Although Denis Diderot wrote only a small number of texts bearing the title “essay,” his writing owes much to the essay’s conceptual and formal design. Those very essay traits have in fact contributed to a renewed interest in this philosophe’s texts and to a transformation of his legacy. Until the 1960s, and from as early as 18th- and 19th-century criticism and commentary, intellectual historians and literary critics—Sainte-Beuve, the Goncourt brothers, and others—often judged Diderot’s thinking to be unfocused, digressive, even derivative. As compared with other 18th-century French Enlightenment philosophes—for example, Montesquieu (De l’esprit des lois [1749; The Spirit of the Laws]), Buffon (Histoire naturelle [1749–1804; Natural history]), Rousseau (Du contrat social [1762; Of the Social Contract])—and the 19th-century discipline of philosophy itself, it was thought that Diderot’s texts failed to produce either a new system of thought or of knowledge. Nor were his texts esteemed for any rigorous systematic method. In the last 30 years, however, those very properties of the essay which are characteristic of Diderot’s texts and of the judgment levied against him have taken on a different significance. Diderot has been projected into a new critical spotlight provided by contemporary criticism in semiotics and poststructuralist analysis.
Indeed, the same characteristics of Diderot’s writing which once served as the basis for negative critique now function in an opposite capacity as his indisputable intellectual and literary attributes, and in effect echo some of the basic literary and philosophical traits of the “essay.” According to Theodor W. Adorno (“Der Essay als Form” [1958; “The Essay as Form”]), the essay “does not let its domain be prescribed for it. Instead of accomplishing something scientifically or creating something artistically,” the essay thus can seem derivative, taking its inspiration from multiple sources, from “what others have done before him. The essay reflects what is loved and hated instead of presenting the mind as creation ex nihilo…” The essay proclaims a different kind of interdisciplinary, unsystematic allegiance, faithful neither to absolutes nor to preconceived models of truth or knowledge; this defines the salient aspects of Diderot’s writing. But Diderot also influenced the direction of the essay by bringing new elements to this paradoxical writing.
Using “essay” in the actual title, Diderot wrote Essai sur le mérite et la vertu (1745; Essay on merit and virtue); Essai sur Sénèque (1778; Essay on Seneca); Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron (1782; Essay on the reigns of Claudius and Nero); Essais sur la peinture (1795; Essays on painting). Despite this small corpus, essay writing constitutes a paradigm for Diderot’s thinking in texts carrying such diverse titles as Pensées (Thoughts), Discours (Discourse), Entretiens (Discussions), and Lettre (Letter).
In each text, in each title, the fragment dominates: in thought, in direction, in the proliferation of different narrative voices, disclaiming exhaustive study of any one particular field, often disavowing any discovery of first or final principles and yet consistently seeking out new directions and territory. Says Adorno, “The essay thinks in fragments.”
Diderot’s equivalent of Francis Bacon’s Novum organum (1622), his Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (1753; Thoughts on the interpretation of nature), introduce an 18th-century emphasis on experimental science (“physique expéri-mentale”) based on a notion implicit in the semantics and form of the essay, that of a trial, an experiment, experience. Empiricism is based here on a renunciation of prescribed principles imposed on nature. Indeed, as Adorno says, the “essay alone has successfully raised doubts about the absolute privilege of method…”
Thus, just as Adorno names Descartes’ perspective as the antithesis to the spirit of the essay, which is “a protest against the four rules established by Descartes’ Discours de la méthode” (Discourse on Method), Diderot also challenges the Cartesian system, distinguishing between “two sorts of philosophy, the experimental and the rational. One has its eyes blindfolded, always goes along groping, seizes everything that comes to it and encounters in the end precious things. The other collects these precious materials and tries to form a torch; but this so-called torch has until now served less than the groping of its rival.” This “groping” is also textually manifest as isolated pensées in the form of fragments: “Experimental philosophy which does not propose anything is always content with what comes to it; rational philosophy is always learned, even when what it proposes does not come to it.”
Emphasis on observation and experience reverses a thinking based on a priori truths established in advance of any direct experience of nature. Both in the Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature as well as in other writings Diderot places great value on the observer’s experience of discovery and reception. This crucial reversal also finds expression in the text’s narrative voice and direction. In the first fragment of L’Interprétation, Diderot the narrator models his writing on the lack of directed inquiry inherent in the experimental method: “It is of nature that I am going to write. I will let thoughts succeed themselves under my pen, in the same order according to which objects offered themselves to my reflection.” The text’s division into fragments is modeled on the often disconnected trials in nature unearthed by the experimenter and observer. In other words, the attributes of the essay are consonant with the tenets of experimental science in Diderot’s writing; the philosophe always makes an explicit link to the unprogrammatic fragmentary development and uncharted direction of his thought and expression. Adorno says that the “essay allows for the consciousness of nonidentity, without expressing it directly; it is radical in its nonradicalism, in refraining from any reduction to a principle, in its accentuation of the partial against the total in its fragmentary character.”
This seemingly modest concept of hypothesis based in experience delegates new power to the observer. Whether in epistemological, philosophical, aesthetic, or even fictional terms, Diderot’s texts testify to a new concern with the experience of an observer/spectator who is writing in the first person. The letter novel (La Religieuse [1796; The Nun]), and the philosophical novel (Le Neveu de Rameau [1821; Rameau’s Nephew]) derive from fragments which are written letters, or dialogue broken into multiple voices. A new kind of partial agency endows such a spectator with the ability to judge and to experience.
The still dominant norms of 17th-century French classicism were thus also challenged by Diderot’s testimony to a new kind of aesthetic judgment. His texts (Les Salons, 1759– 72) on the painting and sculpture exhibited biannually in the Salon Carré of the Louvre form many short essays on artists and their exhibited art work. Such commentaries have long been viewed as digressive and verbose, but also as having inaugurated modern art criticism (see Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality, 1980). In fact, Diderot’s art criticism comes into existence precisely through a progressive union of the observer, the spectator, of painting and sculpture with first-person narrators who react to the experience, to the art work on exhibit. Thus, the individual observer’s perspective is embodied in a figure of discourse as a sentient narrative “I/you.”
Each essay in Diderot’s Essais sur la peinture (posthumously pub. 1795), written to accompany his Salon of 1765, treats another aspect of painting: design, color, chiaroscuro, expression, composition, even architecture. Throughout these essays, the reader becomes both listener and spectator. The narrator addresses Grimm, editor of the journal Correspondance Littéraire (Literary correspondence), for whom Diderot wrote both the Salons and his accompanying essays. But it is not solely to address Grimm that Diderot employs forms of direct address: he uses first-person discourse throughout the Essais, creating an atmosphere of informal conversation that contributes to the unfettered free flow of thought and experience. Direct discourse, in which the narrator communicates ostensibly to Grimm, also structures his address to various painters and spectators, adopting alternately formal and informal modes of address: vous/tu; “Look at that woman who lost her eyesight in her youth”; or “Turn your gaze on that man whose back and chest have assumed a convex shape.” The narrator urges the painter to provide new experience: “Touch me, astonish me, rend my heart, make me shudder, cry, tremble, rouse me first; you will remake my eyes afterward, if you can.” The spectators/readers, like the narrator, respond to experience that touches and transfixes them. Other figures also appropriate the “I” of the spectator, including characters from the canvas of painting, or spectators from the exhibit hall who are endowed in Diderot’s Salons with spoken language and who begin to speak in their own person.
The classical, generally accepted academic criteria of good painting and sculpture are challenged through this structure of discourse. And the same characteristics of direct discourse mark both Diderot’s Salons and his Essais sur la peinture. As one critic remarked already in 1796 in the journal La Décade Philosophique (The philosophical decade): ”…those who have already heard him [Diderot] converse have only to open the pages of the Essais at random and will think they hear him speaking.” Centuries later, in an introduction to the 1957 edition of Diderot’s Salons, Jean Seznec uses almost identical words in describing Diderot’s commentary on diverse tableaux and sculpture. Whether labeled “essay,” “salon,” or “lettre,” and whether his essays treat historical, fictional, or pictorial personnages, the (dis)order and immediacy of dialogue stage the voices of active controversy. This familiar, idiomatic language coincides with new criteria for painting
itself: new appreciation of domestic genre scenes rather than exclusively of the grand canvases of history and mythology. Scenes from everyday life portray experience recognizable by all. Instead of the perfectly formed model, posed within the academy classroom, the narrator encourages painters to dwell outside in the experience of individual subjects whose particular, rare traits, even deformities, should be traced in their influence on all aspects of the body and character (“a system of deformities necessarily interrelated”). The essay is itself a deformity, a heterodoxy. Multiple speakers interrupt the univocal voice of third-person narrative and the unitary coherence of any set of philosophical, epistemological, historical, and aesthetic prescriptions to introduce the immediacy of both thought and experience.
As editor of the Encyclopédie (1746–72), Diderot composed another text of many voices, fragments offering further testimony to the uneven and unresolved experiences and experiments of an entire culture. Like the essay, all Diderot’s texts consistently challenge the reigning method and accepted system of knowledge. “Heresy,” Adorno says, “is the innermost formal law of the essay.” Thus does this philosophe radicalize the notion of essay itself, his hybrid texts remaining unconfined to any single rubric or genre.
Diderot reinvents the essay precisely through a new dialogue of proliferating voices which constitute the variegated weave of his diverse experiments.
See also Encyclopedias and the Essay
Born 5 October 1713 in Langres. Studied at a Jesuit school in Langres, 1723–28; Collège d’Harcourt or Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Paris, from 1728; University of Paris, master of arts, 1732. Worked for the attorney Clément de Ris, 1732–34; tutor, freelance writer, and translator, 1734–46. Married Antoinette Champion, 1743: two daughters and two sons (all but one daughter died young). Liaison with Madeleine d’Arsant de Puisieux, 1745– 51. General editor and main contributor, Le Breton’s Encyclopédie, 1746–72, (first volume published 1751). Imprisoned for thrce months because of writings, 1749. Intimate friendship with Sophie Volland, from 1755. Contributor, F.M.Grimm’s private periodical Correspondance Littéraire, from 1759. Patronized by Catherine the Great, from 1765, and visited Russia, 1773–74. Member, Prussian Royal Academy, 1751; Foreign Member, Russian Academy of Sciences, 1773. Died (of emphysema and dropsy) in Paris, 31 July 1784.
Essays and Related Prose
Essai sur le mérite et la vertu, 1745
Pensées philosophiques, 1746; as Early Philosophical Works, translated by Margaret Jourdain, 1916
Lettre sur les aveugles, 1749; edited by Robert Niklaus, 1951; as An Essay on Blindness, translated anonymously, 1750; as A Letter upon the Blind, translated by S.C.Howe, 1857
Lettre sur les sourds et muets, 1751; edited by Paul H.Meyer, 1965
Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature, 1753
Select Essays from the Encyclopedy (includes essays by others), translated anonymously, 1772
Essai sur Sénèque, 1778
Essai sur les règnes de Claude et de Néron, 1782; edited by Hisayasu Nakagawa, 2 vols., 1966
Essais sur la peinture, 1795
Mémoires, correspondance et ouvrages inédites, 4 vols., 1830–31
Thoughts on Art and Style, with Some of His Shorter Essays, edited and translated by Beatrix L. Tollemache, 1893
Dialogues, translated by Francis Birrell, 1927
Interpreter of Nature: Selected Writings, edited by Jonathan Kemp, translated by Kemp and Jean Stewart, 1937
Selected Philosophical Writings, edited by John Lough, 1953
Les Salons, edited by Jean Seznec and Jean Adhémar, 4 vols., 1957–67
Selections from the Encyclopedia, edited and translated by Stephen Gendzier, 1959
OEuvres philosophiques, edited by Paul Vernière, 1964 Selected Writings, edited by Lester G.Crocker, translated by Derek Coltman, 1966
Political Writings, edited and translated by Robert Wokler and John H.Mason, 1992
Diderot on Art, translated by John Goodman, 2 vols., 1995
Other writings: two novels (Les Bijoux indiscrets [The Indiscreet Toys], 2 vols., 1748; La Religieuse [The Nun], 1796), two dialogues (Jacques le fataliste et son maître [James the Fatalist and His Master], 1796; Le Neveu de Rameau [Rameau’s Nephew], 1821), and several plays.
Collected works editions: OEuvres complètes, edited by Jules Assézat and Maurice Tourneux, 20 vols., 1875–77, and Herbert Dieckmann, Robert Mauzi, Jean Varloot, and Jacques Proust, 20 vols., 1975–90 (in progress; 36 vols. projected); OEuvres, edited by Laurent Versini, 3 vols., 1994–95 (in progress; 5 vols. projected).
Spear, Frederick A., Bibliographie de Diderot, Geneva: Droz, 2 vols., 1980–88
Adorno, Theodor W., “The Essay as Form,” in his Notes to Literature, vol. 1, edited by Rolf Tiedemann, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991:3–23 (original edition, 1958)
Bukdahl, Else Marie, Diderot, critique d’art, Copenhagen: Rosenkilde & Bagger, 1980
Cassirer, Ernst, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968 (original edition, 1951)
Chouillet, Jacques, La Formation des idées esthétiques de Diderot, 1745–1763, Paris: Colin, 1973
Creech, James, Diderot: Thresholds of Representation, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1986
Fellows, Otis, Diderot, Boston: Twayne, 1977
France, Peter, Diderot, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983
Fried, Michael, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and the Beholder in the Age of Diderot, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980
Furbank, P.N., Diderot: A Critical Biography, London: Secker and Warburg, 1992
Goncourt, Jules, and Edmond Goncourt, The Goncourt Journals, vol. 7, edited by Lewis Galantière, New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 (original edition, 1891)
Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe, “Le Paradoxe et la mimesis,” in his L’Imitation des modernes, Paris: Galilée, 1986:15–36
Pucci, Suzanne, “The Art, Nature and Fiction of Diderot’s Beholder,” Stanford French Review 8 (Fall 1984): 173–94
Pucci, Suzanne, Diderot and a Poetics of Science, New York: Lang, 1986
Pucci, Suzanne, editor, Diderot in the Wake of Modern Critical Thought, special issue of L’Esprit Créateur 24, no. 1 (Spring 1984)
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