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Denis Diderot

Historically considered, Diderot's primary significance consists of his adopting of and espousal of Enlightenment ideals. For example, he was a materialist and an atheist, suggesting that human nature is relatively fixed by heredity and that free will was probably an illusion. Likewise, his work on the Encyclopedia testifies to an optimism regarding the value of scientific and scholarly knowledge that is rather typical of the Enlightenment spirit.  

Introduction and Background

Born in Langres, France in 1713, Denis Diderot was a French art critic, philosopher, and writer. He earned a Master’s degree in philosophy from the College d’Harcourt in the city of Paris in 1732. Diderot was one of the main contributors to the Encylcodédie and played a key role during the Enlightenment. Greatly influenced by Tristram Shandy by Laurance Sterne, Diderot is well-known for Jacques the Fatalist and his Master, which explored the extent of free will, and Rameau’s Nephew, which has been the basis for many speeches and articles on the dangers of consumer greed.


Diderot’s most famous work is Encylcodédie. This was a French general encyclopedia whose volumes were published between the years of 1751 and 1772. It is well-remembered in literary history because it was the first encyclopedia to both pay particular attention to the mechanical arts and to be composed of contributions from multiple writers. Diderot’s goal was to gather all the information in the world so that people could better understand the world we live in and how to handle it. He believed that knowledge would change the way that people think. The rest of his works include thirty six translations, plays, reference books, short stories, and novels.

Writing Style

Denis Diderot was extremely interested in exploring the idea of the individual’s development and journey and the things that shape each one. He was eager to examine the concept of right and wrong and how it might change depending on the person considering it. His work often explored ethical dilemmas and was expressed in both sympathetic and didactic form, which relates to education, aiming to both teach and entertain. Other times, Diderot used satire and irony, such as his works Jacques the Fatalist and Rameau’s Nephew. 

Additional Information

Denis Diderot is not only known for his work as an author but for his work in philosophy as well. He often sought to examine the concept of free will and believed that the entirety of human behavior was based solely on heredity. Diderot warned against depending too much on optimism and openly rejected the Idea of Progress. He believed that a dependence on technology would prove fruitless.

Denis Diderot based his philosophy on his careful study of probabilities. In fact, many of his articles for the Encylcodédie, he used probabilities and statistics in works about inoculation against smallpox, gambling, and mortality rates. He used his probabilities and experiments to refute claims made by those who disagreed with his philosophy. Diderot’s philosophy developed from theism into deism, which then developed into a strong support for materialism, the belief that all phenomena are the direct result of material interactions. Finally, he settles in a philosophy of pantheistic sensualism. 

Diderot often harshly criticized the conventional morality of the time and the French government. He made it clear that he believed that people should exercise their freedoms against exploitations and hypocrisies of society instead of only within the confines set upon them by law enforcement and the government. His radical ideas certainly gained him some attention, though not all of it was positive; he was imprisoned and spent three months locked away at Vincennes. However, his time spent in jail did not deter him from writing and he continued to produce work and wrote three separate works during his detainment. 


Denis Diderot was, first and foremost, a philosopher. Not only was it his concentration in school, but he used his writing to convey his ideas about society and the changes that it needed in order to thrive. His work was an expression of what he believed was the best way to achieve the optimum state of society and he believed that the only way for individuals to make the best decisions possible was to make all knowledge and information easily accessible. Diderot’s belief that knowledge and information should be shared is a beautiful concept that can be appreciated and admired to this day.

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