By: Allyson Mower
Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely was on display at my neighborhood library a few weeks ago and I picked it up, mostly because of the subtitle. I wanted to know more about the art of thinking freely and after reading most of the book I’m not completely certain I understand what’s entailed in the art other than someone going against the established order. Perhaps that’s all there is to it?
Andrew Curran is a good writer and he very thoroughly delves into the life of Denis Diderot. I had no idea the amount of labor that went into producing the Encyclopedie nor the level of pushback, harassment, and censorship Diderot faced in the process. Despite the thoroughness, I didn’t get a full sense of why Diderot was so driven to think so differently. I’m glad that he did and he did a great service to furthering the ideals of the Enlightenment, but he ended up regretting the amount of effort that went into producing the Encyclopedie which did make me question the basic premise of why he embarked on the project.
Curran does a fine job explaining his childhood and his religious upbringing, but I kept wondering if there was more to his drive than rebellion (although it does seem that pure rebellion is a major driver for many writers, artists, and scientists so perhaps I shouldn’t put so little weight on that as the main motive). Curran describes the narrowness of thinking at the time promulgated by the dual and intertwined structures of monarchy and religion. Combating not only the strictures one might face within one’s childhood home, but also the broader limitations imposed by powerful governing forces could, together, have served as Diderot’s reasons.
Curran touches on the personality of Diderot as well and his disposition to generally be free-loving, explore ideas, and remain socially and royally connected. But at the core, I didn’t get the sense that Diderot wanted to explore knowledge for the sake of curiosity and understanding. Curran says that Diderot never fully understood for himself how “poring over tens of thousands of articles for twenty-five years [in order to produce the Encyclopedie gave him] a panoramic understanding of knowledge […]” (pg. 176). Curran also says that Diderot did not “fully realize […] that he had carried the ideas of the Enlightenment forward in a way that no person, not Voltaire, and certainly not Rousseau, had done before” (pg. 175).
Curran argues that Diderot produced “a revolution in the minds of his readers by giving them the tools not only to think for themselves, but to stand up to the world’s tyrants, oppressors, [religious] fanatics, and bigots,” but because Diderot was so dissatisfied with the project in the end, it seems that his original purpose for doing the work got lost or maybe wasn’t even well-defined to begin with.
For some reason, this left me dissatisfied (and I’m not even sure why)! Curran says that Diderot’s main goal was simply to “serve humanity” and I wonder if that type of nebulous goal–as opposed to wanting to figure something out on one’s own about a topic or subject matter–will make anyone feel dissatisfied. Perhaps it’s selfish, but the art of thinking freely, it seems to me, is about satisfying one’s own curiosity instead of attempting to serve humanity in general. It is a laudable goal, but intellectual freedom is an individual pursuit and that seemed to be the missing piece for Diderot. I’m certain he had questions about the natural and human world that he wanted to answer, but it also seems like he wanted more than simply the answer and, in the end, that was the element that left a bad taste in his mouth about the entire experience.
Knowing that we have a current system of government and social structure that allows and encourages people to ask questions is a rare and wonderful thing. If Diderot knew that he had a role in furthering that concept, maybe he would have felt more satisfied with his intellectual pursuits. But I also think that the pursuit itself is what is most satisfying.
The book is worth reading, Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely by Andrew S. Curran, published by Other Press in January 2019. Reading the book made me want to read Encyclopedie and I found a translation online from the University of Michigan.
Allyson Mower, MA, MLIS is Head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.