Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie

In 1745 the French writer Denis Diderot and his associate Jean d’Alembert, set out for a huge intellectual undertaking; trying to bring together all human knowledge and compiling it in one book.

From the start the project was controversial. Diderot asked the greatest minds of his time to contribute. Authors and intellectuals like Voltaire, Rousseau and Montesquieu.
They had to overcome the religious and political troubles their work provoked. Diderot named the work the “Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers” (Encyclopaedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts). For the first time in history the lemmata weren’t indexed by ‘rank’ or ‘social status’, – like in the “Standebuch” I discussed before – but by alphabet. For the first time the profession of “Roi” (king) could be next to “Rôisseur” (cook).

As a son of a knife maker, Diderot celebrated the skills of ‘ordinary’ crafts and trades over the ‘god-given’ status of clergymen and nobility. To get in-depth understanding, the writers submerged themselves in the subjects they described. Often spending a lot of time in the workshops of craftsmen, working alongside of them. Documenting all there was to know about techniques, tools and materials. Defying the ‘trade secrets’ protected by the old guild system.

I was first introduced to the “Encyclopédie” in lutherie school in Belgium. Our teacher, – a living encyclopedia himself – told us how this work was one of the driving forces behind the enlightenment, French and even the Industrial Revolution. He showed us the detailed plates and descriptions of the ‘Luthier’ and ‘Ebeniste’ workshops, a treasure trove of information. Over the years I have leafed trough virtual pages of the 17 volumes of the Encyclopédie. It’s just one of those works that works like a diamond; every time you look at it you will see the light broken up in a different way, new details appear and shine trough.

“Craftsmen, by contrast, live isolated, obscure, unknown lives; everything they do is done to serve their own interests;
they almost never do anything just for the sake of glory.”

– Denis Diderot –

Gathering Knowledge

What appealed to me the most was the idea to be able to gather all knowledge and put it into practice. I’ve been working on this since I was a little child. Searching trough the local library, reading and learning about every subject that came to mind. Like an insatiable thirst or hunger for information, the desire to know, to discover the world.

To me this was a very natural desire, and at first I imagined everybody worked and thought this way. Later I found out that it isn’t that common. Most people can just be satisfied with the little bit of information they know and don’t like to think there is anything more. It makes life a lot easier – in some ways ignorance is bliss – but also very narrow and limited.

“Gather everything that happens, trivialities included,
without reservation, regret or nostalgia, in inexhaustable wonder.
Set out, going forward one step at a time, from doubt towards faith,
not worrying about the impossible ahead.

Light the fire, even with the thorns that tear you.”

– Frère Roger of Taizé

Sharing is Caring

It’s not the desire of possession that drives me, although I love to live in a little library. The whole thing is useless without sharing. The knowledge of one person is just limited, and I know I will never be able to learn everything there is to know – it’s still a good thing try though -. But when you put the knowledge of multiple people together it becomes unlimited. Learning from others, from the present and the past, making cross-links, pushing the boundaries, adding something new.

“Sharing is caring” is an often heard adage. And it’s true, but not only on the shallow waters of social media. It’s much deeper. When you share knowledge it’s passed on, it’s cared for, by you and by others. Sometimes they already do, sometimes they just start to care. The writers of the Encyclopédie were careful; they cared for the things they wrote about, the work they described. By sharing it trough the books they started others to care, so much that it provoked revolutions in science, arts and politics.

I like to learn from them, and share the knowledge gathered from hundreds of sources. Trough all languages available in my work; instruments, tools, book(s), articles, art, lectures and this blog. I hope you will be part of this journey, and pass something on yourself.

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