Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers ("Encyclopedia, or Reasoned Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts") was an early encyclopedia, published in France beginning in 1751, the final volumes being released in 1772.

One of the greatest and most remarkable literary enterprises of the 18th century, the famous Encyclopédie originated in a French translation of Ephraim Chambers's Cyclopaedia, begun in 1743 and finished in 1745 by John Mills, an Englishman resident in France, assisted by Gottfried Sellius, a native of Gdañsk, who, after being a professor at Halle and Göttingen, and residing in the Netherlands, had settled in Paris.

They applied to André Le Breton, the king's printer, to publish the work, to fulfil the formalities required by French law, with which, as foreigners, they were not acquainted, and to ask for a royal privilege. This he obtained, but in his own name alone. Mills complained, and Le Breton had to acknowledge formally that the privilege belonged to John Mills. But, as he again took care not to acquaint Mills with the necessary legal formalities, this title soon became invalid. Mills then agreed to grant him part of his privilege, and in May 1745 the work was announced as Encyclopédie ou dictionnaire universel des arts et des sciences, folio, four volumes with a fifth of plates, and a vocabulary or list of articles in French, Latin, German, Italian and Spanish, with other lists for each language explained in French, so that any article might be found.

Jean Paul de Gua de Malves, professor of philosophy in the College of France, was then engaged as editor merely to correct errors and add new discoveries. But he proposed a thorough revision, and obtained the assistance of many learned men and artists, among were Louis, Condillac, Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot. But the publishers did not think his reputation high enough to ensure success, withheld their confidence, and often opposed his plans as too expensive. Tired at last of disputes, and too easily offended, de Gua resigned the editorship.

The publishers, who had already made heavy advances, offered the editorship to Diderot, who was probably recommended to them by his very well received Dictionnaire universel de medicine, Paris, 1746-1748, fol. 6 vols. It was a translation, made with the assistance of Eidous and François-Vincent Toussaint, of the celebrated work of Dr Robert James, inventor of the fever powders, A Medicinal Dictionary, London, 1743-1745, fol. 3 vols.

The proposed work was to have been similar in character. De Gua's papers were handed over to Diderot in great confusion. He soon persuaded the publishers to undertake a far more original and comprehensive work. His friend d'Alembert undertook to edit the mathematics.

Mills demanded an account, which Le Breton, who had again omitted certain formalities, refused. Mills brought an action against him, but before it was decided Le Breton procured the revocation of the privilege as informal, and obtained another for himself dated January 21, 1746. Thus, for unwittingly contravening regulations with which his unscrupulous publisher ought to have made him acquainted, Mills was denied the work he had both planned and executed, and had to return to England.

The great work comprised 28 volumes, 71,818 articles, and 2,885 illustrations. D'Alembert left the project before its completion and the last volumes are solely the work of Diderot. Many of the most noted figures of the French enlightenment contributed to the work including Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu.

The writers of the encyclopedia saw it as destroying superstitions and providing access to human knowledge. It was a quintessential summary of thought and belief of the Enlightenment. In ancien régime France it caused a storm of controversy, however. This was mostly due to its religious tolerance. The encyclopedia praised Protestant thinkers and challenged Catholic dogma. The entire work was banned, but because it had many highly placed supporters work continued and each volume was delivered clandestinely to subscribers.

It was also a vast compendium of the technologies of the period, describing the traditional craft tools and pocesses. Much information was taken from the Descriptions des Arts et Métiers.

The Encyclopédie played an extremely important role in the intellectual ferment leading to the French Revolution. In 1750 the full title was Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une société de gens de lettres, mis en ordre par M. Diderot de l'Académie des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Prusse, et quant a` la partie mathématique, par M. d'Alembert de l'Académie royale des Sciences de Paris, de celle de Prusse et de la Société royale de Londres. The title-page was amended as d'Alembert acquired more titles.

The Encyclopédie presented a taxonomy of human knowledge which was inspired by Francis Bacon's Advancement of Knowledge. The three main branches of knowledge are: "Memory"/History, "Reason"/Philosophy, and "Imagination"/Poetry. Notable is the fact that theology is ordered under 'Philosophy'. Robert Darnton argues that this categorisation of religion as being subject to human reason, and not a source of knowledge in and of itself, was a significant factor in the controversy surrounding the work. Additionally notice that 'Knowledge of God' is only a few nodes away from 'Divination' and 'Black Magic'.

Notable contributors to the Encyclopédie including their area of contribution:

  • Jean le Rond d'Alembert – editor; science (esp. mathematics), contemporary affairs, philosophy, religion, among others
  • André Le Breton – chief publisher; printer's ink article
  • Etienne Bonnot de Condillac – philosophy
  • Daubenton – natural history
  • Denis Diderot – chief editor; economics, mechanical arts, philosophy, politics, religion, among others
  • Baron d'Holbach – science (chemistry, mineralogy), politics, religion, among others
  • Chevalier de Jaucourt – economics, literature, medicine, politics, among others
  • Montesquieu – part of the "gout" article (English: concept of taste)
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau – music, political theory
  • Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune – economics, etymology, philosophy, physics
  • Voltaire – history, literature, philosophy
Top of the page