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Denis Diderot (1713–1784)

A major figure in the French Enlightenment, Diderot is best known for his collaboration with d’Alembert in the production of the Encyclopédie. Beyond this signal institutional contribution, Diderot also produced a series of satirical works which at once affirmed and complicated the materialist trajectory of the Enlightenment. Diderot began his formal education at the lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, and completed a masters of arts in philosophy in 1732. He considered pursuing studies in law, but quickly abandoned that field for the life of the writer. He never procured much in the way of material support for his work, and was forced to sell his library in order to provide a dowry for his daughter’s marriage. He found a buyer in Catherine II of Russia, who bought the library and then entrusted it to Diderot, who was to serve as the librarian for the collection in Paris. Diderot made visits to Russia in 1773 an 1774, and when he died in 1784, his library was delivered to the National Library there.

Among Diderot’s key works were Jacques the Fatalist (1761), Rameau’s Nephew (1761)and D’Alembert’s Dream (1769), each of which used humour to explore the basic conundrums of materialist and atheistic thought. His novel The Nun (1760) satirized religious practices, while his Supplement to the Voyage to Bougainville (1772) used allegory to address the problem of natural right and political theories grounded in a ‘state of nature’. The key text of Diderot’s addressed in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse is the same one that first achieved him renown in his own day, his own engagement with the ‘Molyneux Problem’, the Letter on the Blind (1749). Diderot’s claims against the primacy of either sense - sight or touch - in favour of a chain of signification seemed in some respects to anticipate Lacan theories concerning the primacy of the signifier.Despite the lack of systematicity in Diderot’s thinking - or perhaps because of it - Diderot was a key forebear of many materialist lines of thought in twentieth-century France, including that found in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse.

In the Cahiers pour l’Analyse

Alain Grosrichard, ‘Une expérience psychologique au 18ème siècle’, CpA 2.3 [HTML] [PDF] [SYN]

Select bibliography

  • Political Writings, eds. John Hope Mason and Robert Wokler. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alembert’s Dream, trans. Leonard Tancock. London: Penguin, 2004.
  • Jacques the Fatalist, trans. Michael Henry. London: Penguin, 2006.
  • The Nun, trans. Russell Goulbourne. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.