Diderot’s Encyclopedia: Industrial Revolution and Other Legacies

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Turning Points in Modern History

By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

In 1745, a rich Parisian publisher named André le Breton commissioned a translation of a two-volume English dictionary into French. However, instead of just a translation, the editors set their sights on creating something astoundingly new. It became a magnificent work that signaled one of the greatest upheavals in human civilization—the Industrial Revolution.

A Roberts loom in a busy weaving shed in 1835.
A Roberts loom in a weaving shed in 1835. Textiles were the leading industry of the Industrial Revolution. (Image: Illustrator T. Allom/Public domain)

The philosophes of Enlightenment in France banded together under the stewardship of Denis Diderot and went on to produce a daring printed work, Encyclopédie, subtitled A Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, by a Company of Men of Letters. This work encapsulated the ideas of Enlightenment through and through. One of the lasting impacts of the Encyclopédie was that it pointed and led toward the Industrial Revolution.

Learn more about Gutenberg’s Print Revolution.

Diderot’s Encyclopedia Set the Stage for the Industrial Revolution

The explicit message of the Encyclopédie was that practical trades and crafts were noble and useful, and that usefulness was a source of authority. Diderot himself was the son of a master craftsman and this clearly shaped his conviction. Diderot wrote, “Too much has been written on the sciences; not enough has been written well on most of the liberal arts; almost nothing has been written on the mechanical arts.” Diderot believed that useful people were being demeaned and slighted. As he exclaimed at a later point, “What bizarre judgments we make! We require that people are usefully occupied, and we despise useful men.”

Illustration of handloom weaving in 1747.
Handloom weaving in 1747. (Image: Hogarth/Public domain)

To dignify usefulness as a virtue, the writers of the Encyclopédie sought to capture in their pages the techniques and secrets of the trades of artisans. They visited workshops and consulted with the tradesmen to get the details just right. Many detailed and careful engravings in the Encyclopédie also showed artisans at work and celebrated their productivity and usefulness. Ironically, some of these very guild craftsmen who were being observed by encyclopedia writers resisted giving away their secrets of the trade because they feared spreading their secret knowledge.

Encyclopédie‘s emphasis was on practical craft, utility, improvement in quality, and the encouragement of technological progress—all of these came to be the key values for the later transformation of economics and production which we call the Industrial Revolution.

Further, the Encyclopédie announced and encouraged changed views of authority. The Encyclopédie featured in its pages craftsmen, artisans, and technical experts, and said very little about kings, warlords, and saints. In fact, the Encyclopédie had no biographical entries. Raising the profile of craftsmen and workers meant lowering the exalted social positions of aristocracy and clergy. Diderot himself wrote, “No man has received from nature the right to command others.” As per this view, any political authority needed to be agreed upon, as in a contract, and it needed to be rational. The laws of reason should be paramount. This alteration in the nature of traditional authority allowed the forces of capital and labor to flourish at a later date and to take charge and set the stage for the Industrial Revolution.

This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Criticism of the Enlightenment

Painting of Edmund Burke in 1767.
Painting of Edmund Burke in 1767 at the Studio of Joshua Reynolds. (Image: Joshua Reynolds/Public domain)

Not everyone agreed with what such reconfiguration of authority entailed or how the philosophes understood Enlightenment. The Irish-born British statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, often considered the founder of conservatism, had his doubts. Burke had castigated British colonial rule in India for destroying ancient customs and ways of life. He also worried that in Europe, the abstract theorizing and universal principles of the philosophes threatened to dissolve, in irony and the cold light of reason, those attributes of society that were not founded on reason, but were still valuable, such as ties of tradition, feeling, conviction, and faith.

Similarly, the German Enlightenment thinker Johann Gottfried von Herder feared that the universalizing tendencies of the Enlightenment that he was participating in could devastate cultural diversity, the mosaic of a thousand different ways of being human—different languages, literatures, and ways of life. It could all be melted down into one universal culture and that, he thought, would be a loss. The debate continued for a long time, and the debate still continues today.

Learn more about the Fall of Constantinople.

Diderot’s Encyclopedia in Modern Avatars

We are many centuries removed from Diderot. But the legacy of Diderot’s encyclopedia continues. The Encyclopédie, interestingly enough, is today available online. The thought of the Encyclopédie, as Diderot conceived it, was of a knowledge machine. In today’s jargon, we might say, a kind of search engine.

The success of the Encyclopédie inspired an English language project, the Encyclopedia Britannica. In 2010, the Encyclopedia Britannica published its last print edition, thereafter, going online. Diderot would have been very pleased with Wikipedia, as a modern avatar of Encyclopédie, carrying the legacy of the vast, open, accessible, encyclopedic project that he once captained.

Common Questions About the Diderot’s Encyclopedia

Q: What was the message of Diderot’s encyclopedia?

The explicit message of the Encyclopédie was that practical trades and crafts were noble and useful, and that usefulness was a source of authority.

Q: Why was Diderot’s encyclopedia so important?

Diderot’s encyclopedia shifted the authority from traditional figures to artisans, tradesmen, and technical workmen. This shift was radical.

Q: What was the Enlightenment philosophy?

The Enlightenment philosophy aspired to replace tradition and faith with reason, science, and the ideal of useful knowledge.

Q: What was the major criticism of Enlightenment?

Some thinkers believed that the universalizing tendencies of the Enlightenment could devastate cultural diversity and end tradition and faith. This was the major criticism.

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