Monday, September 30, 2013

“Système figuré des connoissances humaines” - Map of the System of Human Knowledge

By far the coolest thing I’ve found comes next: Diderot and d’Alembert created a detailed map of their system of human knowledge. This map is as much a visual aid for readers as it is a bolstering agent for the validity of their work. It clearly organizes and solidifies their idea of how this “system” of human knowledge works. It also, as I mentioned in my last post, allows the authors to display how they both were inspired by Bacon’s work and expanded upon it. As seen in the Preface as well, Diderot and d’Alembert obviously wanted to substantiate their designs and work – the idea of the containment of such a large amount of information was so revolutionary, they really needed to. The diagram certainly helps them to cover all of their bases by explaining the connections between disciplines. Plus, it’s pretty interesting to look at.
At first glance, a couple of things we already knew are confirmed. First, there are three categories of knowledge, memory (history), reason (philosophy), and imagination (poetry). Second, poetry is much shorter than the other two sections; this difference is even starker when it is laid visually out as such. This map is exciting, though, because their system is now so clear and easy to understand. I found myself bogged-down by the enormous amount of text that Diderot and d’Alembert provided in the preface to explain the system. The map is still complex, sure, but it includes simply the names of disciplines and displays how each is connected to the others. The lengthy explanations in the preface were almost counterproductive in describing the classification of knowledge just because they were so long. The system of human knowledge, I think, is much more accessible to readers thanks to this map.
How would thoughts be organized differently today if the project were done at the present time? 50 years later? What would be added? Taken out? These are all questions that are valid to reflect upon. Diderot and d’Alembert credit Bacon for inspiring the creation of their map, but the two French editors certainly had discretion in terms of what to add or subtract from the map.  The inclusion and exclusion of concepts from this map undoubtedly impacted society. Exploring this assertion alone could be a project in itself!
Another important thing to note is that despite including an elaborate diagram to explain the organization of knowledge, entries were categorized alphabetically, as opposed to being organized by their place on the map. I’m sure this organizational choice was made to make the volumes easier to navigate.
Here’s a picture of the map itself, scanned directly from the Watkinson edition of L’Encyclopédie. Click here to see the map translated into English via the University of Michigan translation project.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The System of Human Knowledge

            Recall from my last post that I examined the authors’ preface but stopped before I arrived at the method Diderot and d’Alembert used to organized the topics to be included in L’Encyclopédie. I wanted to reserve an entire post (and another corresponding post following this one) for this subject because I find it to be very important and quite fascinating.
Knowledge is divided into three categories: “memoire,” “raison,” and “imagination.” The related disciplines within each subtopic are discussed at length in the Preface, and each is summarized in the “Explication détaillée du système des connaissances humaines” (Detailed explanation of the system of human knowledge). As the title indicates, this section explores human knowledge and how its branches are both distinct and interrelated.
Memoire, or memory, is associated with history, which is further divided into religious history, societal history, and natural history. This section is particularly important because in addition to covering the natural sciences, it encompasses man’s “productions in the arts, trades, and manufactures.” As I will discuss later, the explanation of arts and trades is a primary focus for Diderot and d’Alembert in this project.
Raison, or reason, is what the authors call philosophy, and it is split into the science of God, the science of man, and the science of nature. While the authors state that philosophy is synonymous with science, it is not “science” in the same connotation most commonly used today. Rather, it is intended to be thought of as “a science of reflection,” a science of reasoning.
Imagination, which is a cognate (means the same thing in French and in English), refers to poetry, or “that which is fiction”: narrative, dramatic, or parabolic. Diderot and d’Alembert describe poetry as “an imitation of historical beings.” Poetry is also related to the arts of architecture, music, sculpture, and engraving, because the masters of all of these arts “imitate and counterfeit nature.” 
In the section that follows, Diderot and d’Alembert address the fact that their division of the system of human knowledge was inspired by Chancellor Bacon’s work. They explain, however, that the philosophical branch is completely their own, as it was not included in Bacon’s work. According to the authors of L’Encyclopédie, Bacon originally applied his divisions to theology as well but later discarded this idea because it “appeared to be more ingenious than solid” (page li).
Including Bacon’s theories in the Encyclopedia, I believe, serves two main purposes. First, it further qualifies the project by showing that the concept is not completely unprecedented but is still providing an addition to the realm of knowledge. Second, it is not unreasonable to imagine that having the name of a distinguished academic and scientist tied to one’s work would be appealing both to readers and to the esteem of the authors.
Something I’m finding to be puzzling is the length of the last category, poetry (imagination). Even at the time of L’Encyclopédie’s publication, writing and literature and poetry were well-established traditions worldwide. It seems strange to me that this section is not longer because literature is such a vast field; so much could be included.
According to The European Graduate School, while Diderot included the faculties of history and poetry in the work, “the focus of [L’Encyclopédie] was to explicate varying technologies as to make them understood by anyone” (EuropeanGraduate School, Denis Diderot). It was intended to investigate the world of manufacturing, something that had yet to be accomplished. A great deal of this focus on manufacturing and the mechanical arts can be seen in the supplemental plate volumes, in which drawings and engravings are included. This explains why reason and the mechanical arts are the most thoroughly “worked-out” both in the map of human knowledge and are most extensively covered throughout the work. While this rationalization does shed some light on my confusion, I’m not quite satisfied and still do not understand why poetry is so much less extensive than the history and philosophy sections. I hope to find more clarification about this as I continue my research; if anyone knows the answer, let me know!
In my next post, I will explore the map of the system of human knowledge that accompanies the written explanation of the system.

À bientôt,

Friday, September 20, 2013

Volume I - Tome premier

The full official title of L’Encyclopédie is L’Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, translated to “The Encyclopedia, or Classified Dictionary of Sciences, Arts, and Trades” (Britannica).  It consists of 28 books, 17 of which are volumes. The remaining 11 books, called plates, contain illustrations and graphics that correspond to the volumes. Throughout this semester, I plan to begin with Volume 1 and continue through the volumes as far as I can.
The first volume contains all of the entries that begin with “A” – there are so many “A” entries that it took up the entire book! I suspect that common letters like “A” will have their own volumes, while other less popular letters will share with their neighboring letters. Who knew that encyclopedia publishing was a popularity contest?
The first entry in the first volume of L’Encyclopédie is simply the letter “A”, “the character or figure of the first letter of the Alphabet in Latin, French, and in almost all of the languages of Europe” (3). The very last entry of the first volume is “Azymites”, or “the name that the schismatic Greeks give to the Roman Catholics”(914). So, as a reference, there are a total of 911 pages worth of entries in the first volume, and there are 16 volumes that follow. I repeat: there is an incredible amount of information contained in this work. I have included pictures of both the first (page 3) and last (page 914) entry pages of the first volume. 
An introduction to the project is included at the beginning of this volume, titled “Discours préliminaire des éditeurs” (Preface from the editors). It is quite long – 45 large encyclopedia pages, to be exact. Nonetheless, as one might expect, it is fundamental to the work as a whole. Diderot and d’Alembert (the latter of whom is the principle author of this preface) set the tone for their writing and explain the nature of the project in this section. The University of Michigan hosted a collaborative translation project of L’Encyclopédie in which a team of academics and student assistants translated the entirety of the work from French into English. The project’s scholars call the Discours préliminaire “incomparably the best introduction to the French enlightenment.” In doing my own reading of the work, I appreciate this assessment of the preface, and if I were more qualified to make such a comment, I would probably agree. The Enlightenment was characterized by the organization and advancement of human knowledge and learning; the preface and L’Encyclopédie as a whole most definitely lend themselves to these tendencies. The University of Michigan article about the Preface in addition to the translation project itself can be found here and here, respectively.
I found that the Watkinson also has an English translation of the plan of L’Encyclopédie, published shortly after the work itself, called The Plan of the French Encyclopedia, in which this preface is included (of course, I could have read the University of Michigan translation, but reading a three-hundred-year-old book is much more fun). Upon comparing what I read in French and its English translation, I found that the two versions say slightly different things. For the most part, the gist is the same, but a budding philologist like myself would find such differences noteworthy. My principal observation is that the French version seems more proper than its English counterpart. I attribute this to two factors: first, French tends to be a formal language, and historically, the French have been pickier about use and preservation of their language (that’s why they established L’Académie Française). Second, I speak better English than I do French, so it is possible that complex words and phrasing I use in English may be more familiar to me than they are in French. Either way, I found that the French manuscript seems to say essentially the same thing in a fancier way and in more words than the English one. 
            In terms of content, the authors present their own qualifications for undertaking the task of compiling this work as well as what they intend to include in its volumes. The opening sentence states that they, the authors, are presenting this work to the public as “L’Ouvrage d’une société de Gens de Lettres,” or a publication of a “learned body.” With this, Diderot and d’Alembert begin to address an important critique of the work: “how is it possible that two persons can be [qualified] to treat all of the arts and sciences?” They reassure readers that “this is not the work of a single hand or two,” but will have many contributors from this “learned body” (see this list of contributing authors). The work will embrace two perspectives: first, as an encyclopedia, and second, as a philosophical dictionary. As an encyclopedia, the work will demonstrate the connections between and organization of all human knowledge and disciplines. The Philosophical Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Trades will explore the base principles and essential details of each science and art in human existence.
My next post will concern the authors’ division of knowledge, which is a very integral part of the work and its context, so it deserves its own post.

Stay tuned and bon weekend!