Denis Diderot

Tamara Dlugach

Translated from the Russian by Catherine Judelson

Designed by Sergei Krasovsky

[Russian original], 1975
English translation of the revised Russian text

Progress Publishers, 1988

ISBN /5-01-000501-8


Preface . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   
Chapter One. France under Louis XV and the  
    Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot . . . . .     
Chapter Two. The Enlightenment and Paradoxes  
    in the Work of Denis Diderot . . . . .     
          1. Diderot Comes into His Own . . .       
          2. Diderot as Philosopher . . . . .
          3. Matter and Motion . . . . . . . 
          4. Problems of the Theory of Cognition
          5. Man as Natural Creature . . . . .
Chapter Three. The Useful or the Beautiful? The  
    Paradox of Acting . . . . . . . . .   
In Lieu of a Conclusion . . . . . . . .

"For Truth it is enough for it to be accepted by a few men, be they good men: Truth is not called upon to be pleasing to everyone."

"Since I am less inclined to instruct you than to train your mind, it matters little whether you adopt my ideas or reject them, provided they engage your whole attention. A man more skilled than I will teach you to understand the forces of Nature; for me it is enough to have made you test out your own strength."

Denis Diderot

To the Memory of My Father


I was very happy to learn that English readers will have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with my work on Diderot, one of the most remarkable figures of the Enlightenment who deserves our admiration and detailed study.

The life of Diderot is the story of a courageous man who dared to oppose the royal court and the government of Louis XV, who did not fear incarceration in the Bastille, the threat of arrest and confiscation of property; it is the life of a champion to whose efforts we owe the publication of the famous Encyclopédie.

Without Diderot, this Encyclopédie would probably never have seen the light of day. We can, moreover, be certain that, without Diderot's indomitable spirit and confidence in the victory of advanced thought, we would not have inherited those volumes of the Encyclopédie which, after the departure of Jean d'Alembert, he, together with a small group of likeminded helpers, prepared, edited and published right up until 1772 in an atmosphere of government threats and public harassment. And had there been no Encyclopédie, it is


quite possible that the development of the bourgeois system in France (and elsewhere) would have been retarded, and the whole of the cultural development of Europe would perhaps have been somewhat different.

We know Diderot not only as the organiser of the Encyclopédie: together with Holbach, Helvétius and Rousseau he took part in elaborating the programme for the French Revolution, of which the Encyclopédie was the philosophical basis. Every article in the Encyclopédie, written or edited by Diderot, is a blow against absolutism and feudal‑estate psychology. It was here, in this circle of Encyclopaedist friends, that the basic concepts of the philosophy of the Enlightenment were hammered out—the concepts of natural man, of equality, of justice, and others. The relations that emerged among the members of this group, in many ways thanks to Diderot's efforts, promoted debate and argument, and this, in its turn, encouraged that scope of thought and detailed analysis of the problems without which the fundamental principles of the Enlightenment could not have been formulated.

Thanks to the clarity of his thinking, the precision of his argumentation, the range of his knowledge, his warmth, friendliness and optimism, Diderot became the soul of the circle of the Encyclopaedists.

Diderot's philosophical ideas were in the mainstream of the ideas of the Enlightenment: as an adherent of its radical left wing, he developed the materialist concepts of the primacy of matter over consciousness, support-


ed the principle of the eternal and indestructible nature of motion, criticised the sensuous idealism of Berkeley and formulated an atheistic outlook. Although his socio‑political programme was less revolutionary than that of Rousseau, although he defended the idea of the enlightened monarch, which was widespread among those who agreed with Enlightenment philosophy, he nonetheless began, in the last years of his life and in particular after closer acquaintance with Catherine II, to think of the possible forcible overthrow of tyranny. In this he is a direct predecessor of the French Revolution.

Diderot is not only known as a philosopher, public figure and publicist, but is also justifiably famous as a writer: his belletristic works were admired by Goethe and Schiller; Marx listed him among favourite prose writers. The well‑known dialogues in "Le Neveu de Rameau" and "Jacques le fataliste et son maître'' still evoke the admiration of the reader.

UNESCO declared 1984 to be the Year of Diderot, and on 31 July, 1984, progressive people round the world marked the 200th anniversary of his posthumous recognition and fame. Jubilee meetings were held in a number of towns in France (Paris, Langres, Sevres) and other countries, attended by well‑known experts on the works of Diderot (Herbert Dieckmann, Jacques Proust and others), at which many important results of the work done by this renowned French enlightener were identified and analysed.

The author of this present monograph has


focused her attention only on one aspect of Diderot's work: she has attempted to grasp those specific aspects of Diderot's thinking which many researchers into his work have described as "Socratean". This is a reference to Diderot's thinking as a philosopher who, unlike many of his famous contemporaries, did not attempt to construct a complete philosophical system; on the contrary, he sought to identify the internal contradictions within the systems of Holbach, Helvétius and others. He did this quite deliberately, seeking to show that the thinking of his age was typified by so‑called "paradoxes", that is, by insoluble contradictions, a situation in which, when the basic postulates of Enlightenment philosophy were developed in a logically consistent, non‑contradictory manner, they led, strange as it may seem, to the opposite conclusions, that is, they brought into question these very postulates.

Thus Diderot shows that, if the Enlightenment concept of man as a "natural being" who has received all his qualities and characteristics from Nature is taken to its logical conclusion, then it must be admitted that flaws of human character, and even human vices, are determined by Nature. Then one cannot accuse or punish, for Nature itself has determined these flaws. This threatens the thesis which posits the rationality of all that is "natural". It also threatens another major principle of the Enlightenment—the principle of upbringing.

Indeed, if a man is "good" by nature, then he has no need of upbringing; if, on the other hand, he is "evil" by nature, then upbringing will serve no purpose as Nature, in the words


of Diderot, “will still have its way”.

The Enlighteners would not have been the Enlighteners, however, if they had not insisted on the possibility of changing man by upbringing. But can one do so otherwise than in harmony with Nature? Can upbringing "overcome" Nature in cases where Nature is flawed, evil, and in general imperfect? And if it can, then does not Nature cease to be the sole basis of human life and the measure of all human actions, since alongside Nature there is now upbringing, recognised as being even more powerful?

In just this way contradictions are revealed in the solutions offered by the enlighteners to other problems connected with the new philosophical view of the essence of man and his place in nature.

The author of the present monograph seeks to show that the famous philosophical dialogues in Le Neveu de Rameau and Jacques le fataliste... are devoted to revealing precisely such "paradoxes", and that therefore the "hero" of these novels may justifiably be considered to be the thinking of the age, taken together with all its "paradoxes". Hence the incessant and sharp argument of the characters with each other and themselves, and their sudden shift to the opposing side; hence Diderot's love for the dialogue form of narration.

We know that Hegel thought highly of Diderot's work, in particular of Le Neveu de Rameau, and included the fruits of his reflections on this work in his Phenomenology of Mind in the form of a chapter on "unhappy" consciousness and "pure" consciousness. Hegel


named Diderot as one of his precursors in the elaboration of dialectics. Nonetheless, in the opinion of the author of the present monograph, the dialectics of Diderot is clearly not of a Hegelian nature: there is no identification of opposites in the Hegelian meaning of this term, nor any "removal" (solution) of these contradictions.

Diderot places the emphasis on the constant reproduction of the logical opposition of thesis and antithesis in the course of argumentation, each time at a new level of development. Again and again, the complete logical elaboration of the thesis brings with it the antithesis, and vice versa. Therefore Diderot's "paradoxes" can be seen as closer to Kant's unresolved antinomies than to Hegel's identity of opposites.

It is along these lines that Diderot's fundamental works on philosophy and aesthetics are analysed in this book, with particular attention being given to his Salons and Paradoxe sur le comédien.

The author is proud and happy of the fact that she is making her own contribution, albeit modest, to contemporary research into the works of Diderot and thereby paying tribute to one who was a remarkable thinker, an extraordinary man and a courageous fighter.

If this book gives pleasure to the English reader, the author will consider that she has, in part at least, achieved her purpose.




The figure of Liberty on the barricades in the famous picture by Eugene Delacroix serves to symbolize insurgent Paris.

The "barricades", the "storming of the Bastille" and the "French Revolution" are phrases that have been familiar to us since our schooldays. For each and every one of us they conjure up vivid stirring images. We imagine to ourselves majestic and amusing episodes of that mighty social tide, which brought down the monarchy, did away with estate privileges and ushered in a new social order.

The whole of the French people rose up against the old order—bourgeoisie, artisans, peasants—and triumphed in the struggle. Yet when we study the revolution it is important to probe deeper than revolutionary gains and not pass over in silence the subject of those who devised the slogans taken up by the insurgents, those who elucidated the urgent tasks before them, in other words those who paved the way to revolution with their ideas and intellectual quests. First and foremost tribute should be paid to what was initially a small group of writers, grouped round the Encyclopédie, who later came to be known as the Encyclo­paedists. The central figure in the group was Denis Diderot.



An attempt has been made here to present Diderot to the reader as an original French thinker of the eighteenth century. A special feature of his thought, stemming from its socratic spirit, we have been referring to as "paradoxality": the ability to split up any assertion into its component parts, until a contradiction is revealed among the latter, was the explanation for Diderot's success in formulating problems that extend beyond the framework of metaphysical materialism.

Diderot's philosophical views were the logical product of his age. He was not original in his positive programme, and his thoughts on matter, motion, development and so on, are closely allied to those of Legér‑Marie Deschamps, whom he held in very high esteem, Holbach, La Mettrie and others. Like them Diderot came to a significant degree under the influence of Leibniz (in particular with regard to the question of homogeneous and heterogeneous matter), Spinoza and various other of his great predecessors.

As we have attempted to demonstrate, Diderot's strength lay in his exposition of ideas that were indeed very similar to the views of


many other philosophers but, strange though it may seem, in his doubts and questioning of their views, and in his ability to single out the latent behind the obvious and the contradictory behind the indisputable.

The fact that Diderot did not produce a strictly organized and polished philosophical system can on the one hand be seen as an advantage, since it made it easier for him to criticize mechanistic materialism, but on the other as a shortcoming, since to a certain extent this deprived his ideas of inner completeness.

In Diderot's socio‑political programme he clearly followed an approach that was less revolutionary and less democratic than that of Rousseau. Yet despite all these weaknesses Diderot was a colourful dynamic personality endowed with an unusual mind and array of talents, to whom we owe the Encyclopédie and many other triumphs of the Enlightenment, and this is where his main contribution to philosophy and history lies.



Tamara Dlugach (b. 1935), who is a senior research associate in the history of philosophy section of the Institute of Philosophy, the USSR Academy of Sciences, has written a number of works on German classical and French philosophy. She contributed (as co‑author) a section La République des Lettres and the "Natural Philosophy" of Isaac Newton to a monograph entitled The Philosophy of the Age of the Early Bourgeois Revolutions and an article The Logical Substantiation of the Scientific Thinking in the Marburg School of Neokantianism to the volume Kant and the Kantians (Moscow, 1987).

Another monograph Tamara Dlugach has published bears the title Man in the World of Technology and Technology in the World of Man (Moscow, 1978).

At present she is working on a monograph entitled The Problem of the Unity of "Theory" and "Practice" in German Classical Philosophy.

This work on Diderot was translated into Finnish in 1984.

[back cover]

SOURCE: Dlugach, Tamara. Denis Diderot, translated by Catherine Judelson. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1988. 237 pp. (Originally published in Russian, 1975.)

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