Diderot and the Art of Thinking SOCIALLY

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

March 27, 2020

Are you reading with me???
Dear friends,

I hope this finds you well, staying safe and healthy and social distancing.

As with so many of you, I am using at least some of this trying time to catch up on some desired reading, including Andrew Curran's Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely. For the next few weeks, I'll close my Friday with some thoughts on what I've read, and pose some questions for my fellow readers to ponder. And please note, I am truly writing these posts as I go... So here goes.

This week, I only finished Part 1 Forbidden Fruits. (OK, I started Part 2, but haven't yet read enough to comment...)

Part 1 is basically biographical. Like Smith, there is relatively little to go in building the story of Diderot's early life (though apparently it gets better!). I was drawn to his story because, like many of you I suspect, I know of him primarily through his famed Encyclopedia, which is of course where we got the inspiration for the ASW pin factory.

Curran call the Encyclopedia "the supreme achievement of the French Enlightenment." It's clear to me from my reading thus far that Curran is (rightly) emphasizing the radical nature of Diderot's thought and work products... That he would no longer be beholden to the thinking of the Catholic church on matters of religion, for example, and that he subscribed to the "new" science, in which observation and experience were to be tantamount.

And that's certainly not wrong.

But what struck me (like a ton of bricks) this week was the fundamentally social nature of Diderot's Enlightenment project. True, people needn't necessarily consult their priest for the "correct" interpretation of Scripture; they could experience (the?) deity on their own. But not in a vacuum.

The part which most brought this home to me is in the chapter on Diderot's imprisonment in Vincennes. Particularly, his visits by Rousseau, who went to great lengths (literally) to meet with his friend. Read this chapter and tell me it doesn't inspire longing in you in the age of social distance!!!

In any case... Here are some questions I pose for the consideration of my fellow readers. I would love to see your comments, and I hope more of you will read with me in the coming weeks!

1- On page 57, Curran describes how Diderot "redefined the role of the philosophe, of the public intellectual." What does the public intellectual of today look like, and how does he compare to dear Denis? What should be the role of philosophy in public life today?

2- Where is the "seat" of ethics? On page 63, Curran asserts that Diderot had "broken the Church's monopoly on ethics" with the publication oh his translation of  Shaftesbury. Where did ethics "go," and where should we look for it?

3-  According to Curran, Diderot's particular "brand" of Godlessness was unique. But what he most feared was a mechanization of society and its social norms. Remind you of anyone? To what extent do you think (or know) if Smith was influenced by Diderot on this score?

4- Ah, Rousseau. His friendship with Diderot inspired my opening remarks, but... To what extent do we agree with Rousseau (according to Curran at any rate) that "the more we advance technically and intellectually, the more we regress morally." (page 97)