Interpreting Nature: Gassendi Versus Diderot on the Unity of Knowledge

  • Lynn S. Joy
Part of the Archives Internationales d’Histoire des Idées / International Archives of the History of Ideas book series (ARCH, volume 124)


The unity of knowledge as conceived by the encyclopédiste Diderot presupposed that nature and experience together exhaust the terms in which scientific knowledge should be defined. Because he held this belief, Diderot is often viewed as having consolidated the aims of the Scientific Revolution of the seventeeth century by compiling, a century later, an Encyclopédie (1751–65) which portrayed scientific inquiry as the organized investigation of sense experience for the purpose of describing, explaining, and manipulating a wholly material natural world. However, expressions such as “nature” and “experience,” when employed by mathematicians and natural philosophers of the early seventeenth century, did not always conform to Diderot’s usage of these terms. The conception of nature articulated by the principal modern reviver of Epicurean atomism, Gassendi, is a case in point. Gassendi’s atomist conception of nature was developed as part of his larger project of defining the unity of knowledge by writing the history of philosophy from an Epicurean point of view. Not only did his conception of nature differ from Diderot’s but his understanding of what constituted the unity of knowledge also notably contradicted Diderot’s belief that the sum of knowledge could only properly be treated in the genre of an encyclopedia.


Organic Molecule Natural World Brute Matter Spontaneous Generation Natural Philosopher 
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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 1991

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  • Lynn S. Joy

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