A couple years ago, while wandering through the Portobello Market in Notting Hill, a booth with old prints caught my eye. A few of the prints seemed to be prints of scientific images, annotated in French.
I bought a page from that booth, having no idea what it was (and not yet knowing how bad it is to buy individual pages from rare books.) I thought it was interesting because of its scientific content – it is a page titled “Hydrostatique, Hydrodynamique, et Hydraulique,” illustrating some properties of liquids and hydraulics, including an Archimedes screw used for pumping water.
A friend of mine who works with rare books pointed me to the fact that this is a page of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, an 18th-century French encyclopedia. I still didn’t realize how interesting this encyclopedia was until I read a book titled “Enlightening the World: Encyclopédie, The Book That Changed the Course of History,” by Phillip Blom.
This encyclopedia is an interesting – and surprisingly detailed – compendium of knowledge of science, art, and crafts gathered between 1750 and 1772. Originally, the project was conceived to be a translation of an English encyclopedia, but the plan quickly changed under the editorship of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. The Encyclopedia took contributions from a number of famous enlightenment thinkers, including Voltaire and Rousseau.
The philosophers who wrote the encyclopedia used this reference book as a way to subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly comment on their society. One of their major targets was religion, and the religious hierarchy of 18th-century France. This commentary was explicitly written in articles (usually in articles that didn’t specifically cover religion), and implicitly a part of the organization of the book itself.
The system of categorization that the book used was both new, and subversive to the religious thinking of the day. First of all – and this seems so natural today that we forget that it was a new system – was listing all entries in alphabetical order. This was not the first publication to be organized this way, but it was a recent innovation. This allowed arts, science, and crafts to be figuratively at the same level as religious subjects. Previous organization systems would list God as the highest level of knowledge, and then branches of human though or reason to fall under religious categories. Alphabetizing the entires allowed all entries to be egalitarian.
Even more worrisome to the religious powers at the time was the incendiary introduction written by D’Alemebert (the second editor of the encyclopedia, but ultimately not as great a contributor as Diderot). D’Alembert laid out the “Figurative System of Human Knowledge,” inspired by Francis Bacon. At the top level this system includes Memory, Reason, and Imagination – nothing clearly religious. Further down in the categorization, this categorization is even more explicit in challenging religion – it lays out theology under philosophy, rather than at the top level of human thought.
Various religious (and secular) figures tried to end the encyclopedia at different times, nearly halting the production of the Encyclopédie and by edict of Parliament declaring it dead in 1759. However, the Encyclopedia became a large enough enterprise that it survived the attacks from religious and secular leaders, and was published in 28 volumes over twenty-five years. Its influence shaped French society of the 18th century, and its philosophy was the direct precursor to the French Revolution.
If you’re more interested in the Encyclopédie, a few places to find more information: