cover image Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

Andrew S. Curran. Other Press, $28.95 (528p) ISBN 978-1-59051-670-6

Curran (Sublime Disorders: Physical Monstrosity in Diderot’s Universe) returns to the subject of Denis Diderot (1713–1784) in this marvelous account of the philosophe’s life and work. But this is much more than a biography, as Curran renders in vivid detail the social and intellectual life of 18th-century France. Curran discusses Diderot’s education by the Jesuits and initial intention of becoming a priest, the publication of his first influential text, Pensées philosophiques, his resulting imprisonment (which Curran sees as a formative experience), and his decades-long labor on his masterpiece, the Encyclopédie. This last is typical of Curran’s thorough approach: readers learn about the financial and political aspects of publishing such an expansive work (such as its printer’s prized status as one of six designated “printers of the king”); its proto-hypertext cross-referencing tool, the “System of Human Knowledge,” often deployed satirically, such as by connecting “cannibalism” and “communion”; and its political impact, which included a diplomatic incident between France and Switzerland. Equally fascinating are Curran’s summaries of Diderot’s remarkable contributions as art critic, playwright, and sexologist, the last represented by his outlandish novel Les bijoux indiscrets, which features talking vaginas. Readers will be left with a new appreciation for Diderot, of his wide-ranging thought, and of his life as an expression of intense intellectual freedom. (Jan.)