Representative Authors

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1273

Denis Diderot (1713–1784)
Denis Diderot was born in 1713 in Langres, France. His father was an artist and had a great influence on the technical craftsmanship of Diderot’s masterpiece, the Encyclopédie, a compendium of knowledge on a wide variety of subjects of which he was the editor and a major contributor. Diderot distinguished himself as a student at the University of Paris, from which he graduated in 1732. As an adult, his personal life was often tumultuous and mysterious. He secretly married an uneducated woman named Antoinette, whose temper made his life difficult. In 1755, he carried on a secret love affair with Sophie Volland, and his love letters to her are ranked among the best ever written. Diderot was able to establish himself professionally

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while in his twenties and enjoyed a fruitful career as a translator and encyclopedist. His greatest accomplishment is his work on the Encyclopédie, a multiple-volume (the number of volumes ranges from eleven to thirty-five in varying editions) work that took Diderot and the other contributors more than twenty years to complete (1750–1772). The success of this work earned Diderot notoriety and the respect of such highprofile figures as Catherine II of Russia.

Diderot’s other work includes fiction (most notably The Nun, 1782, and Jacques the Fatalist, 1784), drama, dialogues (simple theatrical presentations involving two characters discussing or debating issues and ideas), philosophical treatises, literary criticism, and essays. His particular concern was the rightful place of the artist in society, with attention to the difference between the appreciation for the artist by his contemporaries and by future generations. Diderot saw how the artist in eighteenth-century Europe endured the scrutiny of religious and political leaders and faced limitations imposed by censors. Despite a career subjected to such pressures, Diderot was respected by his peers because of his imagination, cleverness, and conversational ability.

Diderot often withheld his writing from publication to protect it from censorship and for fear that his contemporaries would not understand it. He preferred that it be preserved for posterity, and in fact much of his work has been more fully appreciated in the generations since his death. Sigmund Freud’s Oedipal theory was influenced by one of Diderot’s dialogues. Diderot himself offered early theories of psychology and evolution, and he predicted the inventions of Braille, the typewriter, and the cinema. Many scholars contend that Diderot was far ahead of his time.

Diderot died after a long illness in Paris in 1784. His work had a major impact on future writers, especially the German writers of the Sturm und Drang movement, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

David Hume (1711–1776)
David Hume was born on April 26, 1711, at his family’s estate near Edinburgh, Scotland. His interest in philosophy began at an early age, and when he was eighteen, he abandoned his plans to study law in favor of pursuing philosophy. His first work, A Treatise on Human Nature (1739), was poorly received, but his next effort, Essays, Moral and Political (1741), was praised by critics and readers alike. Philosophical Essays Concerning Human Understanding (1748) is among his most respected work. He wrote numerous philosophical and political treatises and enjoyed a varied career as a tutor, political secretary, and librarian. During the years he spent in Paris (1763–1766), he was acclaimed and invited to the most elite salons. Although Hume attracted his share of critics, his work was largely admired. Upon leaving Paris to go to London, he took French author Jean-Jacques Rousseau with him, but after a series of public quarrels, the two parted ways. He returned to Scotland in 1769, where he occupied a grand house in...

(The entire section contains 1273 words.)

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