Jean Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert and the Great Encyclopedy

Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert
(1717 – 1783)

On November 16, 1717, French mathematician, mechanician, physicist, philosopher, and music theorist Jean Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert was born. He was co-editor with Denis Diderot of the famous Encyclopédie, edited between 1751 and 1772.

D’Alembert was born in Paris and entered the famous ‘Colége Mazarin’ at the age of 12, where he studied law, as well as philosophy and arts. His educators noticed d’Alembert’s talent and supported him to begin an ecclesiastical career, which he rejected. D’Alembert understood theology as “rather unsubstantial fodder“, he soon attended law school and researched on mathematics as well as medicine diligently.

His first success was reached at the age of 22, when d’Alembert noticed mathematical erros in Charles René Reynaud’s work ‘L’analyse démontrée’, which he made public. He was instantly known widely across the scientific community, because of improving a standard work, learned by every student of mathematics. His reputation continued to improve through publishing his work on fluid mechanics and refraction. D’Alembert’s most famous work (besides the encyclopedia) was published in 1743, it was called ‘Traité de dynamique’, and explained the laws of motion, which he developed himself.

The probably most important and most influential work of d’Alembert was his contribution to the famous ‘Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers‘. An encyclopedia in French language. The masterpiece was published by d’Alembert along with Denis Diderot and counts as one of the most important works of the Age of Enlightment.

Figurative system of human knowledge

The idea of the encyclopedia was to collect all current human knowledge and to make it accessible to everyone. Special was though, that the publishers saw the necessity to make visible all relations between the single articles. Through cross-references, it was made easier to look for and understand the content and therefore get broadly based information on a specific topic. The work is based on the ‘arbor porphyriana’ (tree of knowledge) by Francis Bacon. Bacon himself was a widely known philosopher, scientist and a pioneer of empiricism.  The encyclopedia by Diderot and d’Alembert is seen as a turning point in epistemology, they supported Locke’s theory of the development of knowledge though experience and rejected the methods by Carthesius and von Aquins. The work followed the principle of social equality, it rejected the church’s believes, and measured all human interactions on the theory of reason. The work was accepted well by society due to its easy understanding and its good usability due to the cross-references, a new way of the freedom of thought was developed.

D’Alembert edited more than a thousand articles in the encyclopedia in which he was mainly resposible for mathematical problems. Besides the encyclopedia, d’Alembert researched on further mathematical and philosiphical problems, such as his laws of motion, wherefore he counts as the father of mathematical physics. D’Alembert’s achievements were essential to the scientific and cultural development of society during the enlightment and his contributions count as indespensable for this period.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the mathematical lecture on d’Alembert’s famous wave equation by Dr. Chris Tisdell.

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