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Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers  
ENC 1-NA5 600px.jpeg
The title page of the Encyclopédie
Author Numerous contributors, edited by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert
Country France
Language French
Subject(s) General
Genre(s) Reference encyclopedia
Publisher André Le Breton, Michel-Antoine David, Laurent Durand, and Antoine-Claude Briasson
Publication date 1751-72

Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (English: Encyclopedia, 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. 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. The title page was amended as D'Alembert acquired more titles.

The Encyclopédie was an innovative encyclopedia in several respects. Among other things, it was the first encyclopedia to include contributions from many named contributors, and it was the first general encyclopedia to lavish attention on the mechanical arts. Still, the Encyclopédie is famous above all 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]



The Encyclopédie was originally conceived as a French translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728).[2 ] In 1743 the translation was entrusted by the Parisian book publisher André Le Breton to John Mills, an English resident in France. In May 1745 Le Breton announced the work as available for sale, but to his dismay, Mills had not done the work he was commissioned to do; in fact, he could barely read and write French and did not even own a copy of Cyclopaedia. Furious at having been swindled, Le Breton beat Mills with a cane. Mills sued for assault, but Le Breton was acquitted in court as being justified.[3] 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 Jean d'Alembert as the new editors. Diderot would remain editor for the next twenty-five years, seeing the Encyclopédie through to completion.

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 comprised 35 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. Because of its sometimes radical contents (see "Contents" below), the French government suspended its privilège in 1759,[4 ] but because it had many highly placed supporters, notably Madame de Pompadour, work continued "in secret." In truth, secular authorities did not want to disrupt the commercial enterprise, which employed hundreds of people. To appease the church and other enemies of the project, the authorities had officially banned the enterprise, but they turned a blind eye to its continued existence.

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 famed authors.

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


Many of the most noted figures of the French enlightenment contributed to the Encyclopédie, including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.[2 ] The most prolific contributor was Louis de Jaucourt who wrote 17,266 articles, or about 8 per day between 1759 and 1765.

Still, as Frank Kafker has shown, the Encyclopedists were not a unified group[5]:

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 French Encyclopédistes):


The introduction to the Encyclopédie, D'Alembert's Preliminary Discourse, is considered an important exposition of Enlightenment ideals.

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

Among other things, it presents a taxonomy of human knowledge (See fig.3) which was inspired by Francis Bacon's Advancement of Knowledge. The three main branches of knowledge are: "Memory"/History, "Reason"/Philosophy, and "Imagination"/Poetry. Notable is the fact that theology is ordered under 'Philosophy'. Robert Darnton argues that this categorisation of religion as being subject to human reason and not a source of knowledge in and of itself, was a significant factor in the controversy surrounding the work. Additionally, notice that 'Knowledge of God' is only a few nodes away from 'Divination' and 'Black Magic'.

Likewise, many contributors saw the Encyclopédie as a vehicle for covertly destroying superstitions while overtly providing access to human knowledge. In ancien régime France it caused a storm of controversy, due mostly to its tone of religious tolerance. The Encyclopédie praised Protestant thinkers and challenged Catholic dogma, and classified religion as a branch of philosophy, not as the ultimate source of knowledge and moral advice.

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.


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. 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.[4 ]


Approximate size of the Encyclopédie:

  • 17 volumes of articles, issued from 1751 to 1765
  • 11 volumes of illustrations, issued from 1762 to 1772
  • 18,000 pages of text
  • 75,000 entries
    • 44,000 main articles
    • 28,000 secondary articles
    • 2,500 illustration indices
  • 20,000,000 words in total

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)


  • "Reason is to the philosopher what grace is to the Christian... Other men walk in darkness; the philosopher, who has the same passions, acts only after reflection; he walks through the night, but it is preceded by a torch. The philosopher forms his principles on an infinity of particular observations. He does not confuse truth with plausibility; he takes for truth what is true, for forgery what is false, for doubtful what is doubtful, and probable what is probable. The philosophical spirit is thus a spirit of observation and accuracy." (Philosophers article, Dumarsais)
  • "If exclusive privileges were not granted, and if the financial system would not tend to concentrate wealth, there would be few great fortunes and no quick wealth. When the means of growing rich is divided between a greater number of citizens, wealth will also be more evenly distributed; extreme poverty and extreme wealth would be also rare." (Wealth article, Diderot)


  • Preliminary discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, translated by Richard N. Schwab, 1995. ISBN 0-226-13476-8
  • Jean d'Alembert by Ronald Grimsley. (1963)
  • The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800 by Robert Darnton (1979) ISBN 0674087852
  • The Encyclopedists as individuals: a biographical dictionary of the authors of the Encyclopédie by Frank A. Kafker and Serena L. Kafker. Published 1988 in the Studies of Voltaire and the eighteenth century. ISBN 0-7294-0368-8
  • Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, Editions Flammarion, 1993. ISBN 2-080704265
  • Diderot, the Mechanical Arts, and the Encyclopédie, John R. Pannabecker, 1994. With bibliography.
  • L'Encyclopédie de Diderot et d'Alembert, édition DVD, Redon, ASIN: B0000DBA4X—the complete Encyclopédie on DVD-ROM
  • Enlightening the World: Encyclopedie, The Book That Changed the Course of History by Philipp Blom (2005). ISBN 1403968950
  • The Encylopédie and the Age of Revolution. Ed. Clorinda Donato and Robert M. Maniquis. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992. ISBN 0-8161-0527-8


Readex Microprint Corporation, NY 1969. 5 vol The full text and images reduced to 4 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 0080901050


  1. ^ Denis Diderot as quoted in Lynn Hunt, R. Po-chia Hsia, Thomas R. Martin, Barbara H. Rosenwein, and Bonnie G. Smith, The Making of the West: Peoples and Cultures: A Concise History: Volume II: Since 1340, Second Edition (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007), 611.
  2. ^ a b Bryan Magee. The Story of Philosophy. DK Publishing, Inc., New York: 1998. page 124
  3. ^ Philipp Blom (2005). Enlightening the World. pp. 35-37
  4. ^ a b Bryan Magee. The Story of Philosophy. DK Publishing, Inc., New York: 1998. page 125
  5. ^ The Camargo Foundation : Fellow Project Details

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