Review: The Arts of Industry in the Age of Enlightenment

Building Design magazine (bdonline.co.uk) has reviewed a book by Celina Fox (Yale U. Press) called The Arts of Industry in the Age of Enlightenment. It caught my eye because of its reference to the inclusion of the mechanical arts in Diderot’s Encyclopédie which made me think of the wonderful article by Cynthia Koepp on the mechanical arts in “Using the Encyclopédie: ways of knowing, ways of reading” (ed. Daniel Brewer and Julie Candler Hayes. Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 2002:05.)

If I may use this space for discussing “Making money: artisans and entrepreneurs in Diderot’s Encyclopedie” by Cynthia J. Koepp rather than the book I haven’t yet read but which is the title of this post, I will endeavour to describe this very fine piece (in fact one of the finest I have read on the subject).

I found the notion of including articles regarding industrial workers and craftspeople who would have been part of the 3rd estate (1st being priests, 2nd being aristocrats and 3rd being the rest of the people including the bourgeoisie) in the encyclopedia both appropriate to its mission but also humble and remarkable. However, Koepp, upon examining the language used in articles describing the mechanical arts, came to a very different conclusion.

While she admits that including articles on butchers and tailors brought the tradespeople a respectability that they had not perhaps previously enjoyed, she ultimately concludes that these articles were more effective in maintaining a division between the mechanical arts, the liberal arts as well as the rest of society than they were in integrating them into French society. She notes that despite offering more pages to working class concepts than concepts arising out of the nobility (51 pages on the subject of carpentry VS. 31 devoted to hunting which was a privilege of the nobility), that the underlying current in the articles was a recognition that the manual arts were necessary to the proper functioning of society and that both productivity and the trades and crafts themselves would be threatened if people were not encouraged to take them up as professions.

Koepp makes the argument that the articles on the industrial arts might have been written for the reader who had some education but who wasn’t an intellectual; who could start a business and understand what machinery was required, how to manage a staff, what to pay them, etc… so the articles could have had a purely practical purpose rather than an elaboration and vindication of the mechanical arts.

She also analyzed several of the entries regarding specific trades, such as:

– Boucher: which included the description “violent people prone to revolt;”

– Boulanger: Deceitful by nature: Diderot warns readers against bakers who try to sell products at false weights;

– Charcuitier: “…deceitful and abusive.” The charcuitier is to be scorned and distrusted – advises readers to report to police if any spoiled meat should  be sold.

Most entries are attributed to Diderot himself and dwell on the negative aspects of the characters and skills of the people who practice the trades.

Koepp forwards other well argued theories about how the encyclopedists and especially Diderot viewed the tradespeople and those practicing the mechanical arts. It definitely gives pause for thought as to what the intentions really were for including such detailed information regarding the trades and industries. It was a well researched, well-written piece which shed interesting light on the inclusion of mechanical arts in an 18th c. encyclopedia.

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