Books that Changed Humanity is an initiative of the Humanities Research Centre, based at the Australian National University. The HRC invites experts to introduce and lead discussion of major texts from a variety of cultural traditions, all of which have informed the way we understand ourselves both individually and collectively as human beings.
Join us as Dr Alexander Cook (School of History) introduces and discusses the great eighteenth century French enterprise, Encyclopédie.
The Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1751-72) is one of the most important and intriguing works in European history. A collaborative effort to bring together the collective knowledge of our species across the entire spectrum of human activity, it was also an ambitious attempt to change the world. It has become, for many, a symbol of the Enlightenment – a period of European history that saw a new faith in science, reason and progress that laid foundations for the modern era. But the Encyclopédie also reflects, in certain respects, a vanished age. Unlike most encyclopedias that have followed in its wake it was animated by a conscious, if sometimes veiled, critical agenda, and by a vision of a world in which advancing technical knowledge had implications for forms of political understanding and moral ethos. The work brought together, in revolutionary ways, the worlds of high philosophy and the technical skills of the artisan. The production and publishing history of the Encyclopédie also illustrates the entanglement between ideas and the social world – from issues of state censorship, to the economy of publishing and the formation of the public sphere. Banned in the country of its origin, and proscribed by the Catholic Church, this work nonetheless had an influence and an audience that extended from the Americas to Russia and beyond. This lecture explores the history of the Encyclopédie as an illustration of the complex historical relationship between knowledge and power.
All members of the public are welcome to come, listen, and share their thoughts about this great work of literature.