Denis Diderot - Early Works

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Diderot's earliest works included a translation of Temple Stanyan's History of Greece (1743); with two colleagues, François-Vincent Toussaint and Marc-Antoine Eidous, he produced a translation of Robert James's Medicinal Dictionary (1746–1748); at about the same time he published a free rendering of Shaftesbury's Inquiry Concerning Virtue and Merit (1745), with some original notes of his own. In 1746 he wrote his first original work: the Pensées philosophiques, and he added to this a short complementary essay on the sufficiency of natural religion. He then composed a volume of bawdy stories Les bijoux indiscrets (1748); in later years he repented this work. In 1747 he wrote the Promenade du sceptique, an allegory pointing first at the extravagances of Catholicism; second, at the vanity of the pleasures of the world which is the rival of the church; and third, at the desperate and unfathomable uncertainty of the philosophy which professes to be so high above both church and world.

Diderot's celebrated Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient ("Letter on the Blind") (1749), introduced him to the world as a daringly original thinker. The subject is a discussion of the interrelation between man's reason and the knowledge acquired through perception (the five senses). The title, "Letter on the Blind For the Use of Those Who See", also evoked some ironic doubt about who exactly were "the blind" under discussion. In the essay a blind English mathematician named Saunderson argues that since knowledge derives from the senses, then mathematics is the only form of knowledge that both he and a sighted person can agree about. It is suggested that the blind could be taught to read through their sense of touch (a later essay, Lettre sur les sourds et muets, considered the case of a similar deprivation in the deaf and mute). What makes the Lettre sur les aveugles so remarkable, however, is its distinct, if undeveloped, presentation of the theory of variation and natural selection.

This powerful essay ... revolves around a remarkable deathbed scene in which a dying blind philosopher, Saunderson, rejects the arguments of a providential God during his last hours. Saunderson's arguments are those of a Neo-Spinozist, Naturalist, and Fatalist, using a sophisticated notion of the self-generation and natural evolution of species without Creation or supernatural intervention. The notion of "thinking matter" is upheld and the "argument from design" discarded ... as hollow and unconvincing. The work appeared anonymously ... and was vigorously suppressed by the authorities. Diderot, who had been under police surveillance since 1747, was swiftly identified as the author ... and was imprisoned for some months at Vincennes, where he was visited almost daily by Rousseau, at the time his closest and most assiduous ally.

After signing a letter of submission and promising never to write anything prejudicial against the religion again (with the result that his most controversial works were henceforth published only after his death), Diderot was released from the dungeons of the Vincennes fortress after three months. In collaboration with d'Alembert, he subsequently embarked on his greatest project, The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.

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