Natural History and the "Encyclopédie"

Journal of the History of Biology 33 (1):1 - 25 (2000)
The general popularity of natural history in the eighteenth century is mirrored in the frequency and importance of the more than 4,500 articles on natural history in the "Encyclopédie". The main contributors to natural history were Daubenton, Diderot, Jaucourt and d'Holbach, but some of the key animating principles derive from Buffon, who wrote nothing specifically for the "Encyclopédie". Still, a number of articles reflect his thinking, especially his antipathy toward Linnaeus. There was in principle a natural tie between encyclopedism, with its emphasis on connected knowledge, and the task of natural historians who concentrated on the relationships among living forms. Both the encyclopedists and natural historians aimed at a sweeping overview of knowledge, and we see that Diderot's discussions of the encyclopedia were apparently informed by his reading of natural history. Most of the articles on natural history drew from traditional sources, but there are differences in emphasis and choice of subject, depending upon the author. Diderot's 300 contributions are often practical, interesting, and depend upon accounts from other parts of the world. Jaucourt, who wrote more articles on natural history than anyone else, followed in his footsteps. Daubenton's 900 articles reflected a more narrow, professional approach. His contributions concluded for the most part with Volume 8, and Jaucourt carried on almost single-handedly after that. While staking out traditional ground (description, taxonomy) and advancing newer theoretical views linked with Buffon, natural history in the "Encyclopédie" avoided almost completely the sentimentalism concerning nature that developed after Rousseau.
Keywords natural history  Buffon   Encyclopédie  Diderot  Jaucourt  Daubenton
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