Knowledge Must be Free

Amy Willis for AdamSmithWorks

April 3, 2020

Chapters 4 and 5- the Encyclopedie
[This post is part 2 of 4 of Amy Willis' #ReadWithMe on Andrew Curran's Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely. You may also enjoy Part 1Part 3, and Part 4.]

Dear friends,

As we continue to find our way through these challenging times, I hope you have found something to embrace in your experience. Maybe reading, cooking, or simply the gift of quiet time for reflection. Most importantly, I hope you are staying well.

I'm still reading... And I hope you've chosen to read along with me.

In last week's post, I noted the Encyclopedia as perhaps Diderot's most significant achievement, as well as a big chunk of inspiration for this very site. Indeed, one cannot talk of Diderot without talking about the Encyclopedie, so that shall be my focus today. It is also the next part of this lovely book.

Given Curran's direction, I continue to read with the sense of a bigger picture. Last week, I focused on the fundamentally social element of Diderot's project. This week, I am struck by the role of knowledge and information, particularly with respect to the Encyclopedie project. More specifically even, the great lesson  of this part of the story is Diderot's conviction that knowledge must be freed, and by consequence, democratized. Curran writes,
... the Encyclopedie was expressly designed to pass on the temptation and method of intellectual freedom to a huge audience in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in faraway lands like Saint Petersburg and Philadelphia. page 102

I love the language of temptation here. My tagline when I was in the classroom was always, "trick them into learning." That seems very much the point of the Encyclopedie project. This was also as Curran artfully describes, a very new intellectual form. He describes the process of creating it in wonderful detail. I was particularly intrigued with his discussion of the system of cross-referencing employed in the project. (Jimmy Wales had nothing on Diderot!)

I was also struck by the characterization- again a radical intellectual endeavor at the time- of knowledge as a sort of living creature. Knowledge, for Diderot an his compatriots, is best when subjected to constant and careful reason. (We'll see much more of this in the next section of the book.) This may indeed cause changes in shifts in our knowledge. And it makes hierarchy ever more difficult to maintain, whether in terms of a hierarchy of knowledge or discipline, or in social class.

Enough of this for now... I believe you'll really enjoy reading the rest of Part 1. I'll start on Part 2 next week. In the meantime, I leave these questions for your consideration:

1- Why was the distinction between the two types of references, or renvois, so significant? How does this system affect the structure of knowledge in the Encyclopedie? How does they serve the function of destroying the notion of hierarchy, or "overturning the established orders of knowledge"? (page 125)

2- Why does Curran put so much emphasis on the democratization of knowledge? Do you believe knowledge to be more or less democratic today? Why? 

3- What do the various legal and political challenges faced by the encyclopedists suggest about the nature of the project? Are there analogies in our own day? What is the true effect of the censorship of intellectual production?

4- How can knowledge serve as "political warfare"? (page 175) Again, can you point to any illustrative analogies in today's world?