Denis Diderot  

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Page from "Letter on the Deaf and Dumb" which illustrates Denis Diderot's take on medium specificity
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Page from "Letter on the Deaf and Dumb" which illustrates Denis Diderot's take on medium specificity

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Denis Diderot (October 5, 1713July 31, 1784) was a French philosopher and writer. He was a prominent figure in the Enlightenment, and editor-in-chief of the famous Encyclopédie.

Diderot also contributed to literature, notably with Jacques le fataliste et son maître (Jacques the Fatalist and His Master), which emulated Laurence Sterne in challenging conventions regarding novels, their structure and content, while also examining philosophical ideas about free will. Diderot is also known as the author of the essay, "Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown," upon which many an article and sermon about consumer desire has been based; and his risqué novels Les Bijoux indiscrets and La Religieuse.

In 1732, he earned a master of arts degree in philosophy. He abandoned the idea of entering the clergy and decided instead to study law. His study of the law, however, was short-lived. In 1734, Diderot decided instead to become a writer. Because of his refusal to enter one of the learned professions, he was disowned by his father, and for the next ten years he lived a rather bohemian existence.

In 1743, he further alienated his father by marrying Antoinette Champion, a devout Roman Catholic. The match was considered inappropriate because of Champion's low social status, poor education, fatherless status, lack of a dowry, and at thirty-two she was four years his senior. The marriage produced one surviving child, a girl. She was named Angelique after Diderot's mother and his dead sister. The death of his sister, a nun, from overwork in the convent may have affected Diderot's opinion of religion.

He had affairs with the writer Madame Puisieux and with Sophie Volland, to whom he was constant for the rest of her life. His letters to her are among the most graphic of all the pictures that we have of the daily life of the philosophic circle in Paris.

Though his work was broad and rigorous, it did not bring him riches. He secured none of the posts that were occasionally given to needy men of letters; he could not even obtain that bare official recognition of merit which was implied by being chosen a member of the Académie française. When the time came for him to provide a dowry for his daughter, he saw no alternative than to sell his library. When Catherine II of Russia heard of his straits, she commissioned an agent in Paris to buy the library, and then requested that the philosopher retain the books in Paris until she required them, and act as her librarian with a yearly salary. In 1773 and 1774, Diderot spent some months at the empress's court at St Petersburg.

He died of emphysema and dropsy in Paris on July 31, 1784, and was buried in the city's Eglise Saint-Roch. His heirs sent his vast library to Catherine II, who had it deposited at the Russian National Library.

Contents

Other works

Although the Encyclopédie was Diderot's monumental piece, he was the author of many other works that sowed nearly every field of intellectual interest with new and creative ideas. He wrote sentimental plays, Le Fils naturel (1757) and le père de famille (1758), accompanying them with essays on theatrical theory and practice, including "Les Entretiens sur Le Fils Naturel" (Conversations on The Natural Son), in which he announced the principles of a new drama: the 'serious genre', a realistic midpoint between comedy and tragedy that stood in opposition to the stilted conventions of the classical French stage. His art criticism was also highly influential. Diderot's Essais sur la peinture was described by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, as "a magnificent work, which speaks even more helpfully to the poet than to the painter, though to the painter too it is as a blazing torch."

Diderot's most intimate friend was the philologist Friedrich Melchior Grimm. They were brought together by their friend in common at that time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Grimm wrote newsletters to various high personages in Germany, reporting the happenings of art and literature in Paris, then the intellectual capital of Europe. Diderot helped Grimm between 1759 and 1779, by writing an account of the annual exhibitions of paintings in the Paris Salon. These reports are highly readable pieces of art criticism. According to Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, they initiated the French into a new way of laughing, and introduced people to the mystery and purport of colour by ideas. "Before Diderot," Anne Louise Germaine de Staël wrote, "I had never seen anything in pictures except dull and lifeless colours; it was his imagination that gave them relief and life, and it is almost a new sense for which I am indebted to his genius." Jean-Baptiste Greuze was Diderot's favorite contemporary artist. Greuze's most characteristic pictures were the rendering in colour of the same sentiments of domestic virtue and the pathos of common life, which Diderot had attempted to represent upon the stage.

Diderot was above all things interested in the life of individuals. He did not care about the abstract life of the race, but the incidents of individual character, the fortunes of a particular family, the relations of real and concrete motives in this or that special case. He was delighted with the enthusiasm of a born casuist in curious puzzles of right and wrong, and in devising a conflict between the generalities of ethics and the conditions of an ingeniously contrived practical dilemma. Diderot's interest expressed itself in didactic and sympathetic form. However, in two of his most remarkable pieces, this interest is not sympathetic, but ironic. Jacques le fataliste (written in 1773, but not published until 1792 in German and 1796 in French) is similar to Tristram Shandy and The Sentimental Journey. His dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau (Rameau's Nephew) is a "farce-tragedy" reminiscent of the Satires of Horace. A favorite classical author of Diderot's, Horace's words Vertumnis, quotquot sunt, natus iniquis are quoted at the top of the Nephew. Diderot's intention in writing the dialogue is disputed; whether it is merely a satire on contemporary manners, or a reduction of the theory of self-interest to an absurdity, or the application of irony to the ethics of ordinary convention, or a mere setting for a discussion about music, or a vigorous dramatic sketch of a parasite and a human original. Whatever its intent, it is a remarkable conversation, representing an era that held the art of conversation in the highest regard.

The writing and publication history of the Nephew is likewise a bit mysterious. Diderot never saw the work through to publication during his lifetime, but there is every indication it was of continual interest to him. Though the original draft was written in 1761, he made additions to it year after year until his death twenty-three years later. Goethe's translation (1805) was the first introduction of Le Neveu de Rameau to the European public. After executing it, he gave back the original French manuscript to Friedrich Schiller, from whom he had it. No authentic French copy of it appeared until the writer had been dead for forty years (1823). Diderot's miscellaneous pieces range from a graceful trifle like the Regrets sur ma vieille robe de chambre (Regrets for my Old Dressing Gown) up to Le rêve de D'Alembert, where he plunges into the depths of the controversy as to the ultimate constitution of matter and the meaning of life. Diderot was not a coherent and systematic thinker, but rather "a philosopher in whom all the contradictions of the time struggle with one another" (Rosenkranz). He did not develop a comprehensive system of materialism, but he may have made some contributions to the atheistic materialist works of his friend Paul Henri Thiry, baron d'Holbach.

Fourth wall

Diderot introduced the concept of the fourth wall, the imaginary "wall" at the front of the stage in a traditional three-walled box set in a proscenium theatre, through which the audience sees the action in the world of the play.

Philosophy

As a philosopher Diderot speculated on free will and held a completely materialistic view of the universe; he suggested all human behavior is determined by heredity. He therefore warned his fellow philosophers against an overemphasis on mathematics and against the blind optimism that sees in the growth of physical knowledge an automatic social and human progress. He rejected the Idea of Progress. In his opinion, the aim of explaining the universe through geometry was doomed to fail. Therefore, he founded his philosophy on experiment and the study of probabilities. He wrote several articles and supplements concerning gambling, mortality rates, and inoculation against smallpox for the Encyclopédie. There he discreetly but firmly refuted d'Alembert's technical errors and personal positions on probability.

Censorship

Diderot's celebrated Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient ("Letter on the Blind") (1749), introduced him to the world as a daringly original thinker and got him into trouble with the French censor.

The essay revolves around a deathbed scene in which the dying blind philosopher, Nicholas Saunderson, says to a priest "If you want me to believe in God, you must make me touch him." After its publication, Diderot is arrested and will spend three months in prison. After signing a letter of submission and promising never to write anything prejudicial against the religion again (with the result that his most controversial works were henceforth published only after his death) and much of the irreligion in the Encyclopédie is hidden in insignificant articles and in the strategic placement of cross-references, much like Pierre Bayle had hid his doubts in footnotes in his main work Historical and Critical Dictionary.

Bibliography

See also




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