The Great French Encyclopédie

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This post was contributed by Odd Salon co-founder and project curator Annetta Black, who was inspired by open knowledge projects like the Encyclopédie and both the radical inclusion and radical politics of its creators in the founding of Odd Salon, and hopes that her contributions of stick figure illustrations of historical disasters is adding to the diffusion of knowledge. 

What started as a reasonable enough project to create a French translation of an existing, two volume general encyclopedia turned into an all consuming, scandal ridden, epic undertaking of some of the greatest minds of the French Enlightenment.

The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers was first published in France between 1751 and 1772, eventually topping out at 35 total volumes, including over 70,000 individual entries, and more than 3,000 illustrations. Co-edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert, the goal of the project was nothing less than a complete record and index of all the world’s knowledge on everything

Diderot described the objectives as, “The goal of an encyclopedia is to assemble all the knowledge scattered on the surface of the earth, to demonstrate the general system to the people with whom we live, & to transmit it to the people who will come after us, so that the works of centuries past is not useless to the centuries which follow, that our descendants, by becoming more learned, may become more virtuous & happier, & that we do not die without having merited being part of the human race.”

The project was originally modeled on the popular English Cyclopaedia; or An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, published in 1728 by Ephraim Chambers, but became its own monster pretty much immediately – to kick things off, the first publisher ran off with the subscription money, leading to a physical altercation with the project’s first translator. Despite the lofty goals of the dissemination of all knowledge, Diderot, for his part, could not keep politics out of it, and it quickly became enmeshed in scandal for its radical anti-church and anti-wealth stances. Both the king and the Pope condemned the project, and portions of the work had to be smuggled out of the country to be printed. 

One man contributed more to the Encyclopédie than anyone else. Louis de Jaucourt wrote an astonishing 17,266 entries himself, cranking out as many as eight in a day (largely cribbed or outright plagiarized from other sources). He was a man of substantial means, and took no financial compensation for his work. Other entries were contributed by recognizable names of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.

Once complete, the Encyclopédie became known for its radical inclusion more than its politics. Written by more than 130 contributors, subjects were wide ranging and included not only the stuff of previous encyclopedias, such as natural history, academic sciences, and medical knowledge, it also included entries covering artisan trades and crafts, breaking down previous barriers between the knowledge associated with gentlemen and more practical “useful knowledge,” a trend that would continue to grow in the coming decades. 

Further Reading & Resources:

Digital Encyclopedie, University of Michigan

TED Ed video