The first description of the natural world in the West can be traced to Aristotle, who placed man at the pinnacle of God’s creation, and later was revitalized in medieval Christian Europe as the concept of natural theology, which justified the application of religion to the discovery and description of new flora and fauna during voyages to the New World. The medieval philosophy of the Great Chain of Being of the continuous, hierarchical gradation of species from simpler forms to more complex human beings influenced many Enlightenment thinkers, including Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707–1788) and Denis Diderot (1713–1784).
Before Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) published his taxonomic botanical nomenclature system, Buffon, who was based in Paris, was the prominent Enlightenment botanist. Linnaeus’s classification of species as being of equal rank (including Homo sapiens) was a paradigm shift from the hierarchical existential order of the traditional, commonly held concept of the Great Chain of Being. When Linnaeus shared his work with Dutch naturalists, among those who accepted his work was Jan Frederik Gronovius (1690–1762), who facilitated the publication of Linnaeus’s Fundamenta Botanica (Foundations of Botany) in Holland in 1735, which based plant nomenclature on the number, form, and order of the stamens and pistils. As an author of a series of books, Linnaeus created a framework for the first objective system to catalog every plant and animal by genera and species, establishing a binomial nomenclature of flora and fauna. Linnaeus published the first edition of Systema Naturae (System of Nature) in 1735 after completing his doctoral thesis. In this work, Linnaeus proposed a new system of classification order of kingdoms, which included plants, animals, and minerals. Specifically, Linnaeus organized new nested categories of equal status, and every species known at the time was placed within a genus, order, class, and kingdom.
Another concurrent historical development in France was the writing, editing, and publication of Diderot’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (Encyclopaedia, or Classified Dictionary of Sciences, Arts, and Trades). Published over a period from 1751 to 1772, it is a landmark work of secular, polemical Enlightenment thought that criticized Linnaeus’s classification system with articles written by naturalist Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716–1800), who was a collaborator for Buffon’s Histoire naturelle (Natural History, 1749), and who argued that the natural diversity of life comprises individuals with granular characteristics such that no classification was the best system. Initially, the publisher Le Breton hired their first editor, Jean-Paul de Gua de Malves (1713–1785), a mathematician, to improve upon Ephraim Chambers’s (1680–1740) Cyclopaedia (1728) as a model, which was accepted by the traditional regime. Jean-Paul de Gua de Malves recruited fellow mathematician Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717–1783) as his assistant, who later assumed the coeditorship after de Malves’ resignation, with Denis Diderot as editor-in-chief and one of the contributors to the Encyclopédie. Diderot differentiated the Encyclopédie from Chambers’s Cyclopaedia through modernizing the universal map of knowledge by decentralizing theology and reordering reason and natural history at the core. Extensive cross-references heralded open-ended, scholarly conversations in this new general encyclopedia. The naming of the title Encyclopaedia established the term “encyclopedia” in the lexicon as a compendium of human knowledge.
Figure 1. Click here: Title page of Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie, first edition. Wake Forest University, Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections, CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.
The first volume of the Encyclopédie was published in 1751, and contrary to popular assumption, the contributors, also known as encyclopedists, were not like-minded thinkers from a common occupation or ideology. The eclectic authorship is among the most fascinating aspects of the Encyclopédie. This multivolume encyclopedia contains articles authored by more than a hundred contributors, including the scientific writings of Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789); Gabriel-François Venel (1723–1775); and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l’Aulne (1727–1781), who later inspired Antoine Lavoisier’s (1743–1794) chemistry discoveries in the eighteenth century. Diderot and d’Alembert used a tree metaphor to connect their perspective of mapped knowledge under the heading “Memory, Reason, and Imagination” instead of using an alphabetized list of articles. In the Encyclopédie, one of the fundamental components of encyclopedic knowledge is the discipline of natural history. The editors categorized approximately 4,500 of the encyclopedia’s more than 70,000 articles under natural history. Diderot was influenced by Buffon’s works on natural history, which were cited in the Encyclopédie.
Diderot and Buffon together criticized Linnaeus’s artificial system of botanical binomial nomenclature. Buffon’s traditional adherence to the Great Chain of Being of grouping animals in relation of their utility to God’s perfect creation of a rational man, which ranked domesticated animals above wild animals, attempted to raise skepticism of Linnaeus’s classification, which systematically grouped animals by feet, teeth, and mammary glands. Buffon asserted in his forty-four-volume Histoire naturelle that descriptions of nature could only be complete or incomplete. Although natural history is covered in the beginning of Diderot’s Encyclopédie under “Initial Discourse,” it echoes Buffon’s notion that life was comprised of unique individual plants and animals in relation to man. Therefore, Diderot implicitly decried Linnaeus’s artificial classification system on the basis of an incomplete description of reproductive parts of plants.
Figure 2. Click here: Tree of Life. This fold-out frontispiece is from the first Table Analytique volume of the Encyclopédie, first edition. Wake Forest University, Z. Smith Reynolds Library Special Collections, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.
A significant part of volume six is devoted to natural history, with drawings of fossils, plants, insects, and mammals. D’Alembert resigned as an editor in 1758 but finished his mathematics articles, leaving Diderot as the sole editor. Due to royal censorship of the Encyclopédie, the last printing of the remaining volumes was finished by a Swiss publisher, Samuel Falche. Hence, Diderot became an advocate for censorship reform, which ultimately paved the way for the intellectual freedom of the press from royal and ecclesiastical control as defined during the French Revolution.
Linnaeus was one of the first naturalists to adopt the serial publication of his books, and binomial nomenclature was consistently utilized after the publication of Species Plantarum. Despite Buffon’s influence on Diderot and Parisian botanists, Linnaeus had a following in British circles, who translated his Latin texts into English and also established the Linnean Society of London, which has preserved the archive of Linnaeus’s manuscripts; his personal library collection; the first edition of Species Plantarum (Species of Plants, 1753);, the tenth edition of Systema Naturae (System of Nature, 1758); and Philosophia Botanica (Botanical Philosophy, 1751), which classified major taxonomic groups from higher plants to mosses and is considered to be the foundation of all Linnaeus’s works. Despite counterpoint views by Buffon’s popular Histoire naturelle, which were supported by other French naturalists and Diderot, it was not until French revolutionaries established Linnaeus’s systematic natural history approach that it became the precedent for the modern taxonomic classification system after his death in 1778. The work’s prospective impact on the future development of natural history is evident: the first edition of Species Plantarum (1753) includes the development of botanical nomenclature and the tenth edition of Systema Naturae (1758) builds the foundation of zoological nomenclature that are Linnaeus’ taxonomic accomplishments in systematic biology. Although Diderot’s Encyclopédie was relatively expensive, numerous copies were sold across Europe. This work represented secular humanistic tomes, which were not entitled to the inner circle of clergy and royal aristocrats, but were aimed for the public intellectual sphere.
Figure 3. Click here: Species Plantarum [Species of Plants] from the Biodiversity Heritage Library (Public domain)
Blom, Philipp. “A Dangerous Man in the Pantheon.” Public Domain Review, October 2, 2013, Accessed July 3, 2018. https://publicdomainreview.org/2013/10/02/a-dangerous-man-in-the-pantheon/.
Farber, Paul Lawrence. Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson. Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.
Hodacs, Hanna, Kenneth Nyberg, and Stéphane van Damme, eds. Linnaeus, Natural History and the Circulation of Knowledge. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2018.
Gordon, Douglas Huntly, and Norman L. Torrey. The Censoring of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and the Re-Established Text. New York: AMS Press, 1966.
Kafker, Frank A., ed. Notable Encyclopedias of the Late Eighteenth Century: Eleven Successors of the Encyclopédie. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 315. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1994.
Kafker, Frank A., and Serena L. Kafker. The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century, volume 257. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988.
Koerner, Lisbet. Linnaeus: Nature and Nation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Llana, James. “Natural History and the ‘Encyclopédie.’” Journal of the History of Biology 33, no. 1 (2000): 1–25, https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1004736103768.
Morton, A. G. History of Botanical Science: An Account of the Development of Botany from Ancient Times to the Present Day. London: Academic Press, 1981.
“The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project.” https://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/.
Tortarolo, Edoardo. The Invention of Free Press: Writers and Censorship in Eighteenth Century Europe. International Archives of the History of Ideas 219. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2016.
“Welcome to the Linnean Collections.” http://linnean-online.org/.
Werner, Stephen. Blueprint: A Study of Diderot and the Encyclopédie Plates. Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 1993.
Whyte, Ryan. “Exhibiting Enlightenment: Chardin as Tapissier.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 46, no. 4 (Summer 2013): 531–54.
Wilkins, John S. Species: A History of the Idea. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Withers, Charles W. J. “Encyclopaedism, Modernism and the Classification of Geographical Knowledge.” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 21, no. 1 (1996): 275–98. https://doi.org/10.2307/622937.
. James Llana, “Natural History and the Encyclopédie,” Journal of the History of Biology 33, no. 1 (March 1, 2000): 1–25, https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1004736103768.
. John S. Wilkins, Species: A History of the Idea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
. Paul Lawrence Farber, Finding Order in Nature: The Naturalist Tradition from Linnaeus to E.O. Wilson, Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Science (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000).
. Llana, “Natural History and the Encyclopédie.”
. “The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project,” https://quod.lib.umich.edu/d/did/. ; Frank A. Kafker and Serena L. Kafker, The Encyclopedists as Individuals: A Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the Encyclopédie, vol. 257, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1988).
. Charles W. J. Withers, “Encyclopaedism, Modernism and the Classification of Geographical Knowledge,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 21, no. 1 (1996): 275–98, https://doi.org/10.2307/622937.
. Withers, “Encyclopaedism, Modernism and the Classification of Geographical Knowledge.”
. Frank A. Kafker, ed., Notable Encyclopedias of the Late Eighteenth Century: Eleven Successors of the Encyclopédie, Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 315 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1994).
. Llana, “Natural History and the Encyclopédie,.” 1–25.
. Ryan Whyte, “Exhibiting Enlightenment: Chardin as Tapissier,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 46, no. 4 (Summer 2013): 531–54; Wilkins, Species.
. Llana, “Natural History and the Encyclopédie.”
. Stephen Werner, Blueprint: A Study of Diderot and the Encyclopédie Plates (Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 1993).
. Douglas Huntly Gordon and Norman L. Torrey, The Censoring of Diderot’s Encyclopedie and the Re-Established Text (New York: AMS Press, 1966).
. Edoardo Tortarolo, The Invention of Free Press: Writers and Censorship in Eighteenth Century Europe, International Archives of the History of Ideas 219 (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Springer, 2016).
. Hanna Hodacs, Kenneth Nyberg, and Stéphane van Damme, eds., Linnaeus, Natural History and the Circulation of Knowledge, Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2018); A. G. Morton, History of Botanical Science: An Account of the Development of Botany from Ancient Times to the Present Day (London: Academic Press, 1981).
. Morton, History of Botanical Science; “Welcome to the Linnean Collections,” http://linnean-online.org/.
. Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).