Diderot Essay - Critical Essays

P. N. Furbank


It is likely that no century except the eighteenth could have produced the French polymath Denis Diderot. That century’s advances in science and technology generated a self-assurance which spawned inquiry in philosophy, religion, and the arts. These inquiries provoked questioning which challenged the political, social and theological order of the period. Such questionings fostered revolutions in America and France and social unrest across Europe. It was Diderot’s good fortune to have lived during the most significant years of this century. His versatile intellect was ideally suited to the period.

P.N. Furbank provides an engrossing survey of the era as well as an insightful assessment of Diderot’s life and works. DIDEROT: A CRITICAL BIOGRAPHY traces, as expected, the major periods of its subject’s life: provincial birth at Langres, France; student years in Paris; friendship with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the philosophes; imprisonment at Vincennes; the encyclopedia project; and recognition by Catherine the Great of Russia.

More significant are Furbank’s critical analyses of Diderot’s works. Having considered Diderot as encyclopedist of the Enlightenment, Furbank demonstrates how Diderot’s use of historical personages in fictive settings foreshadows twentieth century application of this technique. He further reveals the modernity of Diderot’s critical writing. Diderot recognized the importance of response to art, that of reader, viewer, or audience. In this he prefigured the structuralists and deconstructionists of the twentieth century.

Though Diderot is inevitably most associated with the great encyclopedia he edited, Furbank’s study reveals that its subject was a cardinal figure of the Enlightenment. Certainly Diderot was more a polymath than Rousseau and more accessible than Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, and Furbank points the way to a wealth of fiction, drama, criticism, and popular philosophy that contemporary readers have neglected.

Sources for Further Study

Library Journal. CXVII, November 1, 1992, p. 90.

London Review of Books. XIV, August 20, 1992, p. 7.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 15, 1992, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. V, May 8, 1992, p. 40.

The New York Times. November 25, 1992, p. C20.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 24, 1993, p. 9.

Newsweek. CXX, October 12, 1992, p. 80.

The Observer. April 26, 1992, p. 57.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, September 21, 1992, p. 81.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 1, 1992, p. 5.

The Wall Street Journal. December 17, 1992, p. A16.