From Cyclopaedia to Encyclopédie: experiments in machine translation and sequence alignment

Figure 1. Title page from the 1745 prospectus of the first Encyclopédie project. This page image is taken from ARTFL’s 18th Volume of the Encyclopédie.

It is well known that the Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers began first as a modest translation project of Ephraim Chambers’ Cyclopaedia in 1745. Over the next few years, Diderot and D’Alembert would replace the original editors and the project would be duly transformed from a simple translation into an effort to compile and organise the sum total of the world’s knowledge. Over the course of their editorial work, Diderot, and most notably D’Alembert, were not shy in incorporating these translations of the Cyclopaedia as filler for the Encyclopédie. Indeed, ‘ils ont laissé une bonne partie de ces articles presque inchangés, ou avec des modifications insignifiantes’ (Paolo Quintili, ‘D’Alembert “traduit” Chambers. Les articles de mécanique de la Cyclopædia à l’Encyclopédie’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 21 (1996), p.75). The philosophes were nonetheless conscious of their debt to their English predecessor Chambers. His name appears some 1154 times in the text of the Encyclopédie and he is referenced as sole or contributing source to 1081 articles, where his name appears in italics at the end of a section or article. Given the scale of the two works under consideration, systematic evaluation of the extent of the philosophes’ use of Chambers has remained, even today, a daunting task. John Lough, in 1980, framed the problem nicely: ‘So far no one has had the patience to make a detailed study of the exact relationship between the text of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the work of Ephraim Chambers. This would no doubt require several years of arduous toil devoted to comparing the two works article by article’(‘The Encyclopédie and Chambers’ Cyclopaedia’, SVEC 185 (1980), p.221).

Recent developments in machine translation and sequence alignment now offer new possibilities for the systematic comparison of digital texts across languages. The following post outlines some recent experimental work in leveraging these new techniques in an effort to reduce the ‘arduous toil’ of textual comparison, giving some preliminary examples of the kinds of results that can be achieved, and providing some cursory observations on the advantages and limitations of such systems for automatic text analysis.

Our two comparison datasets are the ARTFL Encyclopédie (v. 1117) and the recently digitised ARTFL edition of the 1741 Chambers’ Cyclopaedia (link). The 1741 edition was selected as it was one of the likely sources for the translation original project and we were able to work from high quality pages images provided by the University of Chicago Library (On the possible editions of the Cyclopaedia used by the encyclopédistes, see Irène Passeron, ‘Quelle(s) édition(s) de la Cyclopœdia les encyclopédistes ont-ils utilisée(s)?’, Recherches sur Diderot et sur l’Encyclopédie 40-41 (2006), p.287-92.) In a nutshell, our approach was to generate a machine translation of all of the Cyclopaedia articles into French and then use ARTFL’s Text-PAIR sequence alignement system to identify similar passages between this virtual French Cyclopaedia and the Encyclopédie, with the translation providing links back to the original English edition of the Chambers as well as links to the relevant passages in the Encyclopédie.

For the English to French machine translation of Chambers, we examined two of the most widely used resources in this domain, Google Translate and DeepL. Both systems provide useful Application Programming Interfaces [APIs] as part of their respective subscription services, and both provide translations based on cutting-edge neural network language models. We compared results from various samples and found, in general, that both systems worked reasonably well, given the complications of eighteenth-century vocabularies (in both English and French) and many uncommon and archaic terms (this may be the subject of a future post). While DeepL provided somewhat more satisfying translations from a reader’s perspective, we ultimately opted to use Google Translate for the ease of its API and its ability to parse the TEI encoding of our documents with little difficulty. The latter is of critical importance, since we wanted to keep the overall document structure of our dictionaries to allow for easy navigation between the versions.

Operationally, we segmented the text of the Cyclopaedia into short blocks, split at paragraph breaks, and sent them for automatic translation via the Google API, with a short delay between blocks. This worked relatively well, though the system would occasionally throw timeout or other errors, which required a query resend. You can inspect the translation results here – though this virtual French edition of the Chambers is not really meant for public consumption. Each article has a link at the bottom to the corresponding English version for the sake of comparison. It is important to note that the objective here is NOT to produce a good translation of the text or even one that might serve as the basis for a human edition. Rather, this machine-generated edition exists as a ‘pivot-text’ between the English Chambers and the French Encyclopédie, allowing for an automatic comparison of the two (or three) versions using a highly fault-tolerant sequence aligner designed to pick out commonalities in very noisy document spaces. (See Clovis Gladstone, Russ Horton, and Mark Olsen, ‘TextPAIR (Pairwise Alignment for Intertextual Relations)’, ARTFL Project, University of Chicago, 2008-2021, and, more specifically, Mark Olsen, Russell Horton and Glenn Roe, ‘Something borrowed: sequence alignment and the identification of similar passages in large text collections’, Digital Studies / Le Champ numérique 2.1 (2011).)

The next step was to establish workable parameters for the Text-PAIR alignment system. The challenge here was to find commonalities between the French translations created by eighteenth-century authors and translators and machine translations produced by a modern automatic translation system. Additionally, the editors and authors of the Encyclopédie were not necessary constrained to produce an exact translation of the text in question, but could and did, make significant modifications to the original in terms of length, style, and content. To address this challenge we ran a series of tests with different matching parameters such as n-gram construction (e.g., number of words that constitue an n-gram), minimum match lengths, maximum gaps between matches, and decreasing match requirements as a match length increased (what we call a ‘flex gap’) among others on a representative selection of 100 articles from the Encyclopédie where Chambers was identified as the possible source. It is important to note that even with the best parameters, which we adjusted to get favorable recall and precision results, we were only able to identify 81 of the 100 articles. (See comparison table. The primary parameters chosen were bigrams, stemmer=true, word len=3, maxgap=12, flexmatch=true, minmatchingngrams=5. Consult the TextPair documentation and configuration file for a description of these values.) Some articles, even where clearly affiliated, were missed by the aligner, due to the size of the articles (some are very small) and fundamental differences in the translation of the English. For example, the article ‘Compulseur’ is attributed by Mallet to Chambers, but the machine translation of ‘Compulsor’ is a rather more literal and direct translation of the English article than what is offered by Mallet. Further relaxing matching parameters could potentially find this example, but would increase the number of false positives, in effect drowning out the signal with increased noise.

All things considered, we were quite happy with the aligner’s performance given the complexity of the comparison task and the multiple potential variations between historical text and modern machine translations. To give an example of how fine-grained and at the same time highly flexible our matching parameters needed to be, see the below article ‘Gynaecocracy’, which is a fairly direct translation on a rather specialised subject, but that nonetheless matched on only 8 content words (fig. 2).

Figure 2. Comparisons of the article ‘Gynaecocracy’.

Other straightforward articles were however missed due to differences in the translation and sparse matching n-grams, see for example the small article on ‘Occult’ lines in geometry below, where the 6 matching words weren’t enough to constitute a match for the aligner (fig. 3).

Figure 3. Comparisons of the geometry article ‘Occult’.

Obviously this is a rather inexact science, reliant on an outside process of automatic translation and the ability to match a virtual text that in reality never existed. Nonetheless the 81% recall rate we attained on our sample corpus seemed more than sufficient for this experiment and allowed us to move forward towards a more general evaluation of the entirety of identified matches.

Once settled on the optimal parameters, we then Text-PAIR to generate both an alignment database, for interactive examination, and a set of static files. Both of these results formats are used for this project. The alignment database contains some 7304 aligned passage pairs. The system allows queries on metadata, such as author and article title as well as words or phrases found in the aligned passages. The system also uses faceted browsing to allow the user to summarize results by the various metadata (for more on this, see Note below). Each aligned passage is presented as a facing page representation and the user can toggle a display of all of the variations between the two aligned passages. As seen below, the variations between the texts can be extensive (fig. 4).

Figure 4. Text-PAIR interface showing differences in the article ‘Air’.

Text-PAIR also contextualises results back to the original document(s). For example, the following is the article ‘Almanach’ by D’Alembert, showing the aligned passage from Chambers in blue (fig. 5).

Figure 5. Article ‘Almanach’ with shared Chambers passages in blue.

In this instance, D’Alembert reused almost all of Chambers’ original article ‘Almanac’, with some minor variations, but does not to appear to have indicated the source of the first part of his article (page image).

The alignment database is a useful first pass to examine the results of the alignment process, but it is limited in at least two ways. It identifies each aligned passage, but does not merge multiple passages identified in in article pairs. Thus we find 5 shared passages between the articles ‘Constellation’. The interface also does not attempt to evaluate the alignments or identify passages that occur between different articles. For example, D’Alembert’s article ‘ATMOSPHERE’ indeed has a passage from Chambers’ article ‘Atmosphere’, but also many longer passages from the article ‘Generation’.

To accumulate results and to refine evaluation, we subsequently processed the raw Text-PAIR alignment data as found in the static output files. We developed an evaluation algorithm for each alignment, with parameters based on the length of the matching passages and the degree to which the headwords were close matches. This simple evaluation model eliminated a significant number of false positives, which we found were typically short text matches between articles with different headwords. The output of this algorithm resulted in two tables, one for matches that were likely to be valid and one that was less likely to be valid, based on our simple heuristics – see a selection of the ‘YES’ table below (fig. 6). We are, of course, making this distinction based on the comparison of the machine translated Chambers headwords and the headwords found in the Encyclopédie, so we expected that some valid matches would be identified as invalid.

Figure 6. Table of possible article borrowings.

The next phase of the project included the necessary step of human evaluation of the identified matches. While we were able to reduce the work involved significantly by generating a list of reasonably solid matches to be inspected, there is still no way to eliminate fully the ‘arduous toil’ of comparison referenced by Lough. More than 5000 potential matches were scrutinised, looking in essence for ‘false negatives’, i.e., matches that our evaluation algorithm classed as negative (based primarily on differences in headword translations) but that were in reality valid. The results of this work was then merged into in a single table of what we consider to be valid matches, a list that includes some 3700 Encyclopédie articles with at least one matching passage from the Cyclopaedia. These results will form the basis of a longer article that is currently in preparation.

Conclusions

In all, we found some 3778 articles in the Encyclopédie that upon evaluation seem highly similar in both content and structure to articles in the 1741 edition of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia. Whether or not these articles constitute real acts of historical translation is the subject for another, or several other, articles. There are simply too many outside factors at play, even in this rather straightforward comparison, to make blanket conclusions about the editorial practices of the encyclopédistes based on this limited experiment. What we can say, however, is that of the 1081 articles that include a ‘Chambers’ reference in the Encyclopédie, we only found 689 with at least one matching passage. Obviously this recall rate of 63.7% is well below the 81% we attained on our sample corpus, probably due to overfitting the matching algorithm to the sample, which warrants further investigation. But beyond testing this ground truth, we are also left with the rather astounding fact of 3089 articles with no reference to Chambers whatsoever, all of which seem, at first blush, to be at least somewhat related to their English predecessors.

The overall evaluation of these results remains ongoing, and the ‘arduous toil’ of traditional textual comparison continues apace, albeit guided somewhat by the machine’s heavy hand. Indeed, the use of machine translation as a bridge between documents to find similar passages, be they reuses, plagiarisms, etc., is, as we have attempted to show here, a workable approach for future research, although not without certain limitations. The Chambers–Encyclopédie task outlined above is fairly well constrained and historically bounded. More general applications of these same methods may well yield less useful results. These reservations notwithstanding, the fact that we were able to unearth many thousands of valid potential intertextual relationships between documents in different languages is a feat that even a few years ago might not have been possible. As large-scale language models become ever more sophisticated and historically aware, the dream of intertextual bridges between multilingual corpora may yet become a reality. (For more on ‘intertextual bridges’ in French, see our current NEH project.)

Note

The question of the Dictionnaire de Trévoux is one such factor, as it is known that both Chambers and the encyclopédistes used it as a source for their own articles – so matches we find between the Chambers and Encyclopédie may indeed represent shared borrowings from the Trévoux and not a translation at all. Or, more interestingly, perhaps Chambers translated a Trévoux article from French to English, which a dutiful encyclopédiste then translated back to French for the Encyclopédie – in this case, which article is the ‘source’ and which the ‘translation’? For more on these particular aspects of dictionary-making, see our previous article ‘Plundering philosophers: identifying sources of the Encyclopédie’, Journal of the Association for History and Computing 13.1 (Spring 2010) and Marie Leca-Tsiomis’ response, ‘The use and abuse of the digital humanities in the history of ideas: how to study the Encyclopédie’, History of European ideas 39.4 (2013), p.467-76.

– Glenn Roe and Mark Olsen

‘Quelque chose de piquant’ – Voltaire on marriage, adultery, society, and the Church in Questions sur l’Encyclopédie

Encyclopédie, vol.1, title page

Encyclopédie, vol.1, title page. (Public domain image)

The article ‘Adultère’ in the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was written by abbé Claude Yvon and François-Vincent Toussaint. Though both these writers faced persecution by the authorities for other writings, this article is on the face of it a dry, sober, moralistic and legalistic account of the crime of adultery: ‘Nous jugeons avec raison, et conformément au sentiment de toutes les nations, que l’adultère est, après l’homicide, le plus punissable de tous les crimes, parce qu’il est de tous les vols le plus cruel, et un outrage capable d’occasionner les meurtres et les excès les plus déplorables.’

Voltaire, in the Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (OCV, vol.38, p.101-18), takes a radically different tack.

Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire

Sganarelle ou le cocu imaginaire, by Molière. Drawing by Pierre Brissart, engraved by Jean Sauvé. (Wikimedia Commons)

He launches in medias res with a lapidary statement: ‘Nous ne devons point cette expression aux Grecs.’ He continues with an etymological roundup, during which he dismisses Hebrew as a ‘jargon du syriaque’, to finish with an accurate account of the Latin origin of ‘adultère’: ‘Adultère signifiait en latin, altération, adultération, une chose mise pour une autre, un crime de faux, fausses clefs, faux contrats, faux seing; adulteratio’, followed by a comic flourish: ‘De là celui qui se met dans le lit d’un autre fut nommé adulter, comme une fausse clef qui fouille dans la serrure d’autrui.’ The mild but louche erotic imagery recalls his interest in such matters, as evidenced in the Notebooks and some scandalous poetry freely attributed to him. Thus, in one short paragraph, Voltaire sets the tone of his article with a show of erudition, a slight on the origins of Christianity, and a lively witticism. This approach was suggested in a letter to Mme Du Deffand who had expressed a wish to see the work in hand: ‘voici trois feuilles qui me tombent sous la main. Faites-vous lire seulement les articles Adam et adultère. Notre premier père est toujours intéressant, et adultère est toujours quelque chose de piquant’ (25 April 1770, D16314 in his correspondence).

The light but erudite tone continues with a discussion of the way the meaning of ‘cocu’, deriving from the cuckoo that lays its egg in another’s nest, has transferred from the intruder to the intruded upon, and he cites a licentious verse by Scarron. (The account is not strictly accurate. Littré in his dictionary cites Antoine Du Verdier: ‘Non seulement ceux qui abusent des femmes d’autrui, mais aussi les maris abusés sont appelés cocus; de sorte que, ce nom étant actif et passif et commun à tous les deux, nous pouvons dire cocu cocuant et cocu cocué.’)

Portrait of a woman, by Robert Campin

Portrait of a woman, by Robert Campin (c.1430-1435). (National Gallery, London, public domain)

Voltaire turns to the cuckold’s notorious horns, ranging, with fanciful etymology and quotations from Molière, over Greek goats, male and female, to the ‘cornettes’ on women’s headgear in earlier centuries.

In the same light tone Voltaire takes a short digression on social language, how the term adultery is avoided: ‘On ne dit point, Madame la duchesse est en adultère avec monsieur le chevalier. Madame la marquise a un mauvais commerce avec monsieur l’abbé. On dit, Monsieur l’abbé est cette semaine l’amant de madame la marquise. Quand les dames parlent à leurs amies de leurs adultères, elles disent, J’avoue que j’ai du goût pour lui. Elles avouaient autrefois qu’elles sentaient quelque estime; mais depuis qu’une bourgeoise s’accusa à son confesseur d’avoir de l’estime pour un conseiller, et que le confesseur lui dit, Madame, combien de fois vous a-t-il estimée? les dames de qualité n’ont plus estimé personne, et ne vont plus guère à confesse.’ These last mischievous words look forward to the main point of the article.

His target is the Church in France. ‘Il y a quelques provinces en Europe où les filles font volontiers l’amour, et deviennent ensuite des épouses assez sages. C’est tout le contraire en France; on enferme les filles dans des couvents, où jusqu’à présent on leur a donné une éducation ridicule’, which makes them unfit for marriage, and ready for adultery.

Christine de Pisan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria

Christine de Pisan presenting her book to Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (miniature, c.1410-1414 by the Master of the Cité des Dames), each wearing an ‘escoffion’, or horned headpiece. (Wikimedia commons)

The crucial point, though, is the absence of divorce. The Church allows separation after adultery, but divorce is forbidden. In the section of ‘Adultère’ entitled ‘Mémoire d’un magistrat’ Voltaire gives a précis of a recent publication in favour of divorce: ‘Mon épouse est criminelle, et c’est moi qu’on punit’, and ‘Dieu me permet de me remarier, et l’évêque de Rome ne me le permet pas! […] Les lois civiles d’aujourd’hui, malheureusement fondées sur le droit canon, me privent des droits de l’humanité.’ In a letter to Francesco Albergati Capacelli, who wanted a divorce, Voltaire had written some ten years previously: ‘je ne sais rien de si ridicule que d’être obligé de vivre avec une femme avec laquelle on ne peut pas vivre’ (15 April 1760, D8854). But it was not always so, as he tells his readers in ‘Adultère’: ‘Le divorce a été en usage chez les catholiques sous tous les empereurs; il l’a été dans tous les Etats démembrés de l’empire romain. Les rois de France, qu’on appelle de la première race, ont presque tous répudié leurs femmes pour en prendre de nouvelles. Enfin il vint un Grégoire IX ennemi des empereurs et des rois, qui par un décret fit du mariage un joug insecouable; sa décrétale devint la loi de l’Europe.’

Le Christ et la femme adultère, by Nicolas Poussin

Le Christ et la femme adultère, by Nicolas Poussin. (Louvre, Paris, Wikimedia Commons)

Voltaire also condemns the unequal treatment of women in France by the Church and the law, the fact that their rights are far less than those of men: ‘Je demande si la chose est juste, et s’il n’est pas évident que ce sont les cocus qui ont fait les lois.’ In this context he chides the Church by citing the famous words of Jesus concerning the woman taken in adultery: ‘Que
 celui de vous qui est sans péché jette la première pierre.’

From the cover of playful erudition Voltaire casts his own finely honed stones at his frequent target, l’infâme.

Martin Smith

 

Metalwork in the Encyclopédie: critical interpretation and the evidence of material culture

For the historian of technology, the Encyclopédie is invaluable for the snapshot it provides of eighteenth-century European metallurgy and metalworking technology. Its articles and plates are frequently referenced in studies of French and European metalwork, from the foundry of bells, canons and statuary to jewellery, silversmithing and bronze doré. Dozens of the Encyclopédie’s long-form articles provide detailed descriptions of equipment and processes, while hundreds more short entries describe specific metalsmithing terms, tools and procedures. In my own ongoing collection of articles which refer to metalwork and metallurgy, I have found close to 500 entries so far, but it seems likely that they may amount to a thousand or more. It is indeed a treasure trove of technology.

However, an enquiry into the sources of some of the articles and a critical survey of their scope with reference to surviving metal objects reveals that it may be unwise to assume that metalsmithing technologies described in the Encyclopédie necessarily correlate to those used in Paris or France more broadly during the period, or that a given piece of French metalwork from the period was necessarily made with the techniques described.

Plate One of a set of six plates in the Encyclopédie, ‘Fonte de l’or, de l’argent et du cuivre’, which are referred to in the article ‘Sable, Fondeur en’, illustrating a sand-casting workshop. Source: Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, etc., eds. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. University of Chicago: ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (Autumn 2017 Edition), Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe (eds).

Since a number of the articles are translations of foreign works, some may not in fact describe French practices. The article ‘Sable, Fondeur en’ is one of the many Encyclopédie articles translated and adapted from Chambers’ Cyclopædia, in this case a section, ‘Foundry of Small Works, or the Manner of Casting in Sand’, from the article ‘Foundry’. The French article is not entirely a direct translation of the English; the author (possibly Diderot) does elaborate on some parts of the process and describes extra details which indicate that he had indeed visited a sand-casting workshop while preparing the article. However, the French article so closely follows the terminology, descriptions and order of operations in the English that it is unclear to what extent the article actually describes French practices.

In other instances, foreign works were translated without reference to local practices at all, as was apparently the case for ‘Soudure ou souder’, which d’Holbach extracted entirely from a 1760 German work, Ausführliche Beschreibung der Metalllothe und Löthungen by J.G.F. Klein. It may be that French and German soldering recipes and processes were identical, but we cannot assume that this is the case.

While there would have been some degree of homogeneity of metalworking technologies across Europe at the time, largely resulting from the migration of artisans over the preceeding centuries, there were nonetheless some distinct regional practices. A comparison between French and English silver illustrates this point. From at least the mid-17th century, French silver incorporated heavy, highly figurative cast fittings and mouldings, while English silver was generally more restrained in both ornamentation and material, being constructed largely from thin sheet. The influx of Huguenot silversmiths into England in the last quarter of the 17th century before and after the 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes led to the incorporation of heavier cast ornamentation in English silver, but to a limited extent. English patrons were not always enamoured of the busier French style, nor willing to pay greater prices for the extra silver required, and the result was a synthesis of French and English styles. We can infer that a synthesis of technologies took place at the time so that, while English silversmithing technology would now have looked more similar to French technology than it had previously, it would still have been somewhat distinct. One can see how uncritical translations from the Cyclopædia might conflate English and French technologies, which could lead the modern historian astray.

Another concern is missing from the Encyclopédie. Naturally, we do not expect that the encyclopédistes could have described all processes of the mechanical arts, no matter how comprehensive their coverage. However, there is one metalworking process which, to the metal historian, is conspicuous by its absence: small-scale lost-wax casting. The Encyclopédie contains extensive descriptions and plates illustrating lost-wax casting of statuary, almost all of which are taken wholesale from Germain Boffrand’s 1743 Description de ce qui a été pratiqué pour fondre en bronze d’un seul jet la figure équestre de Louis XIV, but there are none describing the use of lost-wax casting in silversmithing or jewellery manufacture, nor even, as far as I can discover, any passing mention of it.

Silver Tureen by Étienne-Jacques Marcq (c. 1705–1781), Paris, 1749, Metropolitan Museum, 1975.1.2561a, b. The typical rococo ornaments applied to the lid of this tureen were undoubtedly cast by the lost-wax method, and the rocaille fittings are very likely to have been.

It is difficult to account for this lacuna in the Encyclopédie. It cannot have been left out for fear of repeating the process described for casting of statuary, because small-scale lost-wax casting is quite different, and the encyclopédistes did not shy from repeating themselves over numerous other articles. It is surely not from a deliberate avoidance of the production of luxury goods, because we see detailed discussions of other luxury manufactures such as tapestries, cut diamonds and gilding of metals. We might put it down to the unwillingness of gold- and silversmiths to share trade secrets, but the technique had been widely used for some time, and they were apparently willing to disclose many other techniques.

The significance of lost-wax casting is that it can produce objects which are complex and asymmetrical, such as figures, while the other prevalent technique, sand casting, was largely suited to producing one-sided or bilaterally symmetrical objects. It is curious that lost-wax casting of smaller works is missing from the Encyclopédie because not only had the technique been in common use for at least two centuries but it seems to have flourished particularly during the mid-eighteenth century, especially with the rise of rococo ornamentation. One might even say that rococo metalwork is characteristic of lost-wax casting since the method lends itself to the complex plant and animal ornaments and asymmetrical rocailles which decorate silverware of the period. Modern analysis has shown that bronze doré furniture mounts were sometimes cast by lost-wax, and it was probably common in jewellery manufacture too.

One of a pair of gilt bronze candlesticks after a design by Juste Aurèle Meissonnier (1695–1750), Paris, 1735-1750, Metropolitan Museum, 1999.370.1a, b, .2a, b. The whirling asymmetrical form of this candlestick was almost certainly cast with the lost-wax method, since other casting methods in use in France during this period were better suited to bilaterally symmetrical objects.

It seems likely, therefore, than it is owing simply to the encyclopédistes’ ignorance of the process, which we cannot hold against them, but it does raise a question about their methods for documenting manufacture. Is it possible that they approached the mechanical arts with preconceived ideas about what processes existed to be documented, perhaps informed by the literature which was already available and which they readily plundered? Rather than visiting workshops to passively observe and record what occurred, or encouraging artisans to speak freely about their work, they may perhaps have arrived with a ‘shopping list’ of techniques to study and describe, essentially filling in blanks in a pre-formed picture.

For the metal historian, the concerns raised here simply highlight the necessity of being judicious when using the Encyclopédie to determine the manufacture of French eighteenth-century artefacts. It is not sufficient to defer to it uncritically; the original source of the information should always be sought out, with attention to the possibility of regionalisation of technology, and there must be an awareness of the material evidence of the artefacts, which can reveal interesting gaps in knowledge and lead to new questions.

– Christina Clarke

Christina is an art historian based in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University. Christina was a Visiting Academic at the Voltaire Foundation during 2018, funded by an Endeavour Research Fellowship awarded by the Australian Government.

‘Une encyclopédie de ma façon’: le chef-d’œuvre méconnu de Voltaire

Voltaire a toujours soutenu la grande entreprise collective de l’Encyclopédie dirigée par D’Alembert et Diderot (consulter cet ouvrage en français ou en anglais). Il a rédigé une quarantaine d’articles pour le dictionnaire, mais avait toutefois quelques réserves sur certains articles: ‘La France fournissait à l’Europe un Dictionnaire encyclopédique dont l’utilité était reconnue. Une foule d’articles excellents rachetaient bien quelques endroits qui n’étaient pas des mains des maîtres,’ écrit-il à Francesco Albergati Capacelli le 23 décembre 1760. Une quinzaine d’années plus tard, il fera imprimer le charmant conte De l’Encyclopédie, qui fera encore l’éloge de cet ouvrage tout en lui reconnaissant certains défauts. Voltaire trouvait notamment que les articles avaient tendance à être trop longs ou trop subjectifs: ‘Je suis encore fâché qu’on fasse des dissertations, qu’on donne des opinions particulières pour des vérités reconnues. Je voudrais partout la définition, et l’origine du mot avec des exemples’ (à D’Alembert, le 9 octobre [1756]).

Après l’achèvement de ce grand dictionnaire, l’éditeur Charles-Joseph Panckoucke forme le projet de publier une réédition avec des corrections. Cela donne à Voltaire l’occasion de proposer des réductions et des réécritures du texte. Un certain nombre de manuscrits trouvés parmi ses papiers après sa mort semblent témoigner de ses efforts dans ce sens, textes déjà publiés dans les Œuvres complètes de Voltaire. Cependant, cette entreprise ne sera pas menée à terme.

Voltaire se décide alors à faire un dictionnaire ‘de sa façon’, où il se sert peut-être de certains articles écrits pour Panckoucke, et où il redéploie quelques-uns des textes qu’il a rédigés pour l’Encyclopédie. On retrouve donc dans ses Questions sur l’Encyclopédie (1770-1772) des thèmes et des sujets qui lui sont chers et omniprésents dans son œuvre (tolérance, critique biblique, questions juridiques, superstition…). Mais étant donné que ce n’est plus un ouvrage de référence, l’auteur ne suit pas les consignes qu’il avait préconisées pour le dictionnaire collectif. Le caractère plus personnel de ses Questions lui permet d’adopter par moments un ton ludique: il invente la fiction plus ou moins transparente du Mont Krapack, où une petite société de gens de lettres est censée vivre et travailler aux Questions sur l’Encyclopédie. De nombreux articles jouent l’effet de surprise. Le titre ‘Montagne’ annonce un très court article (de 120 mots seulement) qui évoque la fable de La Fontaine où la montagne met au monde une souris, afin de railler les matérialistes de l’époque, qui voulaient que la matière ait produit le vivant. Sous le mot ‘Rare’, l’auteur congédie la signification du mot en physique pour proposer une méditation sur le sens moral et esthétique: ‘on n’admire jamais ce qui est commun’, affirme-t-il avant de considérer l’émotion que nous éprouvons face aux livres rares, aux trésors architecturaux, à un rhinocéros à Paris. La fine satire ‘Gargantua’, enfin, évoque bel et bien le personnage de Rabelais, mais constitue une sorte d’allégorie où l’auteur, en disputant ‘des esprits téméraires qui ont osé nier les prodiges de ce grand homme’, vise en fait les miracles vécus par et attribués à maints personnages des Saintes Ecritures (Moïse, Josué, Jésus…).

La collection complète des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie, publiée par la Voltaire Foundation.

L’ouvrage des Questions sur l’Encyclopédie a disparu dans les éditions posthumes de ses œuvres. L’édition de la Voltaire Foundation, composée de huit volumes (2007-2018) sous la direction de Nicholas Cronk et de Christiane Mervaud, dont l’introduction de Christiane Mervaud vient de paraître, permet de redécouvrir ce texte, le plus long et sans doute le plus varié de Voltaire. L’introduction est la première monographie à être consacrée à ce grand ouvrage, et rend compte de sa genèse, des réactions d’époque, de sa relation complexe avec l’Encyclopédie, et des stratégies d’écriture développées par l’auteur.

Nous remercions tous les collaborateurs de cette édition, qui ont participé à l’annotation des articles, à la préparation des index, aux vérifications bibliographiques. J’ai eu personnellement l’honneur et le grand plaisir d’être associée aux huit volumes de la collection, et d’être secrétaire de l’édition pour six d’entre eux. L’édition critique d’un ouvrage de cette envergure ne peut être qu’un travail d’équipe, en l’occurrence mené sur une période de plus de dix ans, et qui représente en miniature l’entreprise des Œuvres complètes, elle aussi sur le point d’être achevée.

– Gillian Pink

Voltaire Lab: new digital research tools and resources

As part of our efforts to establish the Voltaire Lab as a virtual research centre, we are pleased to announce a major update of the TOUT Voltaire database and search interface, expanding links between the ARTFL Encyclopédie Project and several new research databases made available for the first time. Working in close collaboration with the ARTFL Project at the University of Chicago – one of the oldest and better known North American centres for digital humanities research – we have rebuilt the TOUT Voltaire database under PhiloLogic4, ARTFL’s next-generation search and corpus analysis engine.

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New Search interface for TOUT Voltaire

PhiloLogic4 is a powerful research tool, allowing users to browse Voltaire’s works dynamically by date or title, along with further faceted browsing using the ‘title’, ‘year’ and ‘genre’, combined with word and phrase searching. Word searches are greatly improved for flexibility and ease of display and now include four primary result reports:

  • Concordance, or search terms in their context
  • KWIC, or line-by-line occurrences of the search term
  • Collocation, or terms that co-occur most with the search term
  • Time Series, which displays search term frequency over time

The new search interface will allow users to formulate complex queries with relatively little effort, following lines of enquiry in a dynamic fashion that moves from ‘distant reading’ scales of exploration to more fine-grained close textual analysis.

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TOUT Voltaire search results

Also in collaboration with ARTFL, we have just released the Autumn Edition 2017 of the ARTFL Encyclopédie, a flagship digital humanities project that for the past almost twenty years has made available online the full text of Diderot and d’Alembert’s great philosophical dictionary. This new release offers many new features, functionalities and improvements. The powerful new faceted search and browse capabilities offered by PhiloLogic4 allow users better to leverage the organisational structure of the Encyclopédie – classes of knowledge, authors, headwords, volumes, and the like. Further it gives them the possibility of exploring the interesting alternatives offered by algorithmically or machine-generated classes. The collocation search generates word-clouds or word lists that are clickable to obtain concordances for any of the words immediately. Further improvements include new author attributions, various text corrections, and better cross-referencing functionality.

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New ARTFL Encyclopédie interface

This release also contains a beautiful new set of high-resolution plate images. Clickable thumbnail versions lead to larger images that can be viewed in much greater detail than was previously possible.

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New high resolution plate images, ‘Imprimerie en taille douce’

Image5

Close up of plate image

Thanks to the Voltaire Foundation, full biographies of the encyclopédistes are directly accessible from within the ARTFL Encyclopédie simply by clicking on the name of the author of any given article. This information is drawn directly from Frank and Serena Kafker’s The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie (SVEC 257, 1988) – still the standard reference for biographical information on the Encyclopédie’s 139 contributors. Our hope is that this first experiment will demonstrate the value of linking digital resources openly in ways that can add value to existing projects and, at the same time, increase the visibility of the excellent works contained in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment back catalogue.

Finally, we have begun the work of establishing new research collections that will form the basis of the Voltaire Lab’s textual corpus. For example, working with files provided by Electronic Enlightenment, we have combined all of Voltaire’s correspondence with TOUT Voltaire. This new resource, which we are for the moment calling ‘TV2’, contains over 22,000 individual documents and more than 13 million words, making it one of the largest single-author databases available for research. Due to copyright restrictions in the correspondence files we cannot make the full dataset publicly available, however we are keen to allow researchers access to this important resource on a case-by-case basis. Students and scholars who wish to access the PhiloLogic4 build of TV2 should contact me here.

Glenn Roe

The science of parchment and paper: discovery and conservation

Over the past year, a battle has been waged between the House of Lords and the House of Commons as to whether public Acts should continue to be printed on parchment. On the one hand, parchment is used at a substantial cost compared to paper; on the other, it is more durable and maintains tradition, including keeping in business the last parchment and vellum maker in the UK. But what is the distinction between vellum and parchment? At the Bodleian Library on 14 February, a large group gathered to attend a joint venture between the local ‘Café scientifique’ and the Bodleian to find out more about ‘Science and the love of books’ in all their animal, vegetable and mineral glory from Bodleian conservator Andrew Honey. One of the things that we learned was that vellum is a type of parchment, the latter referring generally to all animal skin used as a writing support. But confusingly, while ‘vellum’ literally refers to parchment made of calf-skin, it has, in certain circles, come to acquire the connotation of ‘high-quality parchment’. Which is why it is safer to refer to parchment tout court to avoid speaking at cross-purposes about vellum.

Honey talked the audience through the process of transforming animal skin into parchment, complete with (sometimes somewhat grisly) photos and videos from the Conservation department’s successful attempt to do so from scratch, the results of which were present for viewing and handling. It was interesting to learn that a practical understanding of the material is enabling the team to work out the size of calves in the twelfth century thanks to a close examination of the pages of a large Bible, the pages of which retain clues to anatomical features such as the ilium, the sacrum, the caudal vertebrae and sometimes the first and second thoracic vertebrae. By the eighteenth century, parchment had mostly been replaced by paper for writing and printing, though Alexis Hagadorn gives a detailed account of parchment-making in eighteenth-century France. Even in the nineteenth century, it was still occasionally used by ‘ordinary’ people for binding books instead of calf or morocco leather, as attested for example by this travel diary by William Campion, dated 1858.

‘Observations of Wm Campion In His Travels 1858’, Voltaire Foundation collection.

When it came to paper, we were in more familiar eighteenth-century territory. The process described, and which can be viewed in this 1976 film made at Hayle Mill, would have been familiar to the writers of the 1765 Encyclopédie article ‘Papier’ which, in addition to explaining the techniques used to make the European ‘Papier de linge’ (cloth-based paper), also describes other types of paper from around the globe. What the author, Louis de Jaucourt, would not have known, however, was the neat chemical transformation that takes place as the wet paper dries in its mould, whereby the hydrogen bonds between the fibres and the water are slowly replaced by hydrogen bonds between the fibres themselves, thus giving the paper its structure.

Paper is flexible, foldable – and, just as crucially, scalable. Paper can give us the folio volumes of the Encyclopédie as well as small duodecimo (or even smaller) books which are portable and easily hidden. As Voltaire wrote to D’Alembert on 5 April [1766]: ‘Je voudrais bien savoir quel mal peut faire un livre qui coûte cent écus. Jamais vingt volumes in-folio ne feront de révolution; ce sont les petits livres portatifs à trente sous qui sont à craindre. Si l’évangile avait coûté douze cents sesterces, jamais la religion chrétienne ne se serait établie’ (I’d like to know what harm can be done by a book that costs a hundred crowns. Twenty folio volumes will never bring about a revolution; it is the small, portable books costing thirty pennies that are to be feared. If the gospels had cost twelve hundred sesterces, the Christian religion would never have caught on).

It sounds as though a conservator’s life is never dull. Something new always comes to light when an object needs to be disassembled for repair, even if that discovery is the distressing mess of animal-based glue that reveals a hasty nineteenth- or twentieth-century repair done on the cheap. The prime candidates for restoration work are items that are both badly damaged but also in high demand by readers. Digitisation is possible, and also a solution increasingly adopted by the Bodleian but, happily for us readers, conservators are aware that there will always be cases when, in order to answer research questions, scholars need to see and handle the original document, when nothing but an examination of the object, in all its sometimes messy physicality, will do.

Gillian Pink

Fanatisme

Pour la France, et pour Paris en particulier, l’année 2015 se sera terminée aussi douloureusement qu’elle avait commencé. Il nous a paru opportun, pour cette dernière livraison avant le nouvel an, de revenir sur la place centrale qu’occupait le combat contre l’intolérance chez Voltaire et ses amis philosophes.

La Liberte

‘La Liberté armée du Sceptre de la Raison foudroye l’Ignorance et le Fanatisme’ / Dessiné par Boizot; Gravé par Chapuy. 1793-1795. Paris, BnF.

Voltaire écrivit maintes fois contre le fanatisme religieux et ses conséquences néfastes pour le genre humain. Mais il appréciait également les textes des autres dans ce domaine. L’un de ces écrits, l’article ‘Fanatisme’ de l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par Alexandre Deleyre, a fait l’objet d’une réécriture voltairienne, où le Patriarche condense ce qui était déjà un texte frappant pour le rendre encore plus incisif. Cette réécriture fait partie d’un groupe de textes publiés de façon posthume à partir de manuscrits tombés entre les mains de ses éditeurs. Cet ensemble difficile à interpréter, provisoirement appelés les ‘manuscrits de Kehl’, sera publié dans la série des œuvres alphabétiques de Voltaire au sein des Œuvres complètes. Dans cet article ‘Fanatisme’, Voltaire emprunte donc la voix d’autrui pour disséminer une énième fois le message contre l’intolérance et la superstition:

« Imaginons une immense rotonde, un panthéon à mille autels, et placés au milieu du dôme; figurons-nous un dévot de chaque secte, éteinte ou subsistante, aux pieds de la divinité qu’il honore à sa façon, sous toutes les formes bizarres que l’imagination a pu créer. A droite, c’est un contemplatif étendu sur une natte, qui attend, le nombril en l’air, que la lumière céleste vienne investir son âme. A gauche, c’est un énergumène prosterné qui frappe du front contre la terre, pour en faire sortir l’abondance. Là c’est un saltimbanque qui danse sur la tombe de celui qu’il invoque. Ici c’est un pénitent immobile et muet comme la statue devant laquelle il s’humilie. L’un étale ce que la pudeur cache, parce que Dieu ne rougit pas de sa ressemblance; l’autre voile jusqu’à son visage, comme si l’ouvrier avait horreur de son ouvrage. Un autre tourne le dos au Midi, parce que c’est là le vent du démon; un autre tend les bras vers l’Orient, où Dieu montre sa face rayonnante. De jeunes filles en pleurs meurtrissent leur chair encore innocente, pour apaiser le démon de la concupiscence par des moyens capables de l’irriter; d’autres, dans une posture tout opposée, sollicitent les approches de la Divinité. Un jeune homme, pour amortir l’instrument de la virilité, y attache des anneaux de fer d’un poids proportionné à ses forces; un autre arrête la tentation dès sa source, par une amputation tout à fait inhumaine, et suspend à l’autel les dépouilles de son sacrifice.

« Voyons-les tous sortir du temple, et pleins du Dieu qui les agite, répandre la frayeur et l’illusion sur la face de la terre. Ils se partagent le monde, et bientôt le feu s’allume aux quatre extrémités; les peuples écoutent, et les rois tremblent. Cet empire que l’enthousiasme d’un seul exerce sur la multitude qui le voit ou l’entend, la chaleur que les esprits rassemblés se communiquent, tous ces mouvements tumultueux, augmentés par le trouble de chaque particulier, rendent en peu de temps le vertige général. C’est assez d’un seul peuple enchanté à la suite de quelques imposteurs, la séduction multipliera les prodiges, et voilà tout le monde à jamais égaré. L’esprit humain une fois sorti des routes lumineuses de la nature, n’y rentre plus; il erre autour de la vérité, sans en rencontrer autre chose que des lueurs, qui, se mêlant aux fausses clartés dont la superstition l’environne, achèvent de l’enfoncer dans les ténèbres. »

– G.P.

Émilie du Châtelet, forgotten encyclopédiste?

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (Wikipedia.org)

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet (1706-1749), portrait by Maurice Quentin de la Tour. (Wikipedia.org)

Émilie du Châtelet was a great many things: mathematician, natural philosopher, translator of Newton, successor of Leibniz and Wolff, lover and scientific companion of Voltaire, and various other sundry pursuits. She was not, however, nor is she today, widely considered as a contributor to the Encyclopédie. No mention of her is made in either D’Alembert’s “Discours préliminaire”, or in any of the other “Avertissements & Errata” paratexts that accompanied the Encyclopédie’s publication. Logically then, she is also not to be found in any of the exhaustive lists and inventories of encyclopaedic authors compiled by later scholars such as Richard Schwab and Frank Kafker.[1]

This accepted wisdom, however, is now being brought into question thanks to renewed interest in Du Châtelet not merely as a translator, commentator, or companion of great men, but equally as a significant intellectual force in her own right. Recent scholarship such as that by Koffi Maglo[2] has succeeded in challenging what had for centuries been assumed as Du Châtelet’s decidedly minor role in the encyclopaedic enterprise. More recently still, an international group of scholars came together in Oxford this past May for a study day on the subject of “Émilie Du Châtelet: Philosopher & Encyclopédiste”, a workshop aimed at unravelling Du Châtelet’s complicated and often overlooked encyclopaedic legacy.

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (Encyclopedie.uchicago.edu)

Title page of the Encyclopédie (1751). (Encyclopedie.uchicago.edu)

We now know, for instance, that the unsigned article “Hypothèse” is largely drawn from Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). Indeed, “Hypothèse” is one of seven articles that explicitly cites the Institutions de physique as a source. And, of these seven articles, “Hypothèse” is the only one that is not at least partially authored by Samuel Formey. Formey, it would seem, is largely responsible for Du Châtelet’s inclusion in the Encyclopédie, so much so that, according to Maglo, if one follows “les traces de Formey […] vous serez en compagnie de Mme Du Châtelet”. However, Formey’s role in the Encyclopédie is somewhat curious.

An exiled Huguenot pastor and perpetual secretary of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin, Formey had begun his own philosophical dictionary as early as 1742. By 1747 he had heard rumour about a French encyclopaedia project – which took as its starting point a translation of Chambers’ Cyclopaedia – and decided to approach its editor, then the Abbé Gua de Malves, offering his completed articles to the new enterprise. By 1749, the deal – executed by the libraires associés who controlled the project – was finalised, and Formey sent the editors (by then Diderot and D’Alembert) some 1800 manuscript pages (petit in folio) in exchange for 300 livres; with the added proviso that the manuscript be returned to the author and that he be mentioned in the work’s preface.

It is thus presumably through the mediation of Formey’s articles that Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (one of Formey’s admitted sources for his articles on Metaphysics) came to be incorporated into the Encyclopédie. As such, most scholars have treated Du Châtelet as a secondary source for the Encyclopédie, and little more. But, digging into the issue a little, it would seem that the Du Châtelet/Formey relationship is rather more complex than we normally assume. Is this really just a simple case of an author (Formey) using a source (Du Châtelet) in order to bolster an argument or expand upon a concept? Or, as with “Hypothèse”, is there more to Du Châtelet’s presence in the Encyclopédie than we’ve previously admitted?

To answer these questions I compared a copy of the Institutions de physique found in the BNF’s Gallica digital library to the entire text of the Encyclopédie using a sequence alignment algorithm developed by the ARTFL Project.[3] The results, which will be published in full later this year, not only give us a better understanding of the extent to which Du Châtelet was used in the seven articles that cite the Institutions de physique, but also reveal a further six articles that make extensive use of Du Châtelet’s text with no attribution at all. Given both the scope and scale of these borrowings, whether cited or not, these new findings serve to complicate further the already nebulous notion of authorship in the Encyclopédie.

Roe2_Institutions

Title page of Du Châtelet’s Institutions de physique (1740). (Gallica.bnf.fr)

Take, for example, the article “Contradiction”, attributed unequivocally to Formey by Diderot and D’Alembert: “Cet article est de M. Formey”. Of its 338 words, 320 of them are drawn directly from sections 4 and 7 of the Institutions de physique, again with no attribution. To put this into terms perhaps more familiar to modern academic sensibilities, this means that Formey’s Turnitin-style “similarity score” for the article “Contradiction” would register at a rather alarming 95%. Indeed, all of the Formey articles we examined would score well above the 50% originality metric in terms of their similarity to Du Châtelet’s text.

Nor was this practice limited to Du Châtelet, apparently, as Alexander Bocast has convincingly demonstrated. Formey also makes quite liberal and unacknowledged use of Condillac’s Essai sur l’origine des connaissances humaines in his article “Définition”, for example.[4] All of which inevitably begs the question: should we continue to attribute articles to Formey that are drawn primarily from other sources? If not, to whom should we attribute them? Formey and Du Châtelet (or Condillac) together (in what order?); or Du Châtelet (and Condillac) alone, if above a certain threshold of borrowing? At what point does an article “belong” to its author as opposed to its source? And, on what grounds should one make these sorts of editorial decisions at all?

These questions all speak to the unique dialogical structure of the Encyclopédie and its multiple layers of authorship and authority. Contributors (both acknowledged and anonymous) would weave outside sources into their articles with varying degrees of attribution. These contributions would then often become the subject of editorial interventions on the part of Diderot and, to a lesser extent, D’Alembert. All of which makes the Encyclopédie a fundamentally “social” text, one built on the premise of philosophical conversation between the various members of Diderot’s “société des gens de lettres”, a microcosm of that larger international “Republic of Letters”.

Émilie du Châtelet was unquestionably a leading citizen of this Republic. And, while her contributions may be obscured by their apparent status as secondary source, new research such as that presented here is beginning to deconstruct this primary/secondary distinction in favour of a more expansive, and dialogical notion of encyclopaedic authorship. If Montesquieu is unambiguously considered as one the encyclopédistes thanks to his “contribution” of a single, unfinished posthumous article (e.g. “Goût”), then can’t we imagine an expanded author list for the Encyclopédie that makes room for Émilie du Châtelet, and doubtless many others? I, for one, would hope so.

But while we collectively might not yet be prepared to grant Du Châtelet full status as an Encyclopédie author (though I would argue that we should be), then, at the very least, we should do our best to make sure that she’s an acknowledged – and significant – participant in the philosophical conversation that the Encyclopédie enacts.

– Glenn Roe

[1] See Richard N. Schwab, Walter E. Rex and John Lough, Inventory of Diderot’s Encyclopédie (Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, vol.80, 83, 85, 91, 92, 93 and 223, Oxford, 1971-1984) and Frank Kafker, The Encyclopedists as Individuals (Studies on Voltaire, vol.257, Oxford, 1988).

[2] See Koffi Maglo, ‘Madame Du Châtelet, l’Encyclopédie et la philosophie des sciences’, in Emilie du Châtelet: éclairages et documents nouveaux (Paris, Ferney-Voltaire: CIEDS, 2008), p.255-66.

[3] This is the same methodology, in fact, that we used previously to examine the citation practices of the encyclopédistes. See Dan Edelstein, Robert Morrissey, and Glenn Roe, “To Quote or Not to Quote: Citation strategies in the ‘Encyclopédie’”, Journal of the History of Ideas 74.2, April 2013, p.213-36.

[4] See Bocast, “Condillac’s Contributions to Formey’s Article on ‘DÉFINITION’ in Diderot’s Encyclopédie”.

Happy birthday Denis Diderot! A letter from Marian Hobson

Cher Denis Diderot, happy 300th birthday!

birthdaydiderotWherever you are – for you were a non-believer all your life, and the afterlife you looked forward to was one of infinitely recyclable molecules living on in ever new combinations. A process possibly without end, spinning out like the cosmos itself, but one that was sufficiently complex to leave room for human intervention.

So for 20 years of your life and against the odds you edited the Encyclopédie, aiming to consolidate what was known about agriculture, art, theology, trade – a raft of subjects that probably no other European would have dared bring together – in order that intervention might improve, and wrongs in human systems and thought be at least discussed, and if possible righted.

However, that changing of opinions and recycling of molecules requires energy – that you also knew. In deliciously underhanded ways you developed yours by writing: for instance, dialogues of speculative science prefiguring cloning (Le Rêve de D’Alembert); a hilarious novel (Jacques le fataliste), anticipating le nouveau roman of the 1950s and 1960s, one presenting a net of random co-occurrences out of which events develop in a way that mimics freedom. Your novel forms a net which thus appears as the paradoxical opposite of a linear, causal determinism, and from it we see that these apparent opposites take in each other’s philosophical washing: What is it to be free? Not to be determined. To be determined? Not to be free.

Notably kind, you yet had a talent for comedy and satire which you hid in unpublished work, the satire in the form of a novel-cum-dialogue (Le Neveu de Rameau). Unlike your friend-enemy Rousseau, you are not in the Panthéon; your work doesn’t appear as a set philosophical text in that summum of your country’s education ladder, the written exam of the agrégation en philosophie.DiderotJacquesFatalist01

Your accolades are less of the Establishment, are more wayward and in the future – you will be translated by Goethe, be used as a springboard towards the dialectic by Hegel, and Freud will be glad to find in you a past confirmation of his Oedipus complex. Your work ghosting for others (the atheist d’Holbach), commenting on and round them (Helvétius and the believer Hemsterhuis) and collaborating namelessly on a history of colonialisms (L’histoire des Deux-Indes) has gently rocked beliefs without inculcating dogma or doctrine. We can’t turn you into a memorial, not yet anyway, there is too much to do. You make us keep on thinking. Thank you for all this, cher Denis Diderot!

-Marian Hobson