Exhibit Overview


Among its many treasures, the Institute Archives and Special Collections contains a first folio edition and an early octavo edition of one of the most important and controversial books published in the eighteenth century, the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, edited by the French Enlightenment figures Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. This massive work, comprising 33 folio volumes, became infamous in its day as an attack on French and European religious dogmatism and monarchical inefficiency and injustice. As each successive volume appeared in the 1750s and 1760s, a favorite parlor game of Parisian elites was to scrutinize the new articles for its not-so-subtle critiques of Roman Catholicism and the Bourbon absolutist monarchy.

Denis Diderot, 1773

Denis Diderot, 1773

Often lost in the work’s notoriety, both in its time and subsequently, are the stunning intellectual ambitions of the book’s editors and contributors. Within these tomes, Diderot and his collaborators endeavored to gather all human knowledge in a single reference work.

Of particular interest to the MIT community is the way in which the parameters of human understanding were defined. The work’s subtitle proclaims it to be a “rational dictionary of the sciences, the arts, and the trades.” In other words, the book’s editorial collaborative placed the “trades,” or what today might be called “industry,” on the same philosophical footing as the “sciences” and the “arts,” terms that had been used to categorize the noblest areas of human intellectual activity since Greek Antiquity.

Decorative ornament on title page

This strategy suggests the emerging valorization of manual labor and the mechanical arts in the western intellectual tradition. In the pages of the Encyclopédie, we can see an earlier formulation of the credo mens et manus, mind and hand, which has characterized the scholarly enterprise at MIT since its founding a century after Diderot’s editorial labors ended.

This exhibit displays the richness with which Diderot, d’Alembert, and their circle explored the proto-industrial world of the mid-eighteenth century. It was curated by Jeffrey S. Ravel, MIT Professor of History, and Kristel Smentek, MIT Assistant Professor of Art History.