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,

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