A small book consisting of fifty-eight numbered paragraphs, Diderot’s Thoughts on the Interpreta/Iyion of Nature was composed with a view to arousing young people’s interest in scientific experimentation. It did not propose to instruct them but to excite them. “A more capable one than I will acquaint you with the forces of nature: it is sufficient if I have made you employ your own,” he wrote in his dedicatory epistle, “To Young Men Who Are Disposed to Study Natural Philosophy.”
That an essay of this sort was called for in France as late as the middle of the eighteenth century was not entirely because of religious censorship. Quite as much as Scholastic metaphysics, the rationalistic temper of Cartesian science had prejudiced French thinkers against the experimental methods that had been in vogue for a century in England. Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation (1733), written after two years spent in exile in that country, had endeavored to acquaint the French people with such thinkers as John Locke and Isaac Newton. Diderot’s Thoughts on the Interpretation of Nature, although not expressly mentioning the British authors, had a similar intention.
At a time when ability to read English was rare among the French, Diderot mastered the language and employed himself in translating English works for publication. The present work is clearly an echo of the work of philosopher Francis Bacon, whose Novum Organum (1620; English translation, 1802) also dealt with the interpretation of nature.