diderot - nature and folly

In a letter to Sophie Volland on September 2, 1769, Diderot wrote:

I believe that I told you that I made a dialogue between D’Alembert and me. In re-reading it, I was taken with the fantasy of making a second and it was made. The interlocutors are D’Alembert who dreams, Bordeu and the friend of D’Alember, Mlle de l’Epinasse. It is entitled the Dream of D’Alembert. It isn’t possible to be more profound and more crazy [plus profound et plus fou]. [Diderot, OC 1875, II, 101. My translation.]

In the 18th century, depth and folly were normally dissociated. Yet Diderot, who viewed himself as, above all, a combatant on the philosophe side, saw them as allies. In the letter to Sophie Volland we quoted about the two Enlightenments, Diderot had already contemplated the idea that the world was a ‘stupidity’ – a ‘beautiful stupidity’. If this were so, then a problem, or rather a cognitive abyss, opens up before reason, and the rational man, going through that door, falls into it. The pit is this world.

Another name for the world is ‘nature’. In the seventeenth century, Boyle had already made the first foray against using the term nature vulgarly as a cause. I’ve already written a post about this, so let me quote it here:

“In 1686, Robert Boyle published the “Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Receiv’d Notion of Nature”. Michael Hunter and Edward Davis make the claim that this is one of the essential texts of the Scientific Revolution. In their essay on the making of the text, Hunter and Davis quote one of Boyle’s “protégés”, Scottish physician David Abercromby, who wrote: I therefore look upon this work as the new system of a new philosophy which fundamentally overthrows the foundation – namely, Nature – of all views hitherto held in philosophical matters.” [219] Others, of course, have cast doubt on the very idea that there was a Scientific Revolution. Myself, I prefer the term New Learning. Certainly there was an institutional revolution – no longer were the virtuosi independent players, like wandering minstrels and alchemists. The Universities were still stacked with Aristotelians and bloodletters, and the real action shifted to the Royal Society, or the semi Royal academies in France (although in France, this was supplemented by a correspondence culture which formally associated savants which doesn’t have a parallel in England).

We can go all the way back to the Cratylus to find distinctions being made between speakers of the same language. Among the humanists, the distinction between learned speech and vulgar speech was simply a reality – learning was published in Latin – or it referred to an occult jargon that supposedly could be attributed to traditions that went back to antiquity. Antiquity was the truthmaker, to use a fashionable term from contemporary analytic philosophy. But as the New Learning was about casting off the shackles of antique learning, this distinction would no longer do (although, of course, I am working with clear cut lines that were, in actuality, less clear cut than one could tell from the bravado of New Learning’s sages. Respect for the ancients was not so easily overcome as all that).

So when Boyle writes his enquiry, we are faced with a new set of coordinates for separating ordinary speech from “philosophical” speech. Since Boyle was, on his odd days, a corpuscularian, and a round promoter of the Royal society, one might think that he had a sneaking affection for Gassendi’s re-discovery of atomism. In fact, it is the use of ‘nature’ in the Epicurean sense – the vulgar chatter of the esprits forts – against which Boyle shoots many of his arrows.”

The arrow is tipped, feathered and shot from the first paragraphs of Boyle’s work:

“But farther whilst men indulge themselves so general and easy a way of solving difficulties as to attribute them to nature; shame will not reduce them to a more industrious search after the reasons of things, nor curiosity itself greatly move them to it. Thus the cause of the ascent of water in pumps and other phenomena of that kind had never been known if the moderns had acquiesced in that imaginary one that the world was gover’d by a watchful Being call’d nature, who abhors a Vacuum and consequently is always ready to do whatever is necessary to prevent it.”

But though Boyle and his colleagues of the Royal Society drove nature out of the language of natural philosophy, Nature, as is the way of all obsolete gods, made his way back to the surface of consciousness as a sort of daemonic instance, a guilty last resort.

And so it is that Diderot’s three dialogues with D’Alembert procede with a demonic glee to reveal profound things. It was the glee, the tone, as well as the indiscretion, that angered D’Alembert’s mistress, Mlle de L’Epinasse, who demanded the suppression of the dialogue.

“It is the highest extravagance, and at the same time the deepest philosophy. There is some cunning [addresse] in having put my ideas in the mouth of a man who dreams – it is often necessary to give to wisdom the air of folly, in order to procure for it its entries, that I would rather that they says, “but this isn’t as crazy as everyone believes, rather then, “listen to me, here are some very wise things.”

As is so often the case with Diderot, the work is caught up in a network of sacrifice – of smoke. I wish Derrida had referred to these these dialogues in his Given Time, where the question of the commodity of tobacco – that exemplary gift/gift – is intermixed with the question of smoke and dispersion, of non-return. Diderot claimed, and perhaps thought, that he had acceded to D’Alembert’s protest (driven by de L’Epinasse) and burnt them.

“The pleasure to have rendered an account to oneself for one’s opinions have produced them; the indiscretion of some persons had pulled them from obscurity; alarmed love desired their sacrifice; tyrannic friendship demanded it; and a too easy friendship consented: they were lacerated. You wanted me to gather up the fragments; I did so.”