Jean Le Rond d'Alembert: Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot
The encyclopedia edited by Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert became famous--and
controversial--principally because many of its articles reflected the impious attitudes of its
contributors like Voltaire & Rousseau, many of whom were participants in the rationalist
movement known as the Enlightenment. More than a summary of all contemporary
knowledge, it served as a manifesto for a new way of looking at the world. One of its striking
innovations was that it described and depicted in hundreds of engravings various mechanical
processes which were in the process of transforming the world during the period known as the
Industrial Revolution. D'Alembert's insist-ence on the dignity and genius of the men usually
scorned as commoners foreshadows the egalitarian attitudes which were to undermine the old
Why have people come to despise the mechanical arts? What is their main advantage over the
liberal arts (that is, more intellectual arts)?
The mechanical arts depend on manual operation and are enslaved, if I may be permitted the
term, to a species of routine, and so are left to those men whom prejudice places within the
lowest classes. Poverty has driven these men to apply themselves to such work more often than
taste or native genius drew them towards it, and for this reason these arts have come to be
despised, so much does poverty darken what accompanies it. On the other hand, the free
operations of the intellect (1) are the lot of those who think themselves to be the most favored of
nature. Nevertheless, the advantage which the liberal arts have over the mechanical, because
the former demands hard, intellectual work and requires difficulty to excel, is sufficiently
compensated by the far greater usefulness the latter arts for the most part provide for us. It is this
very utility which forced these arts to be reduced to merely mechanical operations, so that a
greater number of men could practice them. But society, in justly respecting the great geniuses
which have enlightened it, need not on that account vilify the hands of those who serve it. The
discovery of the compass is no less advantageous to the human race than the explanation of the
properties of the compass needle is to physics. Finally, considering in itself the distinction we are
discussing, how many of the so-called scholars are there for whom science is, in reality, only a
mechanical art? And what is the real difference between a head filled with facts without any
order, any usefulness or any connections, and the instinct of an artisan reduced to a mechanical
The contempt shown to the mechanical arts seems to have been influenced in part by their
inventors. The names of these great benefactors of the human race are almost entirely
unknown, whereas the history of its destroyers, that is to say, its conquerors, is known by
Even so, it is perhaps among the artisans that one should go to find the most admirable proofs
of the sagacity, the patience, and the resources of the intellect. I admit that the greater part of the
arts have been invented little by little and that it has taken a very long period of centuries in
order to bring watches, for example, to the point of perfection that we see.
But is it not the same for the sciences?
How many discoveries which immortalized their authors were prepared for by the work of the
preceding centuries, even having been developed to their maturity, right up to the point that
they demanded only one more step to be taken? And not to leave watch-making, why do we not
esteem those to whom we owe the fusee, the escapement, and the repeating works [of watches]
as much as we esteem those who have successively worked on perfecting algebra? Moreover, if I
can believe those philosophers who do not so despise the mechanical arts that they refuse to
study them, there are certain machines so complicated, and in which all the parts depend so
much on each other, that it is difficult to imagine that the invention would be due to more than
one man. The name of this rare genius is shrouded in oblivion, yet is it not more worthy of
being placed beside that small number of creative intellects which have opened up to us new
routes in the sciences?
Translated by Richard Hooker
(1) The "liberal" arts, i.e., the "free" arts.
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