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Diderot's Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts, et des Métiers

Published at the height of the eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert was the first methodical endeavor to determine the entire scope of human knowledge. The work epitomizes the Age of Enlightenment as its contributors—known as the encyclopédistes—aimed to understand the world through reason, intellectual exchange, and the scientific method. As part of the Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection on military and naval science of the eighteenth century, the Society's complete first edition of the Encyclopédie is a valued resource providing researchers with insight into the intellectual discourse of the Enlightenment.

The story of the Encyclopédie begins in 1745, under a much different guise. André-François Le Breton, a prominent Parisian bookseller and publisher, initiated a venture with two partners to publish a French translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia (1728), with expansions and corrections as needed. The collaboration was unsuccessful; Le Breton accused his partners of swindling him and even assaulted one of the two when he discovered the project's launch had been intentionally delayed. Le Breton broke off the business relationship and re-launched the encyclopedia with new collaborators. This time, he retained a senior stake in the project. The abbé Jean-Paul de Gua de Malves was hired as chief editor along with a small staff. Financial mismanagement on the part of the abbé forced his resignation in 1747—only a year after he had begun.

Le Breton selected two members of the editorial staff, Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond D'Alembert, as the new editors. Under their leadership, the project took the shape of the Encyclopédie as we know it—a thirty-five-volume work including eleven volumes of engravings illustrating various subjects. The editors had lofty goals in mind. As stated in its preface, "the work ... has two goals. As an Encyclopedia, it is to define as well as possible the order and structure of human knowledge. As a Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Trades, it is to contain the general principles that form the basis of each science and each art, liberal or mechanical, and the most essential facts that make up the body and substance of each."

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