Knowledge Reconfigured

Système figuré des connoissances humaines, in Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers


Système figuré des connoissances humaines, in Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers
. Published by Pellet, Geneva, 1777-1779, text volume 1. Courtesy of Special Collections, Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.

  • Système figuré des connoissances humaines, in Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers

  • Denis Diderot (French, 1713-1784), Jean le Rond d’Alembert (French, 1717-1783). Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.
  • Denis Diderot (French, 1713-1784), Jean le Rond d’Alembert (French, 1717-1783) and Pierre Mouchon (French, 1733-1797)  Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers
  • Denis Diderot (French, 1713-1784), Jean le Rond d’Alembert (French, 1717-1783) and Pierre Mouchon (French, 1733-1797)  Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers
  • Denis Diderot (French, 1713-1784), Jean le Rond d’Alembert (French, 1717-1783) and Pierre Mouchon (French, 1733-1797)  Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers
  • Denis Diderot (French, 1713-1784), Jean le Rond d’Alembert (French, 1717-1783) and Pierre Mouchon (French, 1733-1797)  Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers
 

Knowledge Reconfigured

Drew Armstrong

Diderot, d’Alembert and the Encyclopédie (1751)

The “Tree of Knowledge” [Système figuré des connaissances humaines] appeared in the first volume of the Encyclopédie, ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751), a titanic publishing enterprise produced between 1751 and 1772 and masterminded by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783).  The point of the diagram was to demonstrate that all knowledge [Entendement] is the product of sense experience and the workings of three mental faculties – Memory, Reason, and Imagination.

The “Tree of Knowledge” encapsulated in a single image the main goals of the Encyclopédie: to reconfigure the entirety of human knowledge as the basis for future progress in all fields of inquiry.  Citing precursors such as Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Isaac Newton, Diderot and d’Alembert based their encyclopedia on empirical and mathematical knowledge, rather than the authority of sources such as Ancient texts or the Bible.  An array of contemporary specialists was tapped to write over 70,000 articles on topics ranging from abstract principles of justice to the intricacies of watch-making.

The first folio edition of the Encyclopédie was a luxury product consisting of 17 volumes of text and 11 volumes of plates illustrating an array of sciences, technologies, and arts.  The 2,885 engraved plates added substantially to the cost and time of production, but the editors justified the inclusion of this material to better explain complicated processes and unfamiliar things to a curious readership.  The Encyclopédie was thus something of a museum of visual specimens as well as an alphabetical dictionary of terms and ideas.

The ambition of the Encyclopédie was to change the way people thought.  The audacity of this project is brought into focus when considered in relation to the very limited nature of formal education available in eighteenth-century Europe.  Universities were accessible only to a privileged elite and their curricula – inherited from the Middle Ages – remained devoted largely to the study of ancient Greek and Latin authors, law, medicine and, most important, theology.  The Encyclopédie, by contrast, reached a European-wide audience.  By 1789, it is estimated that 24,000 complete sets in various formats and editions had been printed, more than half of which were distributed outside France.

The Plates of the Encyclopédie

The plates of the Encyclopédie often represent stages in complex technical processes by juxtaposing images of different types.  Vignettes representing human figures engaged in various activities are supplemented by large-scale renderings depicting tools and their proper manipulation.  Thus, in the plates that represent “Engraving” [Gravure], the process of transferring drawings to copper plates is illustrated in step-by-step fashion in a perspective view of an engraver’s studio, while the chisel-like tools used in this process are shown with cross-sections through their blades to better illustrate their forms.  Numbers adjacent to different parts of the image link each element into articles in the text.

Other visual techniques employed in the Encyclopédie include table-like arrays of specimens grouped to facilitate visual comparisons.  Such, for example, is the strategy used in the plate from the Supplément (1777) illustrating the stages in the development of a frog, which breaks down the process of gestation to clarify transformation and mutation over time.  Two plates (1768) illustrating different systems of botanical classification – the one developed by the French scholar Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708), the other by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) – are especially striking, permitting the reader to compare two competing systems at a moment when neither had been universally adopted by botanists.  Through these images, the Encyclopédie contributed to discussions about the principles of disciplines and disseminated up-to-date ideas formulate by prominent specialists.

The Encyclopédie was not merely conceived as a repository of information, but as an instrument for making new knowledge; as such, its product was ambiguous and open-ended, dependent on the reader making serendipitous juxtapositions.  In the course of the eighteenth century, a number of subsequent editions of the Encyclopédie were published, notably the smaller quarto edition exhibited here alongside the first folio edition. Published between 1777 and 1779 in Geneva, the quarto edition consisted of 36 text volumes and only three volumes of illustrations.  By this stage, the new publishers regarded the illustrations as cumbersome and largely unnecessary, explaining that while the Encyclopédie had contributed to “accelerating the progress of reason,” the cost of the original edition was an impediment to maximizing its benefits to humanity.