him of major significance to the Age of enlightenment.

One of the most significant factors that Denis Diderot is one of the most influenced characters of the enlightenment is the fact that he was the main Editor for the Encyclopédie. The Encyclopedia began forming in 1745 and was finally published in 1772 qith 17volumes and 11 engravings by varuoous authers ."The Encyclopédie was a main contribution to the enlightenment of Europe, it was considered the French Enlightenment's real breakthrough" by historian T.C.W Blanning[7]. B Diderot had dedicated his life to helping others expand their knowledge therefore adding Diderot to the list of prime initiators of the enlightenment. Before the Encyclopaedia there was no real collection of knowledge, rather it was in separate place. "It was also an epoch-making-and very profitable- venture in publishing. Its 4,000 copies were widely disseminated throughout France, although the initial subscription price of 280 livres (about £14), restricted its circulation, even amongst historians"[8]

Another aspect of this is that the encyclopedie would have contributed to the geographical spread of the enlightenment. The enlightenment would reach those small towns and villages but it would depend on the interests of the squire and the parson. "Even at this level there may have been more individual activity than one might suppose: of the forty copies of the Encyclopedie know to have existed in Perigord, twenty- four belonged to the parish priests"[9] This then shows that Diderot's work was of much significance in Europe show by his spread even to those smaller poorer towns.

Another point of Diderot's significance is his role especially in literature was in the Jacques le fataliste et son maître which examined philosophical ideas of free will and his articles had many topics on the enlightenment. "What is a sceptic? A philosopher who has questioned all he believes, and who believes what a legitimate use of his reason and his senses has proved to him to be true. Do you want a more precise definition? Make a pyrrhonist sincere, an you have to be sceptic".[10]

"One day somebody asked a man if real atheists existed. Do you think, he responded that real Christians exist?"[11]

We have seen the ideas of how significant Denis Diderot was in the Enlightenment with his life dedication to the interest of the enlightenment. We will now look at the ways that some may have found he was less significant and the weakness he had that historians have commented on him being too radical and he struggled.

Also one must be aware that the encyclopedie attracted many scholars from around the world the encyclopedie was not just diderots work who contributed text including: Ben Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire Chevalier de Jaucourt, and many others.

Another point that Diderot was not a significant role in the enlightenment was that many of his writing was not published after his death thus suggesting that Diderot was too radical. Diderot pensées sur l'interprétation de la nature did not achieve more than two editions. On the other hand one might see this as it was something like his encyclopedie that needed to get him an interest by the public as the pensees sur

"Diderot had acquired merely by being born at the proper time and place owed its main impetus"

Blanning also comments on the radical parts of the enlightenment such as in the "Histoire philosophique et politique des deux indes"(The Philosph

To conclude one can see that Denis Diderot was one of the most significant figures of the Enlightenment he had a strong effect on aspects within the world, some may have considered him radical but one might just call this committed as Diderot was a man who dedicated his life to the study of the enlightenment. One can the effects of Diderot as momentous, it created a enlightened world along with the other philosophers who contributed there parts in the enlightenment. This is especially evident in the examples however the whole period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which one might argue as the age of reason or age of rationalism you clearly see a gradual change in thinking. It appeared with hindsight that Denis Diderot appeared to be most accurate and followed great philosophers like John Locke or in his thinking as he created the foundations for today.

"the great movement of the eighteenth century was a literary one- it was not the new discoveries of science in that epoch but, rather, the French philosophe movement that determined western civilisation was to take. The discoveries of the seventeenth century science were translated into a new outlook and a new world view, not by scientists themselves, but by the heirs and successors of fonteminology "Enlightenment" or "Age of Enlightenment" does not represent a single movement or school of thought, for these philosophies were often mutually contradictory or divergent. The Enlightenment was less a set of ideas than it was a set of values. At its core was a critical questioning of traditional institutions, customs, and morals. Thus, there was still a considerable degree of similarities between competing philosophies. Also, some philosophical schools of the period could not be considered part of the Enlightenment at all. Some classifications of this period also include the late seventeenth century, which is typically known as the Age of Reason or Age of Rationalism.[3]

each volume contained history, science, math, and theoretical thoughts by various authors. In it he often denounced Christianity; one of the chief reasons he wrote the book is because of Christians' thousand year record of destroying and burning libraries, and so, in prevention of this happening again, he gathered as much knowledge as possible into one text so it couldn't be lost. Diderot wrote almost one thousand of its articles, and the rest were submitted by prestigious scholars from around the world, including: Ben Franklin, Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire Chevalier de Jaucourt, and many others.

Diderot anonymously wrote, in 1746, the "Pensees philosophiques," a collection of aphorisms, which was burned by the Parliament of Paris for its anti-Christian ideas. In 1749 he was imprisoned at Vicennes for three months because of he "Lettre sur les aveugles," which supports Locke's Theory of Knowledge and questioned the existence of God. He was release from prison by the influence of Voltaire's friend Mme.

The roots of the Enlightenment began in the 17th century, beginning with rationalism and the laws of Descartes and Newton. Discoveries in natural science alchemized into the Enlightenment; society began observing and making conclusions on these observations, rather than just accepting what is told to them. The analytic method which Newton, Descartes, Galileo, and the other great discoverers were using became applied to the entire field of knowledge and thoughts, leading to many remarkable ideas. "The real power of reason lay not in the possession but in the acquisition of truth," said Lessings. Society began looking for truths, looking at everything logically, and breaking the demarcations of dogmatism. Furthermore, unlike Socrates, logic was applied to rid the society of evils and injustice, rather than to just point the wrongs out. The Enlightenment dislodged the majority of society from the grasp that government and religion bestowed upon them, which plays a role in the French Revolution. The Enlightenment is credited to a core group of intellectual people: Voltaire, Hume, LeMettrie, d'Holbach, Pascal, Gibbon, Pierre Bayle- writer of a dictionary of history, he was a Galileo of history-, Montesquieu, Leibnitz, and most importantly, Diderot.

Du Chatelet, showing the close ties among the revolutionary thinkers. Over the next thirty years Diderot wrote some of his most important works: Lettre sur les sourds et muets, Pensees sur L'interpretation de la nature, the novel La religieuse, Le neveu de Rameau, the plays Le fils naturel and Le pere de famille and La religieuse which received fair success. Some of his books were not published because of his radical thoughts. One book, Supplement au Voyage de Bougainville, which wasn't published until 1796, criticized slavery and colonialism. In the book and old Tahitian man says to a man leaving the island, "We are free people; and now you have planted the title deeds of our future slavery. You are neither god nor demon; who are you, then, to make slaves? Orou! You understand the language of these men, tell us all, as you have told me, what they have written on this sheet of metal: 'This country is ours.' This country is yours? And why? Because you have walked thereon? If a Tahitian landed one day on your shores, and scratched on one of your rocks or on the bark of your trees: 'This country is belongs to the people of Tahiti'- what would you think?"

Diderot and his Encyclopedie are most accountable for the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was all about expanding the realm of knowledge to all people, and Diderot's encyclopedia accomplished that exquisitely. Instead of only publishing one view-point, like most philosophers, Diderot was showing as many perspectives as possible and left it up to the reader to choose which beliefs should be accepted. In spite of the Encyclopedie's placing on the Vatican's Index of Forbidden Books, like many other writings by Diderot, the Encyclopedie was in every major library and became the most used resource in all libraries and homes that possessed it.

Needless to say, the Enlightenment and the French Revolution are strongly tied. The State and Church are, too, strongly connected. The State needs the church to remind the people of the Divine Right of Kings, and the Church needs the State to keep its immense holdings, about half of Europe, tax free. The Encyclopedie stirred commotion for the Revolution because the State and Church saw that knowledge could bring doubt and an end to them, so they vainly banned the first two volumes. This was no use though, because it was too popular to be stifled. Many articles of the Encyclepedie were resentful of the crown and clergy, and publicly opened eyes of others to what truly went on in nunneries and monasteries. Denis Diderot died eight years after publication, just before France became so resentful at the oppressive rule of royalty and clergy that France either exiled them or chopped off their head.

Diderot's life was spent relieving dogmatism, tradition, and authority to better the people of Europe. His life was not in vein, for he largely contributed to the Enlightenment and sparked the French Revolution. "Once the sun has been extinguished, what will be the result? Plants will perish, animals will perish, the earth will become desolate and silent. Light up the star once more, and you will immediately restore the necessary cause whereby an infinite number of new species will be generated..." said Diderot in a conversation with d'Alembert. In a time which dogmatism, government, religion, and illiteracy had blocked the sun out, Diderot lit up a star once more.

For a clear discussion of maupertuis's influence on Diderot, especially on the important concept of sensibilité, see Aram Vartanian, "Diderot and Maupertuis."For a discussion of the productive relationship between Diderot and d'holdbach, see Joisaine Boulad- Ayoub, "Diderot et d'Holbach: un systéme matérialiste de la nature."[12]

  1. Page 33 Diderot Early Philosophical works translated and edited by Margaret Jourdain
  2. page 101 mass enlightenment critical studies in rousseau and diderot
  3. Mass Enlightenment Critical studies in Roussea and Diderot page 63-64 emmer kennedy
  4. Denis Diderot, Essai sur le Mérite de la Vertu (1745)
  5. Denis Diderot, Observations on Drawing Up of Laws (1774), repr. in Lester G Crocker, ed, Selected Writings, ed. (1966), quoted from The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations
  6. Page 89 The discourse of enlightenment in eighteenth-century france- Daniel Brewer
  7. Page 155 the eighteenth century tcw blanning
  8. Page 86 The enlightenment- the pelican history of European thought 4 norman hampson+
  9. Page 18 daniel Brewer The discourse of the enlightenment in the eighteenth century in france
  10. Page 45 Diderot early philosophical thoughts marget
  11. Page 34 diderot early philosophical works
  12. Page 63-4 Mass Enlightenment critical studies in Rousseau and Diderot Emmet Kennedy