Diderot’s Encyclopedia


A review
The Encyclopedia
Stephen J. Gendzier
Harper & Row, 1967, 246 pages

Diderot’s Encyclopedia
By Wade Lee Hudson

With forty collaborators, including writers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, and many more contributors, the 18th Century French polymath Denis Diderot served as principal editor of the Enlightenment’s remarkable The Encyclopedia. Diderot wrote many of the entries himself. Exactly how many is unknown because he didn’t sign much of his work in order to avoid a second prison sentence. He and other co-editors were imprisoned at times for offending the Church and the Monarchy. 

The Encyclopedia, which aimed to cover the whole range of human knowledge of the time, was on the cutting edge of a cultural revolution that emerged from the Dark Ages, when intellectuals had been prone to debate abstractions like how many angels could sit on the head of a pin. The Encyclopedia immediately received a strong reception. The editors sold many paid subscriptions in advance to finance publication. Among other innovative thoughts, the 28-volume series promoted natural human rights, opposed slavery, advanced democracy, and vigorously supported the scientific method. In so doing, they helped lay the groundwork for the French Revolution.

The Encyclopedia inspired the structure of this Systemopedia, which consists of interrelated subjects arranged alphabetically. My advisers and I aren’t polymaths like Diderot, but we have Google to extend our brains! And our intent is not to include all knowledge (such as crafts-making techniques). Rather, we focus on material that relates to the nature of our global social system and how it can be transformed. 

Of particular relevance to our work is the Encyclopedists’ affirmation of systemic thinking. In his Introduction to The Encyclopedia: Selections, Stephen J. Gendzler writes:

Such [cross references] were first of all intended to clarify complex subjects and to show all the relationships between things and between words, then to illuminate the truth in all areas, to demonstrate the unity of knowledge….  The Encyclopedists’ cross references are an immediate sign to proceed with caution, to examine both sides of the issue, to see the dialectical play of ideas in order to discover the truth as they saw it.

The Encyclopedia’s definition of “encyclopedia,” written by Diderot, declared that their aim was

to collect all the knowledge scattered over the face of the earth, to present its general outlines and structure to the men with whom we live, and to transmit this to those who will come after us, so that the work of past centuries may be useful to the following centuries, that our children, by becoming more educated, may at the same time become more virtuous and happier, and that we may not die without having deserved well of the human race.

In the opening “Preliminary Discourse,” co-editor d’Alembert announced the intention to “explain the order and interrelations of human knowledge.” Affirming the unity of mind and body, he said, “We owe all of our ideas to our sensations,” which are “external to us before we perceive the nature of the thinking matter within us.”

D’Alembert wrote that Logic “teaches man to arrange his ideas in the most natural order, to group those which are closely related, to consider all sides of a problem, and finally to present ideas to other people in such a manner that they are easy to grasp…[so] that the chain of connection is never broken.”

D’Alembert argued that Politics is “a sort of moral system” that requires “profound knowledge.” And he said, “This is especially true if the person in politics is determined not to forget that natural law, which is anterior to all particular covenants, is also the first law of nations and that to be a statesman does not mean one ceases to be a man.”

The Encyclopedists railed against abstractions divorced from reality. They affirmed a holistic perspective and did not believe in a spirit world separate from the material world. D’Alembert wrote, “Most of the great minds during those dark ages... were preoccupied with a thousand frivolous questions about abstract and metaphysical beings instead of thoroughly investigating Nature and studying man.”

He acknowledged the difficulty of acquiring psychological knowledge. “And how would these kinds of feelings not be difficult to analyze with precision? If, on the one hand, it is necessary to submit oneself to these strong emotions in order to really know them, on the other hand, the period of time when the soul is so affected is not the moment to study these passions.”

D’Alembert also reflects on another social pattern that is eerily contemporary. “People hold discourses instead of talking together,” he wrote, “and society has lost its principal amenities, the warmth and gaiety of atmosphere.”  

Of particular relevance to the Systemopedia is The Encyclopedia’s “system” entry, which is credited to “Anonymous.” It includes:

A system is nothing more than the arrangement of the different elements of an art or a science in an order that makes them mutually dependent; the primary elements lead to and account for the final ones. Those which explain the others are called principles, and the system is all the more perfect as the  principles are fewer in number: it is even to be desired that they be reduced to one. For just as there is a principle spring in a clock on which all the others depend, there is also in all systems a first principle to which the different elements that compose them are subordinated. 

We can observe in the works of philosophers three kinds of principles, from which three kinds of systems are formed….  Consequently I shall call abstract systems those that only deal with abstract systems; hypotheses those that only have suppositions as a foundation; and true systems those that depend only upon well proven facts…. Judging by the only idea we must have of a system, it is evident that we improperly apply the word system to those works in which some people claim to explain nature by means of a few abstract principles…. 

There does not exist a science or an art in which systems cannot be made; but in some, men propose to explain effects; while in others, to arrange and cause them. The first goal is that of physics; the second is that of politics.

The Systemopedia is based on a similar understanding of systems, as well as many of the humanistic values affirmed by The Encyclopedia. The various elements of our global social system are mutually dependent and held together by a central principle, or purpose: to teach and encourage everyone to climb social ladders, look down on those below, and look up to those above. Without a central purpose, society would crumble. As the world has been globalized, or Americanized, the System is now global. 

To fundamentally rearrange the elements of the System, or transform it, will require establishing a new central principle. For that purpose, we propose: to serve all humanity, the environment, and life itself. 

To be successful, this transformation must avoid becoming addicted to abstract, idealized ideologies that are divorced from reality. Rather, we can affirm a principled pragmatism focused on short-term, achievable goals, including structural reforms, that are supported by super-majorities and move toward an agreed-on long-term, transformative vision by means of evolutionary revolution. We cannot predict when that transformation will happen, but when it happens, humanity will know.