This article is about the 18th-century French encyclopaedia. For a definition of the word "encyclopédie", see the Wiktionary entry encyclopédie.
Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers

The title page of the Encyclopédie
Author Numerous contributors, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert
Country France
Language French
Subject General
Genre Reference encyclopedia
Publisher André le Breton, Michel-Antoine David, Laurent Durand, and Antoine-Claude Briasson
Publication date

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts) was a general encyclopedia published in France between 1751 and 1772, with later supplements, revised editions, and translations. It had many writers, known as the Encyclopédistes. It was edited by Denis Diderot and, until 1759, co-edited by Jean le Rond d'Alembert.

The Encyclopédie is most famous for representing the thought of the Enlightenment. According to Denis Diderot in the article "Encyclopédie", the Encyclopédie's aim was "to change the way people think".[1] He and the other contributors advocated for the secularization of learning away from the Jesuits.[2] Diderot wanted to incorporate all of the world's knowledge into the Encyclopédie and hoped that the text could disseminate all this information to the public and future generations.[3] It was also the first encyclopedia to include contributions from many named contributors, and it was the first general encyclopedia to describe the mechanical arts.


The Encyclopédie was originally conceived as a French translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728).[4] Ephraim Chambers had first published his Cyclopaedia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences in two volumes in London in 1728, following several dictionaries of arts and sciences that had emerged in Europe since the late 17th century.[5][6] This work became quite renowned, and four editions were published between 1738 and 1742. An Italian translation appeared between 1747 and 1754. In France a member of the banking family Lambert had started translating Chambers into French,[7] but in 1745 the expatriate Englishman John Mills and German Gottfried Sellius were the first to actually prepare a French edition of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia for publication, which they entitled Encyclopédie.

Early in 1745 a prospectus for the Encyclopédie[8] was published to attract subscribers to the project. This four page prospectus was illustrated by Jean-Michel Papillon,[9] and accompanied by a plan (see image), stating that the work would be published in five volumes from June 1746 until the end of 1748.[10] The text was translated by Mills and Sellius, and it was corrected by an unnamed person, who appears to have been Denis Diderot.[11]

The prospectus was reviewed quite positively and cited at some length in several journals.[12] The Mémoires pour l'histoire des sciences et des beaux arts journal was lavish in its praise: "voici deux des plus fortes entreprises de Littérature qu'on ait faites depuis long-tems" (here are two of the greatest efforts undertaken in literature in a very long time).[13] The Mercure Journal in June 1745, printed a 25-page article that specifically praised Mill's role as translator; the Journal introduced Mills as an English scholar who had been raised in France and who spoke both French and English as a native. The Journal reported that Mills had discussed the work with several academics, was zealous about the project, had devoted his fortune to support this enterprise, and was the sole owner of the publishing privilege.[14]

However, the cooperation fell apart later on in 1745. André Le Breton, the publisher commissioned to manage the physical production and sales of the volumes, cheated Mills out of the subscription money, claiming for example that Mills's knowledge of French was inadequate. In a confrontation Le Breton physically assaulted Mills. Mills took Le Breton to court, but the court decided in Le Breton's favour. Mills returned to England soon after the court's ruling.[15][16] For his new editor, Le Breton settled on the mathematician Jean Paul de Gua de Malves. Among those hired by Malves were the young Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, Jean le Rond d'Alembert, and Denis Diderot. Within thirteen months, in August 1747, Gua de Malves was fired for being an ineffective leader. Le Breton then hired Diderot and d'Alembert to be the new editors.[17] Diderot would remain as editor for the next twenty-five years, seeing the Encyclopédie through to its completion; d'Alembert would leave this role in 1758. As d'Alembert worked on the Encyclopédie, its title expanded. As of 1750, the full title was Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, mis en ordre par M. Diderot de l'Académie des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Prusse, et quant à la partie mathématique, par M. d'Alembert de l'Académie royale des Sciences de Paris, de celle de Prusse et de la Société royale de Londres. ("Encyclopedia: or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts, by a Company of Men of Letters, arranged by M. Diderot of the Academy of Sciences and Belles-lettres of Prussia: as to the Mathematical Portion, arranged by M. d'Alembert of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Paris, to the Academy of Sciences in Prussia and to the Royal Society of London.") The title page was amended as d'Alembert acquired more titles.

Fig.2: Extract from the frontispiece of the Encyclopédie (1772). It was drawn by Charles-Nicolas Cochin and engraved by Bonaventure-Louis Prévost. The work is laden with symbolism: The figure in the centre represents truth — surrounded by bright light (the central symbol of the Enlightenment). Two other figures on the right, reason and philosophy, are tearing the veil from truth. (entire frontispiece)


The work consisted of 28 volumes, with 71,818 articles and 3,129 illustrations. The first seventeen volumes were published between 1751 and 1765; eleven volumes of plates were finished by 1772. Engraver Robert Bénard provided at least 1,800 plates for the work. Because of its occasional radical contents (see "Contents" below), the Encyclopédie caused much controversy in conservative circles, and on the initiative of the Parlement of Paris, the French government suspended the encyclopedia's privilège in 1759.[18] Despite the suspension, work continued "in secret," partially because the project had highly placed supporters, such as Malesherbes and Madame de Pompadour. The authorities deliberately ignored the continued work; they thought their official ban was sufficient to appease the church and other enemies of the project.

During the "secretive" period, Diderot accomplished a well-known work of subterfuge. The title pages of volumes 1 through 7, published between 1751 and 1757, claimed Paris as the place of publication. However, the title pages of the subsequent text volumes, 8 through 17, published together in 1765, show Neufchastel as the place of publication. Neufchastel (now Neuchâtel) is safely across the French border in Switzerland, where official production of the Encyclopédie was secure from interference by agents of the French state. In particular, regime opponents of the Encyclopédie could not seize the production plates for the Encyclopédie in Paris because those printing plates ostensibly existed only in Switzerland. Meanwhile, the actual production of volumes 8 through 17 quietly continued in Paris.

In 1775, Charles Joseph Panckoucke obtained the rights to reissue the work. He issued five volumes of supplementary material and a two-volume index from 1776 to 1780. Some scholars include these seven "extra" volumes as part of the first full issue of the Encyclopédie, for a total of 35 volumes, although they were not written or edited by the original authors.

From 1782 to 1832, Panckoucke and his successors published an expanded edition of the work in some 166 volumes as the Encyclopédie méthodique. That work, enormous for its time, occupied a thousand workers in production and 2,250 contributors.


Since the objective of the editors of the Encyclopédie was to gather all the knowledge in the world, Diderot and D'Alembert knew they would need various contributors to help them with their project.[19] Many of the philosophes (intellectuals of the French Enlightenment) contributed to the Encyclopédie, including Diderot himself, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.[4] The most prolific contributor was Louis de Jaucourt, who wrote 17,266 articles between 1759 and 1765, or about eight per day, representing a full 25% of the Encyclopédie. The publication became a place where these contributors could share their ideas and interests.

Still, as Frank Kafker has argued, the Encyclopedists were not a unified group:[20]

... despite their reputation, [the Encyclopedists] were not a close-knit group of radicals intent on subverting the Old Regime in France. Instead they were a disparate group of men of letters, physicians, scientists, craftsmen and scholars ... even the small minority who were persecuted for writing articles belittling what they viewed as unreasonable customs—thus weakening the might of the Catholic Church and undermining that of the monarchy—did not envision that their ideas would encourage a revolution.

Following is a list of notable contributors with their area of contribution (for a more detailed list, see Encyclopédistes):

Contents and controversies


Fig. 3: "Figurative system of human knowledge", the structure that the Encyclopédie organised knowledge into. It had three main branches: memory, reason, and imagination.

Like most encyclopedias, the Encyclopédie attempted to collect and summarize human knowledge in a variety of fields and topics, ranging from philosophy to theology to science and the arts. The Encyclopédie was controversial for reorganizing knowledge based on human reason instead of by nature or theology.[21] The introduction to the Encyclopédie, D'Alembert's "Preliminary Discourse", is considered an important exposition of Enlightenment ideals. Among other things, it presents a taxonomy of human knowledge (see Fig. 3), which was inspired by Francis Bacon's The Advancement of Learning. The three main branches of knowledge are: "Memory"/History, "Reason"/Philosophy, and "Imagination"/Poetry. This tree of knowledge was created to help readers evaluate the usefulness of the content within the Encyclopédie, and to organize its content.[22] Notable is the fact that theology is ordered under "Philosophy" and that "Knowledge of God" is only a few nodes away from "Divination" and "Black Magic".

Instead, knowledge and intellect branched from the three categories of human thought, whereas all other perceived aspects of knowledge, including theology, were simply branches or components of these man made categories.[23]

Religious and political controversies

The authors of the Encyclopédie challenged religious authority. First, they doubted the authenticity of presupposed historical events cited in the Bible and questioned the validity of miracles and the Resurrection.[24] The writers emphasized an individual’s right to religious sovereignty.[25]

These challenges led to suppression from church and state authorities. The Encyclopédie and its contributors endured many attacks and attempts at censorship by the clergy or other censors, which threatened the publication of the project as well as the authors themselves. The King's Council suppressed the Encyclopédie in 1759.[26] The Catholic Church, under Pope Clement XIII, placed it on its list of banned books. Prominent intellectuals criticized it, most famously Lefranc de Pompignan at the French Academy. A playwright, Charles Palissot de Montenoy, wrote a play called "Les Philosophes" to criticize the Encyclopédie. When Abbé André Morellet, one of the contributors, wrote a mock preface for it,[27] Morellet was thrown in the Bastille.

To defend themselves from controversy, the encyclopedia’s articles wrote of theological topics in a mixed manner. Some articles supported orthodoxy, and some included overt criticisms of Christianity. To avoid direct retribution from censors, writers often hid criticism in obscure articles or expressed it in ironic terms.[28] Nonetheless, the contributors still openly attacked the Catholic Church in certain articles with examples including criticizing excess festivals, monasteries, and celibacy of the clergy.[29]

Politics and society

The Encyclopédie is often seen as an influence for the French Revolution because of its emphasis on Enlightenment political theories. Diderot and other authors, in famous articles such as “Political Authority”, emphasized the shift of the origin of political authority from divinity or heritage to the people. This Enlightenment ideal, espoused by Rousseau and others, advocated that people have the right to consent to their government in a form of social contract.[30]

Another major, contentious component of political issues in the Encyclopédie was personal or natural rights. Articles such as “Natural Rights” by Diderot explained the relationship between individuals and the general will. The natural state of humanity, according to the authors, is barbaric and unorganized. To balance the desires of individuals and the needs of the general will, humanity requires civil society and laws that benefit all persons. Writers, to varying degrees, criticized Thomas Hobbes' notions of a selfish humanity that requires a sovereign to rule over it.[31]

In terms of economics, the Encyclopédie expressed favor for laissez-faire ideals or principles of economic liberalism. Articles concerning economics or markets, such as “Economic Politics”, generally favored free competition and denounced monopolies. Articles often criticized guilds as creating monopolies and approved of state intervention to remove such monopolies. The writers advocated extending laissez-faire principles of liberalism from the market to the individual level, such as with privatization of education and opening of careers to all levels of wealth.[32]

Science and technology

At the same time, the Encyclopédie was a vast compendium of knowledge, notably on the technologies of the period, describing the traditional craft tools and processes. Much information was taken from the Descriptions des Arts et Métiers. These articles applied a scientific approach to understanding the mechanical and production processes, and offered new ways to improve machines to make them more efficient.[33] Diderot felt that people should have access to "useful knowledge" that they can apply to their everyday life.[34]


The Encyclopédie played an important role in the intellectual ferment leading to the French Revolution. "No encyclopaedia perhaps has been of such political importance, or has occupied so conspicuous a place in the civil and literary history of its century. It sought not only to give information, but to guide opinion," wrote the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. In The Encyclopédie and the Age of Revolution, a work published in conjunction with a 1989 exhibition of the Encyclopédie at the University of California, Los Angeles, Clorinda Donato writes the following:

The encyclopedians successfully argued and marketed their belief in the potential of reason and unified knowledge to empower human will and thus helped to shape the social issues that the French Revolution would address. Although it is doubtful whether the many artisans, technicians, or laborers whose work and presence and interspersed throughout the Encyclopédie actually read it, the recognition of their work as equal to that of intellectuals, clerics, and rulers prepared the terrain for demands for increased representation. Thus the Encyclopédie served to recognize and galvanize a new power base, ultimately contributing to the destruction of old values and the creation of new ones (12).

While many contributors to the Encyclopédie had no interest in radically reforming French society, the Encyclopédie as a whole pointed that way. The Encyclopédie denied that the teachings of the Catholic Church could be treated as authoritative in matters of science. The editors also refused to treat the decisions of political powers as definitive in intellectual or artistic questions. Some articles talked about changing social and political institutions that would improve their society for everyone.[35] Given that Paris was the intellectual capital of Europe at the time and that many European leaders used French as their administrative language, these ideas had the capacity to spread.[18]

The Encyclopédie's influence continues today. Historian Dan O'Sullivan compares it to Wikipedia:

Like Wikipedia, the Encyclopédie was a collaborative effort involving numerous writers and technicians. As do Wikipedians today, Diderot and his colleagues needed to engage with the latest technology in dealing with the problems of designing an up-to-date encyclopedia. These included what kind of information to include, how to set up links between various articles, and how to achieve the maximum readership.[36]


Frontispiece of the first volume in the library of the Teyler's Museum

Approximate size of the Encyclopédie:

Print run: 4,250 copies (note: even single-volume works in the 18th Century seldom had a print run of more than 1,500 copies).



Readex Microprint Corporation, NY 1969. 5 vol. The full text and images reduced to four double-spread pages of the original appearing on one folio-sized page of this printing.

Later released by the Pergamon Press, NY and Paris with ISBN 0-08-090105-0.


  1. Denis Diderot as quoted in Hunt, p. 611
  2. University of the State of New York. Annual Report of the Regents, Volume 106. p. 266.
  3. Denis Diderot as quoted in Kramnick, p. 17
  4. 1 2 Magee, p. 124
  5. Lough (1971. p. 3-5)
  6. Robert Shackleton "The Encyclopedie" in: Proceedings, American Philosophical Society (vol. 114, No. 5, 1970. p. 39)
  7. Précis de la vie du citoyen Lambert, Bibliothèque nationale, Ln. 11217; Listed in Shackleton (1970, p. 130).
  8. Recently rediscovered in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, see Prospectus pour une traduction française de la Cyclopaedia de Chambers blog.bnf.fr, Dec. 2010
  9. André-François Le Breton, Jean-Michel Papillon, Ephraim Chambers. Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire universel des arts et des sciences. 1745
  10. Reproduction from 1745 original in: Luneau de Boisjermain (1771) Mémoire pour les libraires associés à l'Encyclopédie: contre le sieur Luneau de Boisjermain. p. 165.
  11. Philipp Blom. Encyclopédie: the triumph of reason in an unreasonable age Fourth Estate, 2004. p. 37:
  12. "Prospectus du Dictionnaire de Chambers, traduit en François, et proposé par souscription" in: M. Desfontaines. Jugemens sur quelques ouvrages nouveaux. Vol 8. (1745). p. 72
  13. Review in: Mémoires pour l'histoire des sciences et des beaux arts, May 1745, Nr. 2. p. 934-8
  14. Mercure Journal (1745, p. 87) cited in: Lough (1971), p. 20
  15. Mills' summary of this matter was published in Boisjermain's Mémoire pour P. J. F. Luneau de Boisjermain av. d. Piéc. justif 1771, p. 162-3, where Boisjermain also gave his version of the events (p. 2-5).
  16. Comments by Le Breton are published in his biography; in the preface of the encyclopedia; in John Lough (1971); etc.
  17. Blom, p. 39-40
  18. 1 2 Magee, p. 125
  19. Brewer 2011, p. 56.
  20. "Fellow Project Details". The Camargo Foundation. Retrieved March 26, 2013.
  21. Darnton, p. 7, p. 539
  22. Brewer 2011, p. 54
  23. Brewer 1993, p. 18-23
  24. Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books: A Living History. Los Angeles: Getty Publications. p. 106. ISBN 978-1-60606-083-4.
  25. Lough, p. 196
  26. "Diderot's Encyclopedia". Historical Text Archive.
  27. Aldridge, Alfred Owen (2015). Voltaire and the Century of Light. Princeton Legacy Library. p. 266.
  28. Lough, p. 236
  29. Lough, p. 258-266
  30. Roche, p. 190
  31. Roche, p. 191-192
  32. Lough, p. 331-335
  33. Brewer 2011, p. 55
  34. Burke, p. 17
  35. Spielvogel, p. 480-481
  36. O'Sullivan, p. 45
  37. Blom, p. 139

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