When I first began reading the content for my first Wikipedia page, I was met with some frustration. This frustration wasn’t focused on my professor, the assignment, or even classmates who I knew were having a much easier time understanding their assigned word than I was. My frustration was created because I agreed and also disagreed with what I found was written under my assigned word. I realize this makes very little sense and chances are I’ve frustrated you with this short introduction, but my goal for this short entry is to hopefully make myself and the reader less frustrated by explaining my ideas concerning the texts I’ve read.
I found some limitations and contradictions in Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert’s work. I do agree however with the first few sentences of the Encyclopedie article. It states that to believe is to be convinced that a fact or proposition is true because of three factors, the first being that an individual has not bothered to examine it, the second, that an individual has examined it but poorly, and the third, that the individual has examined it well. It’s easy to agree with these points as we have the most certainty in our beliefs when we examine them in depth. This then leads to more awareness and allows us to confirm or deny these initial beliefs.
The Encyclopedie article then goes on to state that it is hard and unusual to feel at ease with ourselves when we have made no use of our reason or if the use we have made of it is bad. I think this would be more feasible during the 18thcentury. In the 21st century, many individuals and societies go against Diderot’s words concerning a number of issues. Religion, race, and sexuality are topics in which individuals are very closed minded. Diderot makes the claim that these individuals would feel uneasy with themselves because they don’t have reason behind their hatred of religion, an individual’s race, sex, or their sexual identity. I disagree with this. I believe these individuals haven’t made proper use of their reason but would still feel very much at ease with themselves and their belief systems.
Of course, it’s easy to critique an idea that was formed centuries ago, but I think that we can take some inspiration from the words of Diderot and also understand that the same words can be outdated and out of context with society today. Furthermore, it could be argued that Diderot is being more prescriptive than descriptive. Instead of describing and explaining how people are in fact behaving, he is explaining to society how they should behave and interact with each other. This may be the more logical and positive perspective to take when discussing a word like believe. My initial viewpoint of Diderot’s work was to compare and contrast how far society either hasn’t changed or has stayed the same in terms of an individuals belief system. Instead, it could be argued that Diderot was creating a blueprint for how society needs to change and informing his readership that society will always contain people who will blindly believe information that is placed in front of them. Furthermore Diderot understands that society also contains individuals who question beliefs and through his work he shows the reader that this in fact should be the desired norm for all.
I believe that certain assumptions are made throughout the Encyclopedie article and others like it. Diderot assumes that the reader is of sound mind, body, and soul. Though their words are very informative, they are also somewhat simplified in their view of society. Further on into the article it’s written “It would be as wrong to believe something without examining it, as it would be not to believe an obvious or clearly proven truth.” This seems like an accurate statement to a clear thinking and reasonable person. However, would the same words ring as true if you were saying them to a murderer or a psychopath? These examples are of course a small sample size of individuals in society, but we have to consider them if Diderot is speaking in generalities also. Many of these individuals would disagree with clearly proven truths and believe that the acts they committed were the correct course of action. It’s these generalities that are contained within Encyclopedie articles that I disagree with the most; whilst writing, these men were not considering alternate types of men and women in society, which is concerning. I believe that Diderot is writing for men who are similar to himself, this piece of text would have a greater impact if Diderot discussed alternate people in society.
Further reading from the Encyclopedie entry serves to illustrate my previous point. It states “We can therefore feel convinced in any given case or on any given subject only if we listen to the voice of our conscience and our reason.” Many people don’t listen to their voice of conscience and reason. In quite a few cases, individuals don’t have either. What about these individuals? Are they unable to believe according to the words of Diderot? By making such grand generalizations, Diderot creates an idea that belief is an easy thing to achieve and comprehend. It’s difficult to believe and trust in an idea in the modern age. Diderot fails to offer the reader more than a few words of encouragement. By simply stating that we should listen to our conscience and reason, Diderot doesn’t fully capitalize on their opportunity to both explain and inspire a society who may not have known what it was to believe in anything.
This is in many ways a harsh generalization of a writer who cannot defend his work however things such as this occur in literature all of the time. The main issue I have with Diderot’s work is that I believe the way he views human beings is well off the mark. I can however understand the counterargument that the Enlightenment can serve two purposes; it can both be critical and optimistic at the same time. It can show how members of society are flawed but also encourage them to adjust their actions to change society. I failed to initially see this when reading Diderot and d'Alembert’s work. I thought it was either or and that there couldn’t be any in-between. I can now see that both writers are in many ways like parents, they have large theories and points of emphasis to teach but these also contain smaller issues that an individual can relate to.
I do however agree with the last two lines of the Encyclopedie entry: “These principles cannot be contested without destroying reason and throwing mankind into all manner of confusion.” I agree that by not following some of the ideas outlined by Diderot that mankind may be thrown into confusion because this confusion is the type of society we are living in today. It’s also important to note that contemporaries of Diderot believed that they were in fact living in confusion. It’s clear that there was also confusion during Diderot’s lifetime many of the principles these men have outlined have been altered and changed due to the society that we are currently in. There are no longer reasonable human beings in society. There are no longer individuals who Diderot has based his ideas on in our society. In today’s information age, we are taught to question everything instead of blindly accept the beliefs of an individual in power and this is a characteristic Diderot would be proud of as he was constantly imploring people to use their reason and not depend on poorly conceived belief. We are of course being filtered information from various sources, but it is now much more expected and acceptable to question many aspects of out life whereas, in 1751, society was a place in which the ideas of men in power was widely believed and left unquestioned which frustrated both Diderot and D’Alembert. They viewed society as far too naive and willing to submit to established beliefs. I believe they would find great pleasure in the age of information, instead of a structured belief system we now question almost everything.
The concept of belief or the ability to believe is found in the Preliminary Discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot. This concept is found in the word faith, which is first seen on pages 72/73. Over the course of these two pages D’Alembert explains “Although religion is intended uniquely to regulate our mode of life and our faith, they believed it was to enlighten us also on the system of the world” I agree with these statements, although many individuals believe that religious belief is a blind belief. D’Alembert is saying here that through religion we can see much more clearly and focus on issues that God has placed in our own charge. “On matters, which the All-Powerful has expressly left to our own disputations” D’Alembert goes on to write that “Faith in no way ordained belief in it, nor charity the approval of it” when discussing a tribunal which became powerful in the south of Europe, in the Indies, and the New World. This in many ways is similar to the text found in the Encyclopedia entry. To be convinced that a fact or proposition is true one must examine it well. The individuals in Europe, the Indies, and the New World don’t have to believe in the new tribunal. They’ve done their own research and have come to realize that they can’t have any confidence in the new tribunal.
The underlying message I received from the works of Diderot and D’Alembert regarding the texts on the word believe was that it’s the decision of the individual to decide whether or not they believe in something. This may come as no surprise to many of us but it’s a concept that has been an issue throughout history. Individuals blindly following and believing in a message regardless of its content. Diderot and D’Alembert explain to us that we have to figure things out on our own and if all else fails listen to ourselves and are knowledge of right vs. wrong. It’s also important to note that Diderot and D’Alembert didn’t live in a perfect society, in many ways the century in which they were born had many if not more difficulties that we face. Though I may argue with the delivery of Diderot and D’Alembert’s words they were attempting to change the way in which society thinks and acts which is an extremely difficult task. I’m not sure the task which they created for themselves is even possible to achieve, society is still in dismay but what we know with certainty is that these two men didn’t believe society was perfect and they shined light on a belief system which needed to change.