Denis Diderot

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Diderot, Denis

(dənē` dēdərō`), 1713–84, French encyclopedist, philosopher of materialism, and critic of art and literature, b. Langres. He was also a novelist, satirist, and dramatist. Diderot was enormously influential in shaping the rationalistic spirit of the 18th cent. Educated by the Jesuits, he rejected a career in law to pursue his own studies and writing. In 1745 he became editor of the EncyclopédieEncyclopédie
, the work of the French Encyclopedists, or philosophes. The full title was Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers.
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, enlisting nearly all the important French writers of the EnlightenmentEnlightenment,
term applied to the mainstream of thought of 18th-century Europe and America. Background and Basic Tenets

The scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th cent.
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; they produced the most remarkable compendium up to that time. The best known of his plays is Le Père de famille (1758), which became the prototype of the "bourgeois drama."

Other highly distinctive works by Diderot include La Religieuse [the nun] (1796), a psychological novel; Jacques le fataliste (1796), a rambling novel in the manner of SterneSterne, Laurence
, 1713–68, English author, b. Ireland. Educated at Cambridge, he entered the Anglican church and was given the living of Sutton-in-the-Forest, Yorkshire, in 1738, where he remained until 1759.
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; and Le Neveu de Rameau [Rameau's nephew], a brilliant satire in dialogue. His philosophical writings include his Pensées philosophiques (1746) and Lettre sur les aveugles [letter on the blind] (1749), which contains the most complete statement of his materialism. Through his Salons, articles published in newspapers from 1759, he pioneered in modern art criticism. Diderot's vast correspondence forms a brilliant picture of the period. His later years, until he came to enjoy the patronage of Catherine II of Russia, were filled with financial difficulties. His influence was great, both on his immediate successors, HolbachHolbach, Paul Henri Thiry, baron d'
, Ger. Paul Heinrich Dietrich, Baron von Holbach , 1723–89, French philosopher, one of the Encyclopedists. Although a native of the Palatinate, he lived in Paris from childhood.
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 and HelvétiusHelvétius, Claude Adrien
, 1715–71, French philosopher, one of the Encyclopedists. He held the post of farmer-general (i.e., tax collector), an exceedingly remunerative position.
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, and on the writers and thinkers of France, Germany, and England.


See his Selected Writings, tr. by D. Coltman and ed. by L. G. Crocker (1966); Diderot on Art, ed. and tr. by J. Goodman (2 vol., 1995); biographies by A. M. Wilson (1972), P. N. Furbank (1992), and A. S. Curran (2019); studies by G. Bremner (1983), J. H. Mason (1984), A. S. Curran (2019), and R. Zaretsky (2019).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Diderot, Denis


Born Oct. 5, 1713, in Langres; died July 31, 1784, in Paris. French writer and Enlightenment philosopher.

The son of an artisan, Diderot received a master of arts degree in 1732. His early philosophical works were written in the spirit of deism (Philosophic Thoughts, 1746, which was burned by order of the French parliament, and Walks, or Strolls of a Skeptic, 1747; published in 1830). The philosophical work Letter on the Blind (1749), for which he was arrested, was materialistic and atheistic. After leaving prison, Diderot became editor and organizer of the Encyclopedia (1751-80). He and other Enlightenment figures succeeded in making it not only a system of the scholarly knowledge of the period but also a powerful weapon in the struggle against feudal ranks and religious ideology. Despite persecution by reactionaries, Diderot completed the editing and publication of the Encyclopedia. Between 1773 and 1774 he traveled to Russia at the invitation of Catherine II. He attempted to influence Catherine II’s policy in the direction of liberating the peasants and carrying out liberal reforms.

Diderot’s most important philosophical works are Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature (1754), Conversation Between D’Alembert and Diderot and D’Alembert’s Dream (both 1769, published, 1830), Philosophical Principles of Matter and Motion (1770, published, 1798), and Elements of Physiology (1774-80, published 1875). In them he defended materialist ideas, regarding everything real as varied formations of a single, uncreated matter. According to Diderot, matter is qualitatively multiform and possesses the principle of self-movement and development. Long before Darwin, Diderot expressed the hypothesis of biological evolution. Although he based his theory of cognition on the sensationalism of J. Locke, Diderot polemicized against the mechanistic materialism of his own century, which reduced the complex processes of spiritual life to a simple combination of sensations (Refutation of Helvetius’ Work “On Man,” 1773–74; published, 1875). Denying the divine origin of royal power, Diderot advocated the theory of the social contract. However, like Voltaire, he feared the independent movement of the lower classes, and he tied his hopes to an enlightened monarch. During the last period of his life Diderot leaned toward the idea of a republic but considered it ill-suited to the conditions of a large centralized state.

Diderot’s materialism is also evident in his aesthetics, which is characterized primarily by the struggle for realistic, democratic art. In his Salons —critical surveys of regular art exhibitions—Diderot opposed the representatives of classicism and the rococo (J. Vien and F. Boucher) and defended the genre painting of J. B. S. Chardin and J. B. Greuze, whose truthful depiction of nature and the daily life of the bourgeoisie captivated him. The struggle against classicism also penetrated those of Diderot’s works that were devoted to questions of dramaturgy, the theater, and music. Diderot and the other Encyclopedists took part in the so-called Guerre des Bouffons, defending the realism of Italian opera. In drama he introduced the idea of a middle genre between tragedy and comedy, which would truthfully and seriously depict the sorrows and joys of the daily lives of people of the third estate. Diderot demanded an unprejudiced description of life in all its unrepeatable uniqueness, and he strove to introduce an everyday tone into drama and to bring the stage as close to daily life as possible (Conversation on the Natural Son, 1757, and On Dramatic Poetry, 1758). Nevertheless, he understood that a fictional figure is not a “copy” but a “translation” hence, art must include “part of a lie,” which is the condition for attaining a wider poetic truth.

Diderot sought the beautiful in the relations that interconnect the numerous facts of the real world. However, the attempt to combine a description of individual phenomena that was precise to the point of illusion with the poetic truth of the whole remained unrealized in Diderot’s aesthetics. This failure revealed the contradiction between Diderot’s general democratic ideal, which encompassed all mankind, and bourgeois society, which could not serve as the real foundation for the ideal. Therefore, Diderot was compelled to seek grounds for his ideal not in history but in the extrahistorical, abstract concept of human nature. Associated with this was Diderot’s turning to a prototype, an ideal model, an inalienable and absolute standard of the beautiful, which had received its fullest expression in classical Greek art (Introduction to the Salon, 1767). These motifs in Diderot’s thought anticipated the wave of classicism that engulfed French art in the prerevolutionary and revolutionary years. The same tendencies permeated The Paradox of the Actor (1773-78; published in 1830). During this time Diderot regarded the theater as “another” conventional world of art. On the stage nothing is done as it is in real life, and therefore the actor is required to have not “sensibility” but calculating reason, a cold mastery, the quality of observation, and a knowledge of the conventional rules of art and an ability to subordinate himself to them. Diderot’s aesthetic ideal was inseparable from his social and moral ideals.

Diderot’s creative work included various genres. His early plays The Natural Son (1755, published in 1757) and The Father of the Family (1756, published in 1758) are interesting as illustrations of the dramatic theory of the “middle genre” from an artistic point of view they are not very successful. Of greater interest is his late, one-act play Is He Good? Is He Naughty? (1781, published in 1834), which presents a complex dialectic of good and evil. Diderot’s prose was an outstanding phenomenon of 18th-century realism. The novel The Nun (1760, published, 1796) is a clear, vivid anticlerical work in which the convent becomes a magnificent symbol of a corrupt civilization.

The figure of the servant Jacques (the novel Jacques the Fatalist, written in 1773 and published in German in 1792 and in French in 1796) is the embodiment of the common people of France with their joie de vivre, humor, and worldly wisdom. Jacques and his master argue questions of philosophy and morality. The master, an advocate of free will, believes that he has dominion over the world and is capable of deter-mining the course of events. This, however, is an illusion. From bitter experience Jacques the Fatalist has come to know that man is subject to circumstances and ruled by fate. But Jacques’ fatalism never dooms him to passivity; he is more an expression of trust in nature and in the free, natural flow of life than of submission to fate. This aspect of Jacques’ philosophy is close to Diderot’s thought and determines the novel’s structure. The protagonist’s narration of his amorous adventures, which forms the book’s plot line, is constantly being interrupted. Diderot preferred the natural, elemental movement of life in all its inconclusiveness and mutability to literary canons and clichés.

Diderot’s most important work, Rameau’s Nephew (1762-79, published in 1823), was written in the form of a dialogue between a philosopher and the nephew of the famous French composer Rameau. The dialogue has no strictly defined topic but possesses an inner unity; behind each utterance stands the personality of the speaker, his character, concept of being, and world view. Rameau is a poor musician, a representative of Parisian Bohemian life, an amoral, cynical, unprincipled man, a friend of reactionary, venal journalists, and a parasite in the homes of rich aristocrats—a product of the disintegration of the ancien regime. However, his amoral conduct is explained by the circumstances of contemporary society. Rameau rejects the moral standards of society, understanding them as a force that is alien and hostile to him and therefore evil. The only value that he sees in life is the satisfaction of one’s passions and strivings. By his amoral behavior and cynical utterances Rameau exposés the world surrounding him. He tears off society’s hypocritical mask and lays bare its essence. But Rameau also exposés the lifeless, abstract quality of the philosopher’s ideals. He clearly understands that wealth is becoming the principal power; however, poverty prevails for the time being, any freedom is illusory, everybody is striking poses and playing roles, and nobody is true to himself. In asserting at the end of the dialogue that the only free personality was Diogenes in his tub, the philosopher himself affirms the lifeless quality of his own ideals.

Diderot’s novels and novellas addressed to the future were not published during his lifetime. In their complex dialectic of thoughts and characters they exceed the bounds of 18th-century art and anticipate the later development of the European realistic novel. Diderot’s heritage continues to serve progressive mankind.

Like other 18th-century French materialist philosophers, Diderot placed enormous emphasis on the importance of education. He wrote: “Education gives man worth, and even a slave begins to recognize that he was not born for slavery” (Sobr. soch., vol. 10, Moscow, 1947, p. 271). Diderot highly valued the role of upbringing in forming human beings. Nevertheless, he considered that anatomical and physiological traits were essential to the growth and development of children. Although it achieves a great deal, upbringing alone cannot accomplish everything. The problems lie in revealing children’s natural capabilities and allowing them to develop to the fullest degree possible.

Diderot’s thoughts on public education were presented in his Plan of a University for the Government of Russia, which was devised in 1775 at the request of Catherine II, and in a number of notes that he wrote during his stay in St. Petersburg (“On a School for Girls,” “On Special Upbringing,” and “On Public Schools”). Diderot examined a broad range of pedagogical problems, including the system of public education and instructional methods. He drew up the plans for a state system of public education and defended the principles of universal, free, elementary schooling and education regardless of social class. Attempting to ensure the actual accessibility of schools to all classes, Diderot considered it necessary to organize the state’s material aid to the children of the poor (free textbooks and meals in elementary schools and stipends in secondary schools and higher educational institutions). He was opposed to the system of education that prevailed in Europe at that time, with its classicism and verbalism. He put physics, mathematics, and the natural sciences in the foreground, arguing for a realistic direction in education and the connection of education with the needs of life. Diderot attempted to construct a secondary school curriculum in accordance with the system of scientific knowledge, taking into consideration the interrelationship of the sciences and providing for the teaching of a principal subject in each year (for example, in the first year, mathematics; in the second, mechanics; and in the third, astronomy). Although he included religion in the curriculum, Diderot remarked that he did this out of consideration for Catherine II’s views, and as a hidden “antidote” he indicated the teaching of morality according to the materialist books of Hobbes and Holbach. Stressing the importance of good textbooks, Diderot proposed that major scholars be encouraged to write them. In order to raise the level of knowledge, he suggested that public examinations be conducted four times a year in secondary schools and that untruthful or incapable students be sifted out. To achieve a better selection of teachers, he advised that competitions be held.

Diderot’s “plan” was published only in the 19th century. (A censored edition of the section on secondary education came out in 1813–14 in the journal Annales d’education, and the section was published in its entirety in 1875 in Diderot’s collected works.)


Oeuvres completes, vols. 1–20. Paris, 1875–77.
Oeuvres. Edited with notes by A. Billy. Paris, 1957.
Oeuvres romanesques. Paris, 1959.
Oeuvres politiques. Paris [1963].
Correspondance, vols. 1–9. Edited with notes by G. Roth. Paris, 1955–63.
In Russian translation:
Sobr. soch., vols. 1–10. Moscow-Leningrad, 1935–47.
Ob iskusstve, vols. 1–2. Leningrad-Moscow, 1936.
Paradoks ob aktere. Leningrad-Moscow, 1938.
Izbrannye ateisticheskie proizvedeniia. Moscow, 1956.
Plemiannik Ramo. Moscow, 1958.


Morley, J. Didro i entsiklopedisty. Moscow, 1882.
Bil’basov, V. A. Didro v Peterburge. St. Petersburg, 1884.
Didro i Ekaterina II: Ikh besedy, napechatannye po sobstvennoruchnym zapiskam Didro. Explanatory essay and notes by M. Tourneux. St. Petersburg, 1902.
Bliumenfel’d, V. “Dramaturgicheskaia teoriia Didro.” In Rannii burzhuaznyi realizm. Leningrad, 1936.
Ivashchenko, A. “Realisticheskie povesti Didro.” InRealizm XVIII v. na Zapade. Moscow, 1936.
Pisarev, D. I. “Didro i ego vremia.” In Zven’ia, no. 6. (A collection.) Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Shishkin, A. F. “Teoriia vospitaniia D. Didro.” Sovetskaia pedagogika, 1938, no. 10.
Frumov, S. A. “Pedagogicheskie vzgliady Didro.” In Ocherki po istorii pedagogiki. Edited by N. A. Konstantinov. Moscow, 1952. Pages 79–82.
Volgin, V. P. Razvitie obshchestvennoi mysli vo Frantsii v XVIII veke. Moscow, 1958. Pages 102–32.
Kazarin, A. I. “Didro i nekotorye voprosy russkoi kul’tury.” Vestnik istorii mirovoi kul’tury, 1958, no. 1.
Luppol, I. K. D. Didro. Moscow, 1960.
Gachev, D. I. Esteticheskie vzgliady Didro. Moscow, 1961.
Barskaia, T. E. Deni Didro. Leningrad-Moscow, 1962.
Akimova, A. Didro. Moscow, 1963.
Anikst, A. Teoriia dramy ot Aristotelia do Lessinga. Moscow, 1967.
Vertsman, I. E. “Estetika Deni Didro.” In his book Problemy khudozhestvennogo poznaniia. Moscow, 1967.
Bernshtam, L. G. [comp.] Didro, 1713–1784. Leningrad, 1938. (Bibliography.)
Rosenkranz, K. Diderots Leben und Werke, vols. 1–2. Leipzig, 1866.
Hermand, P. Les Idees morales de Diderot. Paris, 1923.
Luc, J. Diderot: L’ artiste et le philosophe. Paris, 1938.
Thomas, J. L’Humanisme de Diderot, 2nd ed. Paris, 1938.
Billy, A. Vie de Diderot. Paris, 1948.
Diderot Studies, vols. 1–10. Edited by Otis E. Fellows and Norman L. Torrey. Syracuse, N.Y., 1949–68.
Lorel, A. Diderots Naturphilosophie. Vienna, 1950.
Belaval, I. L’Esthétique sans paradoxe de Diderot. Paris, 1950.
Guyot, C. Diderot par lui-méme. Paris, 1953.
Mayer, J. Diderot I’homme de science. Rennes, 1959.
Proust, J. Diderot et encyclopedic. Paris, 1962.
Kempf, R. Diderot et le roman ou le demon de la presence. Paris, 1964.
Mornet, D. Diderot. Paris, 1966.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.