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Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  172 ratings  ·  35 reviews
A spirited biography of the prophetic and sympathetic philosopher who helped build the foundations of the modern world.

Denis Diderot is often associated with the decades-long battle to bring the world's first comprehensive Encyclop�die into existence. But his most daring writing took place in the shadows. Thrown into prison for his atheism in 1749, Diderot decided to re
Hardcover, 520 pages
Published January 15th 2019 by Other Press (NY) (first published 2019)
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Apr 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
With the ascension of multiple right-wing strongmen throughout the world, the long, slow death of the Enlightenment is upon us. What better time than this to read about one of the lesser-known Enlightenment giants, France's Denis Diderot?

In his day, Diderot was more famous than now, chiefly as an "encyclopedist" who devoted many years of his life to bringing education to the common man via the Wikipedia of its day, the humble, multivolume encyclopedia.

Sounds rather pedestrian to us, but when y
Ryan Boissonneault
Jan 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, art critic, and writer, was described by Voltaire as a pantophile, or the type of person who falls in love with everything they study, from mathematics, science, and medicine to philosophy, politics, literature, and art. So while Diderot never produced a masterpiece that would put him in the highest ranks of philosophy or literature, he did over the course of his life think and write about a wider range of topics than most.

This disposition had several benefits. First
Aug 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
I am mixed over this one. At one level, Diderot was a challenging thinker who was not bound by the preconceptions of his day. His work on the Encyclopedia changed the way intelligent readers read and then organized their intellectual worlds. Curran’s bio does a good job at linking Diderot’s life with how his ebbs and flows showed themselves in his writings. His work is entertaining and never boring. The lifelong interplay between Diderot and Voltaire is especially valuable.

So what is
Jul 02, 2019 rated it liked it
Denis Diderot (1713-1784) had a valued friend in Catherine the Great. But when she initially invited him and one of his Encyclopedie editors to Russia, the editor declined, and teasingly told Diderot that he was "prone to hemmorrhoids and they are far too dangerous in that country." Her husband, Emperor Peter III, had died (1762) - it was announced - from complications related to piles, yet everybody knew he had been murdered by the brother of one of Catherine's lovers. Catherine, a cultured and enlightened ...more
Steve Donoghue
Such a lively, wonderful book! If you haven't made the acquaintance of Diderot's era and his thinking, this is the perfect place to start. My review:
Jan 27, 2019 added it
Interesting read. It will leave you with a new appreciation for Diderot and the right to think freely.

• Skepticism is the first step toward the truth.

• What had never been called into question has never been proven.

• One can demand of me that I seek the truth, but not that I must find it.
James Mustich
Apr 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An inviting, even sprightly, biography of the Enlightenment era philosophe and man of letters whose energy supplied the impetus for the great Encyclopédie, and whose originality of thought and expression made him a more pervasive influence on modern thought than any single work of his implies. The assurance of Curran’s prose, his command of the complex forces at play in that fractious epoch, and the current of intelligence that runs throughout bears fitting witness to the author’s subject.
Apr 25, 2019 rated it liked it
I first discovered Diderot at St. John's College in a Philosophical Literature tutorial. We were assigned Rameau's Nephew and Jacques the Fatalist. Both books were revelatory. Diderot's stories seemed intent on undermining every rule of literature and philosophy. I returned to Jacques several times after, as I taught philosophy of literature, and it has remained one of my favorite books. Jacques provides a deep well from which to draw out the relationship between subjectivity and story telling, ...more
Jan 31, 2019 rated it it was ok
"The majority of Europeans are soiled by [slavery], and a vile self-interest has stifled in human hearts all the feelings we owe to our fellow man." (p. 366)

Diderot was one of the foremost thinkers of the French Enlightenment and a leader in categorizing how we think. He wrote the quoted words in 1774, long before European sentiment would turn toward the idea that people of African origin are "fellow men". Yet Professor Curran does not critically engage with the origins of Diderot's
Dave Ryan
May 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Diderot viewed the function of a broad education as not to produce better-educated aristocrats; it is a weapon to be deployed by society against superstition, religious intolerance, prejudice, and social injustice.

I learned of this book from a New Yorker Book Critic Adam Gopnik (March 4, 2019 issue) and was rewarded by gaining insight to a man and a time period that greatly influenced our world today.

The role of the philosopher is to trample underfoot prejudice, tradition
Jan 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
Who knew that a table of contents, alphabetizing topics, and cross-references could be so radical? Yet in the age of a highly repressive France, they were. Denis Diderot, a major contributor for the Encyclopdie and philosophe, pushed forth new perspectives often a much risk and derision to himself. He not only thought freely, but questioned intensely, and this questioning-- of God, religion, politics, sexuality-- gave him the opportunity to think freely. In spite of his theological education, he ...more
Mar 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
May 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
"Free Thinking", an Orwellian double speak phrase meaning, a person is allowed to think freely as long as s/he doesn't express a belief in god or gods. Fortunately, Diderot, seems to have been an early atheist, a proponent of the Enlightenment and a heretic, who didn't disparage those who did believe. Curran does not spend much time on how Diderot came to his atheism, except how it was shaped by his dislike of the church because of its hypocrisy, (same as it always was) but talks about the fall ...more
Jim Robles
Apr 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Five stars! A great free thinker who joyfully followed his curiosity wherever it took him, during challenging times.

Prologue: Unburying Diderot

"The second, 'Jacques le fataliste,' is an open-ended antinovel where Diderot used fiction to take up the problem of free will" (4).

Part One: Forbidden Fruits (17)

I The Abbot From Langres

". . . . elder Diderot . . . and a devoted subject of the king" (25). It is still the Middle Ages.

"Until the
Danny Daley
Mar 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The best biographies do not only tell the story of a life, but they tell the story of a life within the context of their time and space. This biography is not only about Diderot, though it never leaves its focus on him, but is also about the philosophical culture of all of 18th century France, and, to some degree, all of western Europe. To read the book is to be confronted with the inquiries of Europe at the time, as well as many other major thinkers and political figures relevant not only to Di ...more
Bora Yagiz
Jul 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
“You rot beneath marble or under the ground, you still rot”
“Posterity is to the philosophe, as heaven is to the religious”
“The first step towards philosophy is incredulity.”

A well-woven biography, the book relates lifelong events behind the creation of many of this far-sighted philosopher’s masterpieces, and how he came to shape as he did: being a pantophil, becoming a champion of free-thinking, expressing anti-colonial sentiment, and most saliently, his aversion to religion.<
May 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
Andrew Curran has written a superb biography of Denis Diderot. In it, he not only covers the facts of le philosophe's life (birth in Langres; study for the priesthood; marriage to Toinette; birth of and relationship with his adored daughter Angelique; his affairs, most notably with Sophie Volland; the twenty years he spent as editor of the Encyclopedie; trip to St. Petersburg to meet Catherine II late in life), but also charts the course of his ideas as reflected in his writings. By necessity, Curran discusses the role ...more
May 11, 2019 rated it really liked it
Not a normal read for me but fascinating. The book is well written but more interesting to me was the subject of the biography. As the arc of his life unfolds we learn of the voluminous output and the radical ideas (read that as rational in today's world) that set him apart from the rest of his generation. Wise enough to know his contemporaries, much of what he wrote he saved for posterity rather than share it with those not ready to hear it.
Women's Rights, slavery, atheism and the church
Aug 30, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Not an especially deep book, but an eminently serviceable one, and entertaining to boot. More than meets the 'if you're going to read one book about Diderot' standard. Diderot and the Art... is both standard and intellectual biography. Pitched to a popular readership, it does a fine job of limning Diderot's life and mind, while eschewing academic minutiae. I wouldn't have minded more minutiae myself, and would have gladly read a more scholarly intellectual bio of this fascinating subject. But I ...more
Kristin Davis
May 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Diderot was quite a rebel. Who knew that the encyclopedia, something that we all take for granted, was once extremely controversial? Just be glad that we live in an era of free speech. In addition to discussing Diderot, this book also had short biographies of several of the other Enlightenment philosophers, and it was interesting to see how they interacted with each other. My only criticism of this book is how it is organized. Rather than describing the events in chronological order, it's divide ...more
Kate Schlesinger
Oct 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Andrew S. Curran's The Art of Thinking Freely is delightfully lively and informative. Curran's prose is refreshing in its clarity, and his explanation of Diderot's life and thought is thorough without ever feeling pedantic. The organization of the book works well, starting with a traditional biographic section then covering Diderot's work by theme. I really enjoyed reading this book and recommend it to anyone with an interest in Diderot, the Enlightenment, or the development of philosophic thoug ...more
A Ab.
Apr 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
" Although Diderot is undoubtedly the steward of the Encyclopedie, he is also , paradoxically, the only major thinker of his generation who questioned the rational perspective that is at the heart of the enlightenment project....Diderot is neither a Socrate nor a Descartes...Yet his joyful and dogged quest for truth makes him the most compelling eighteenth-century advocate of the art of thinking freely."

Andrew Curran has given a very vivid and colorful picture of Diderot, the great e
Aug 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I very much enjoyed this comprehensive, well-researched, easy-to-read, never-dull study on the life and work of one of the most prolific writers and thinkers of the 18th century. I was an 18th-century studies geek in my former academic life, and this book brought back so much of what I loved about the era, amply illustrated with dozens of images. For today's readers, Diderot's polemics against tyrannical systems of government and religious belief are, unfortunately, still quite relevant.
Sarah Kalis
Mar 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Incredibly interesting read about a philosopher I did not have much exposure to. As an Enlightenment novice, if you will, I wish the author didn’t just count on the reader to know the full depths of the other philosophers cited. He did go into detail about the major players in Diderot’s life, but I found myself craving more explanatory substance.
Stephen Simpson
Jul 14, 2019 rated it liked it
A perfectly adequate, if maybe a little routine or staid, biography of a very interesting man. Unfortunately, there's nothing in here about the "art of thinking freely" and very little to highlight the brilliance of Diderot other than saying "he was brilliant" and somesuch.
Apr 02, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent biography of a fascinating man in wondrous times.
Jack Youngkin
May 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A must read
Feb 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Reading this book makes me want to learn better French because I am faced with how little of Diderot's massive output has been translated into English.
Jun 01, 2019 rated it liked it
Well researched.
Sep 18, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An absorbing account of the life of one of the great figures of the Enlightenment.
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“From Bacon, Diderot learned that science need not bow down before a Bible-based view of the world; it should be based on induction and experimentation, and, ideally, used to further humankind’s mastery of nature. Locke delivered two related concepts. The first was a theory of mind that rejected the long-standing belief that humans were born with innate ideas (and, therefore, with an inborn understanding of the divine). In Locke’s view, the mind is a blank slate at birth, and our understanding of the exterior world comes about solely through sensation and reflection. This entirely nonspiritual view of cognition set up a second critical lesson. Since, according to the English philosopher, true knowledge is limited to what we can learn through our senses, anyone involved in seeking out nature’s secrets must rely on observation and experiment — on a so-called empirical approach — and avoid building huge systems based on fantasy.” 2 likes
“The forty-seven-year-old Diderot had been an ideal model for Garand, having been confined to a chair after running into a shin-level metal bar while chasing swans around the château’s fountain.” 2 likes
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