Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Enlightenment Project of the Tree of Human Knowledge

The Enlightenment philosophes -- Diderot, Holbach, Helvetius, Condorcet, Voltaire, Condillac, La Mettrie -- were not just philosophers, they were also political activists aiming to radically transform the world. But they realized that the world cannot be changed without changing minds.

With the idea of changing minds, they launched the Enlightenment project for publishing what was supposed to be the world’s foremost repository of knowledge: the Encyclopédie. Its contributors were called Encyclopédistes. The massive scope of the project was explicated by Diderot and d’Alembert in their 1751 diagram called the “Tree of Human Knowledge,” which represents the structure of knowledge itself, and is inspired by Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning.

Also known as the “Figurative System of Human Knowledge,” the “Tree of Human Knowledge” depicts the manner in which the categories of knowledge are interconnected. The three main branches of knowledge in the tree structure are: "Memory"/History, "Reason"/Philosophy, and "Imagination"/Poetry. In it “theology” comes under “philosophy.” Some scholars have argued that the atheism of Diderot and d’Alembert had something to do with “Science of God” being put only a few nodes away from “Divination” and “Black Magic,” in the category “Reason”/Philosophy.

The Enlightenment philosophes were convinced that great progress can be achieved once the traditional political and religious institutions are overthrown and a scientific society is established. But their intellectual revolution led first to the bloody French Revolution and then to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. The “Tree of Human Knowledge” planted by Diderot and d’Alembert could not bear the kind of fruits that the philosophes had expected.


Anonymous said...

What timing! Currently reading Isaiah Berlin, roots of romanticism where he discusses this scientific 'utopia' that the Enlightenment thinkers you mentioned, hoped to bring about. The dark impulses understood by Diderot, that irrational element in man, proved and continues to prove too difficult to tame. Any type of organizing based on the faculty of reason and benevolence will fail, in my opinion. Whether pessimistic or determinism mankind was not meant to achieve or believe he can create a heaven on earth. Stemming from such scientific views from the Enlightenment it might be far fetched, but I believe the communist utopia grew roots. Whether God is in or out of the equation reason alone and facts or even proof will not convince men to follow Voltaire to achieve peace, prosperity, enlightenment. The question then remains, what philosophy what political system? To safeguard rights and pursue the highest potential in mankind.

Anoop Verma said...

@ Hermione, which book by Isaiah Berlin are you reading currently. You are right any type of organizing based on the faculty of reason and benevolence will fail. Human beings are quite complicated creatures.