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Daring Knowledge: Diderot’s Encyclopédie Spring 2017 Library Exhibit

Poster advertising the Diderot’s Encyclopédie Spring 2017 Library Exhibit

On display in Linderman Library through the Spring semester are a selection of illustrations drawn from the Encyclopédie; ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts) along with associated publications. These selections highlight detailed imagery of science and industry in the 18th century, works of historic impact, and subjects currently and historically studied at Lehigh. Subjects on display include: chemistry, astronomy, mechanical arts, printing, glass, encyclopedias, and more.

First published in Paris, France between 1751 and 1772, the first edition of the Encyclopédie has been a part of Lehigh’s Libraries since 1956, when it was donated by alumnus Robert B. Honeyman, class of 1920. The first edition of this work consists of seventeen text volumes and eleven volumes of engraved plates. In total, these volumes contain 2,569 plates that illustrate the concepts described in the text volumes. These plates offer detailed snapshots of manufacturing processes for a number of different industries and scientific endeavors, including the specific tools that were being used at the time and the construction and inner workings of various machines. In a world before photographs, these illustrated plates provide some of the best examples of scientific research and daily life from the mid-18th century available today. The second edition of the Encyclopédie arrived at Lehigh’s Libraries before the first edition in 1895, as part of a gift by Sophia Coxe following the death of her husband, Lehigh trustee Eckley B. Coxe.

The 27-year publication of the Encyclopédie, from Denis Diderot and Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert joining the project as editors in 1746 to the publication of the final plate volume in 1772, was beset by constant threats and delays. From July to November of 1749, Diderot was imprisoned by the French government for writing the Lettre sur les aveugles à l'usage de ceux qui voient (Letter on the Blind for the Use of Those Who Can See), which prompted accusations of promoting deism or atheism. The Encyclopédie was repeatedly attacked by the Jesuit Order through its Journal de Trévoux, in which Diderot was accused of plagiarizing Francis Bacon's tree of knowledge and a Jesuit encyclopedia, criticizing the Jesuits, the kings, and the saints, and promoting freedom of speech. As a result of these accusations, the French government appointed three censors to review each article to be published in the Encyclopédie.

In today’s age of limitless information access through the Internet, it is easy to forget that such information was once fragmented and unreliable. The Wikipedia model, an encyclopedia designed to systematically organize all knowledge sourced from a large number of contributors, was anticipated by the Encyclopédie in the mid-18th century. Since its initial publication, Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie has come to define the era of the French Enlightenment.