Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783)
Born an illegitimate child in Paris, Jean le Rond d’Alembert would go on to be one of the major figures in the French Enlightenment. D’Alembert’s education was supported by an annuity left by his father, and his initial studies were pursued at a Jansenist college, an experience which resulted in his distaste for the Cartesian principles of the Jansenists and a revolt against the ecclesiastical career he was heading toward. Despite his studies in law, D’Alembert’s main intellectual interests would be in mathematics and fluid mechanics. After successful contributions to these fields, D’Alembert was elected to the Académie des Sciences in 1741 and the Berlin Academy in 1748. A friend of Diderot’s, D’Alembert was responsible for much of the scientific content of the Encyclopédie, the quintessential Enlightenment project, and it is D’Alembert’s entry ‘Elements of the Sciences’ that is reproduced in volume nine of the Cahiers pour l’Analyse. An avowed atheist and materialist, D’Alembert was nonetheless not a ‘realist’ in the modern sense in that he questioned the correlation between what we perceive and things in themselves, thus anticipating in some respects Kant’s transcendental idealism. D’Alembert’s legacy lives on in his contributions to the scientific thought, and his name was immortalized in Diderot’s classic text on the conundrums of materialism, D’Alembert’s Dream (1769).
In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse
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- D’Alembert, Jean le Rond, and Denis Diderot, eds. L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751–1772). The full text is online at http://diderot.alembert.free.fr/.
- D’Alembert, Jean le Rond. Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, trans. Richard N. Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.