Skip to Main Content

Diderot's and d'Alembert's encylopédie: What is the Encyclopédie?

Subjects: French

Purpose of this guide

This guide is intended for students/researchers studying French at the University of Oxford, although students/researchers from any field may find it useful.

Use this guide to  explore the Dictionnaire Raisonne des Sciences, des Arts et des Metiers by Diderot and D'Alembert

Related guides

What is the Encyclopédie?

The publication of the Encyclopédie (which began in 1751) has been described as ‘the greatest single enterprise of the Enlightenment’.  Many of the greatest minds of the age contributed to it working together as a team but coordinated by Diderot and D'Alembert. It came about partly as a speculative publishing enterprise. You will not often find anything too overtly subversive in the text. In order for anything to be published in pre-revolutionary France it had to have the privilège du roi so anyone writing for publication had to be careful what they wrote.

However, there are many ways of being subversive...

The subversiveness of the Encyclopédie derives firstly from its underlying principle which is that knowledge comes not from Rome or revelation but from reason.

It makes extensive use of ‘ subterfuge, irony and false protestations of orthodoxy’. For example, it includes sections on high-minded, law-abiding Hindus, Confucians, Hottentots , stoics, Socinians, deists and atheists who usually manage to get the better of the orthodox in argument in the end (as in the article on 'Unitaires').

The Encyclopédie was a balancing-act. The more controversial it was, the more commercially lucrative it became. If it became too controversial, it ran the risk of being banned and this is what eventually happened in 1757.  From 1757 to  1765 (vols 8-17) the Encyclopédie was purportedly published in Neufchastel (now Neuchâtel) across the border in Switzerland.  In fact it continued to be printed in Paris. Despite the controversy, it did not cease to be a highly commercial business proposition which is why the publishing entrepreneur Panckoucke acquired the rights to reissue the work in 1775.