Saturday, 24 August 2019

The Enlightenment Project of the Tree of Human Knowledge

The Enlightenment philosophes were not philosophers. In philosophy journals, you will rarely find scholarly articles on the thoughts of Diderot, Holbach, Helvetius, Condorcet, Voltaire, Condillac, La Mettrie, and other so-called philosophes. They were not devoted to the pursuit of philosophy; they were political activists and their agenda was to radically transform the world. But they realized that the world cannot be changed without changing minds.

With the idea of changing minds, the Enlightenment project for publishing what was supposed to be the world’s foremost repository of knowledge was launched: 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 did not bear the kind of fruit that they might have expected.

No comments: