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The Dark Side of Diderot / Le Diderot des ombres

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Edited By James Hanrahan and Síofra Pierse

This collection of essays investigates the darker aspects of Diderot, writer, art critic, philosopher and encyclopédiste. The chapters focus on the schism between positive images of the Enlightenment and an undercurrent of disorder, transgression and clandestine intellectual and social practices. Diderot’s role in this fissure is critically scrutinised through an analysis of the interface between Enlightenment and its dark side. In his reticence before authority and censorship, in the richness and complexity of his literary and philosophical works, in the emotional conflict of his theatre, or in his innovative aesthetic vision, Diderot consistently evokes the darker side of the Enlightenment.
Cet ouvrage interroge l’aspect plus sombre de Diderot, écrivain, critique d’art, philosophe et encyclopédiste. Les contributeurs traitent du clivage entre d’un côté, les images positives des Lumières et, de l’autre, le désordre, la révolte, la transgression, les pratiques sociales et intellectuelles clandestines qui en constituent son corollaire parfois sous-jacent. Le rôle de Diderot au cœur de ce clivage sera analysé dans le cadre d’une interrogation plus large du couple Ombres/Lumières. Diderot incarne – dans ses réticences devant les autorités et la censure, dans la richesse et la complexité de ses ouvrages littéraires et philosophiques, dans les conflits affectifs de son théâtre, ou encore dans sa vision esthétique innovatrice – une alternative, plus sombre, à la marche des Lumières triomphantes.
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Diderot on Origins, a zone d’ombre of Enlightenment Thought

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For Enlightenment philosophers, the origins of humanity were a zone d’ombre and, as a result, a recurring feature of many of their works. The question of origins is an essential part of many areas of intellectual enquiry in the eighteenth century, because of the progressive dismantling of the Catholic worldview, including the biblical story of creation.1 In their efforts to re-establish the bases of human knowledge through the application of reason to observed phenomena, it was necessary for the philosophers and scientists of the eighteenth century to return to and question origins. While the ‘time revolution’ that fully replaced the biblical genealogy of divine origins may not have begun until the nineteenth century, by the mid-eighteenth century Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (1748) had already substituted a new vision of the ‘abyss of time’ for the account set out in the Book of Genesis.2 Similarly, Voltaire’s universal history, the Essai sur les mœurs (1756), presented (in contradiction with Bossuet’s Discours sur l’histoire universelle (1681)) a fully secularized history of humanity that did not take into account the chronology of Genesis. This interest in origins is also evident in early forms of anthropological enquiry. Access to non-European civilizations in the preceding centuries had provided empirical evidence that the Catholic worldview was not as universal as its name suggested. Nature enjoyed a new status in the eighteenth century as a source ← 147 | 148 → of empirical truth, with the result that the interest in natural law in the seventeenth century became a...

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