Denis Diderot in the TLS

I have an article in the May 6 Times Literary Supplement on Denis Diderot’s life and philosophy. The article is available to subscribers online here: Moi and Lui and a Beehive.

This excerpt covers some of Diderot’s very diverse influence on subsequent thinkers and writers:

Moi and Lui and a Beehive

Denis Diderot OEUVRES PHILOSOPHIQUES Edited by Michel Delon and Barbara de Negroni 1,413pp. Gallimard. €65.

Philipp Blom WICKED COMPANY Freethinkers and friendship in pre-Revolutionary Paris 384pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. £25.

In 1805, over twenty years after the death of the French philosophe Denis Diderot, Goethe read a manuscript of Diderot’s then-unpublished dialogue Le Neveu de Rameau. Captivated, he translated it into German. After reading the translation, Hegel cited Diderot along with only half a dozen other modern philosophers in the Phenomenology of Spirit, alongside Descartes and Kant.

Since then, Diderot has wielded diverse influence across the humanities and sciences. Sigmund Freud credited a passage in Le Neveu de Rameau with anticipating the Oedipus complex, while Simone de Beauvoir singled Diderot out as having championed the cause of women. Karl Marx, who like Diderot also wrote a homage to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, counted Diderot as his favourite writer. Auguste Comte called him the greatest philosopher of the eighteenth century, and a key forerunner of positivism. The pioneering cultural pluralist Johann Herder drew from Diderot’s observations on cultures and language.

Yet well into the twentieth century, Diderot’s intellectual reputation remained comparatively submerged, even in France. He was the least systematic of writers, and his works were published in the least systematic of ways. His modest publication history during his lifetime paled next to the monumental achievement of editing the Encyclopédie, which occupied him for twenty years. Unlike Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, he never published a chef-d’oeuvre. His most sophisticated and radical works were published only posthumously, and their interdisciplinary and non-systematic nature prevented their easy assimilation into the literary or philosophical traditions. His first collected works were not published until 1870. The new Pléiade edition of four volumes, of which the volume under review is the second, is a welcome corrective measure, capturing and contextualizing his unique, eclectic voice and aggressive speculation. Today, Diderot seems more contemporary than his more famous brethren, Voltaire and Rousseau.