JITE v33n4 - Diderot, Rousseau, and the Mechanical Arts: Disciplines, Systems, and Social Context

Volume 33, Number 4
Summer 1996

Diderot, Rousseau, and the Mechanical Arts:
Disciplines, Systems, and Social Context

John R. Pannabecker
McPherson College

At the time of the onset of the industrial revolution in England, Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) began to stimulate a wider interest in the mechanical arts in France (see Crocker, 1966 ; Furbank, 1992 ; Guéhenno, 1966 ; Lepape, 1991 ; Rousseau, 1926 ). Both deplored the low status of artisans and promoted social and intellectual change. In the late 1740s and early 1750s, Diderot and Rousseau were close friends, spending much time discussing new and controversial ideas. By the late 1750s they were famous; however, their paths had diverged and their views on the mechanical arts reflected very different social and philosophical attitudes.

In his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts of 1750, Rousseau criticized the arts and sciences (especially the arts in the luxury trades) for their undesirable effects on social values. The development of that work was closely connected to Diderot, who would eventually become known as one of the great proponents of technical progress. Rousseau exposed his ideas on the mechanical arts in works such as Emile in 1762. For example, when Emile's tutor had Emile work alongside a carpenter, his main purpose was not to promote technical progress, but to develop the individual person and to promote better social relations and mutual respect among people:

Your greatest concern should be to dismiss from the mind of your student all the notions of social relations that are not within his grasp; but, when the chain of knowledge forces you to show him the mutual dependence among humans, instead of explaining it to him by the moral side of things, first turn all his attention towards industry and the mechanical arts, which render humans useful to each other. ( Rousseau, 1964, p. 212 [all translations are the author's])

The tutor went on to recommend that the teacher take the student from shop to shop and that both the teacher and student actually do the work observed in each shop. In one hour of work the student would learn more than he would learn in a day of explanations ( Rousseau, 1964, pp. 212-213 ).

But since the student was a nobleman, the tutor's most important goal for him was not to know the craft itself, but to break down social barriers and to become independent of his own fortune and status. "It is less a question of learning a craft to know a craft, than to conquer the prejudices that hold it in contempt. . . . Lower yourself to the status of an artisan, in order to be above your own" ( Rousseau, 1964, pp. 226-227 ).

In contrast, Diderot promoted a scientific representation of the mechanical arts using a systematic, disciplinary approach. He wanted to elevate the status of the mechanical arts, but by systematizing the arts and helping artisans to work and think more critically along the pattern of the liberal arts and sciences. Diderot also felt that those in the liberal arts and sciences should help raise the status of artisans:

Let's render to Artists [i.e., skilled artisans] the justice that is due to them. The liberal Arts have sufficiently sung their own praises; they could now use the voices they have to celebrate the mechanical Arts . It is up to the liberal Arts to draw the mechanical Arts out of the degradation where prejudices have held them for so long; it is up to the protection of kings to guarantee them from an impoverishment where they still languish. Artisans have considered themselves contemptible, because we have held them in contempt; let us teach them to think better of themselves: it is the only way to obtain from them more perfect products. ( ART, in Diderot & d'Alembert, 1751-1772, Vol. 1, p. 717 )

Diderot's interest in "more perfect products" reflected one of his main goals; he hoped to stimulate technical change and economic progress through his systematization of the mechanical arts. In fact, the contributions of Diderot to modern views of technology as systems or disciplines far exceed those of Rousseau, even though Rousseau is better known in the history of industrial education ( Bennett, 1926, pp. 77-82, 96-100 ; Martin & Luetkemeyer, 1979 ; Miller, 1979 ; Pannabecker, 1995a ). There are also some rarely recognized links between Diderot's approach to the mechanical arts and the Russian system of tool instruction that has so marked industrial education in the United States (see Bennett, 1937 ; Pannabecker, 1986 , 1995b ; Schurter, 1982 ).

The main purpose of this study is to examine the contributions of Rousseau and Diderot to technological education in light of their philosophical positions, friendship, and the eventual disintegration of their friendship. A secondary purpose is to explain why Rousseau has dominated over Diderot in the American historiography of technological education and why this situation may be changing. The study begins with an examination of the background of Rousseau and Diderot and their eventual split, which became the most famous quarrel of the Enlightenment. The second section goes beyond the quarrel to examine some differences in their general philosophical positions, some of which are still reflected today in curricular theories that place different amounts of emphasis on disciplinary content or systems, learning processes, and social context. The third section shows how their different philosophical positions related to their specific treatments of the mechanical arts. A final section interprets their interests in the mechanical arts in light of key concerns in technological education in the 1990s.

The Friendship of Diderot and Rousseau

In the early 1740s, Diderot and Rousseau were very close friends, living in Paris in poverty. Diderot's father was a successful provincial cutler, but Diderot was not interested in following in his father's trade. After finishing school, he insisted on remaining in Paris against his father's wishes. Since his father refused to send him money, he had to support himself, often by working as a tutor ( Crocker, 1966 ). Rousseau had also been raised in a craft environment (clock-making in Geneva), though in much less favorable financial conditions. He was, for the most part, self-taught and had supported himself as a tutor prior to arriving in Paris ( Rousseau, 1926 ). Thus, both were raised in an environment where craft skills and knowledge were highly valued.

When Rousseau and Diderot first met in Paris in the early 1740s, they were both living on their own, tutoring others, and pursuing the craft of writing. Both sought the financial and social support of well-to-do, progressive bourgeois or aristocrats in order to relieve themselves of the day-to-day routine of earning a living. They both managed to appear in high society, though with varying degrees of success, in hopes of obtaining the support that would allow them to join the small, but growing class of professional intellectuals of eighteenth-century France. Rousseau did not share the extraordinary energy level and physical health of Diderot, nor his commitment to Parisian life ( Crocker, 1966 ; Furbank, 1992 ; Guéhenno, 1966 ; Rousseau, 1926 ).

In the latter 1740s, Diderot began doing translation and editorial work on the Englishman Chambers' Cyclopoedia , a privately funded undertaking that eventually mushroomed into the Encyclopédie , a 28-volume compilation widely regarded as the centerpiece of the Enlightenment ( Diderot & d'Alembert, 1751-1772 ; Proust, 1967 ). Robert Darnton, a leading American historian of French culture, noted that it was the mechanical arts that "constituted the most extensive and original part of the Encyclopédie itself" ( 1984, p. 198 ). The Encyclopédie is also an important work for the history of technology and education because of its systematic coverage of the mechanical arts, considered as knowledge on the same level with other types of knowledge ( Pannabecker, 1992 , 1994 , 1995b ). But the Encyclopédie is also a direct connection between Diderot and Rousseau.

By the time Diderot took on editorship of the Encyclopédie , he and Rousseau had become very good friends. It is possible that their relationship consolidated Diderot's intent to give considerable attention to the mechanical arts in the Encyclopédie . But Rousseau's contribution to Diderot's Encyclopédie did not even focus on the mechanical arts. Rousseau wrote about four hundred articles on music ( Kafker & Kafker, 1988 ; Rousseau, 1926 ). Yet it was his article on moral and political economy which would become "the most closely studied political article in the whole of the Encyclopédie " ( Lough, 1984, p. 509 ).

In the early years of the Encyclopédie project, Rousseau and Diderot remained close friends. Rousseau traveled, often by foot, to visit Diderot in prison at Vincennes after Diderot's arrest in 1749 for his scandalous Letter on the Blind . At first, Rousseau was so distraught that he wrote to Madame de Pompadour requesting that she obtain Diderot's release or else imprison him with Diderot ( Guéhenno, 1966 ; Rousseau, 1926 ). The publishers of the Encyclopédie were also worried about the effect of Diderot's imprisonment because it slowed down progress on their project. Diderot was deeply affected by his imprisonment and treaded more carefully after this unfortunate period of his life ( Crocker, 1966 ; Rousseau, 1926 ). Rousseau also considered this period of his own life as unfortunate, but for different reasons.

As Rousseau's story goes, it was on one of these journeys by foot to the prison one hot summer day that he had his revelation to describe the detrimental effects of the arts and sciences on civilization. Diderot presumably encouraged him to pursue his idea ( Rousseau, 1926 ). But there are different versions of this story, one of which attributes the idea to Diderot (see Guéhenno, 1966 ). Ultimately Rousseau wrote an essay critiquing the role of the arts and sciences, which won him fame through a prize conferred by the Academy of Dijon.

According to Rousseau, this particular visit to Diderot in prison and his prize-winning essay represented the beginning of the misfortunes that followed him for the rest of his life ( Rousseau, 1926 ). Indeed, it was from this time on that the literate public became aware of Rousseau's radical criticism of urban high society and of its self-serving promotion of the arts, sciences, and crafts ( Rousseau, 1959-1969 ). Distance between Diderot and Rousseau began to increase, and Rousseau's vision for the role of the arts and sciences (including liberal and mechanical arts) became more sharply distinguished from Diderot's views.

Conflict and Underlying Differences

Modern biographers often require at least one chapter just to outline the main factors involved in the conflict between Diderot and Rousseau, which Crocker has called "the most notorious and most significant quarrel of the century" ( Crocker, 1966, pp. 158-180 ; see also Guéhenno, 1966, Vol. 1, pp. 397-421 for another interpretation). Not least of these factors were their common friends, most of whom were also involved in the intense Parisian fervor of the Enlightenment. Most of their common friends remained in closer physical proximity to Diderot (in Paris) and were thus hardly in a position to interpret Rousseau's decisions and behavior. Rousseau's decision to leave Paris in 1757 did not facilitate their relationship, but he can hardly be faulted for following his own inclinations for a rural life, for seeking to protect his deteriorating health, or for accepting his discomfort with the social demands of urban high society.

By this time, both had become well known, many personal misunderstandings ensued, and their paths diverged. Diderot had become so enamored with Paris that he rarely left for the rest of his life, except for an occasional visit to his family in the town of Langres (in Burgundy) or his famous visit to Catherine II in Russia in 1773. Diderot's commitment to Paris and urban society restricted his exposure to the mechanical arts as organized and practiced in Paris, thus excluding a broader view of the arts as practiced in small towns and rural areas, which is where the majority of the French population lived. Rousseau's commitment to rural life gave him a very different cultural environment and confirmed his own mistrust of urban life. For example, in Emile the narrator claims that

Cities are the abyss of the human species. After several generations the races perish or degenerate; it is necessary to restore them, and it is always the countryside that furnishes this restoration. Therefore send your children to restore themselves, so to speak, and to regain, in the middle of the fields, the vigor that they lose in the unhealthy air of overpopulated places. ( Rousseau, 1964, p. 37 )

As Diderot and Rousseau grew older, their different social environments exacerbated their quarrel and sharpened the edges on their different values. Rousseau's social view of the mechanical arts reflected his rural values, as clearly articulated in his Letter to d'Alembert in 1758 ( Rousseau, 1927 ). Rousseau took on an aggressive, critical stance against the artificiality of urban high society. In contrast, Diderot did not question the social self-deception of the upper classes to the extent that Rousseau did. (Rousseau has been criticized for his tendency to individual self-deception, but this is understandable given his isolation from urban society [ Guéhenno, 1966, Vol. 2 ].)

An outstanding example of Rousseau's social critique is the one cited in the introduction to this essay, when Emile's tutor explained that Emile was to learn a craft in order to raise himself up to the social status and values of the craftsman. In the tutor's mind, it was his wealthy student Emile who occupied a lower status and craftsmen who occupied a higher social position. The tutor's hierarchy of social status was based on values almost diametrically opposed to those of the general public, and this distinction was reflected in his hierarchy of the mechanical arts.

The respect that the public grants to the different arts is in inverse proportion to their real utility. This respect is measured directly on their uselessness, and that has to be. The most useful arts are those that earn the least, because the number of workers is proportionate to the need of humans, and because the work necessary for everyone remains inevitably at a price that the poor can pay. In contrast, the important workers who are not called artisans, but artists, working solely for the idle and rich, place an arbitrary price on their baubles; and, since the merit of these trivial works is based only in opinion, their price itself is part of this merit, and one values them in proportion to what they cost. The importance that the rich make of these things does not come from their use, but from the fact that the poor cannot afford them. . . .

What will become of your students, if you allow them to adopt this stupid prejudice, if you favor it yourself, if they see you, for example, enter with more respect in the shop of a goldsmith than in that of a locksmith? ( Rousseau, 1964, p. 213 )

While Diderot did not challenge the value of luxury items as Rousseau did in this passage, he did believe that craftsmen in general had occupied an unmerited lower class status for too long. He felt that they should be helped to rise up to a higher status. For example, one of the purposes of his systematic representation of the mechanical arts in the Encyclopédie was to promote among the literate a better understanding and appreciation for craftsmen and their work. But he also believed that his work would benefit craftsmen by helping them to think more critically about their craft through more systematic and analytical reflection. To achieve this end, Diderot appealed to academicians:

It is desirable that someone leave the bosom of the Academies and go down into the shops, collect the phenomena of the Arts , & expose them to us in a published work that stimulates Artists to read, Philosophers to think usefully, & Authorities to finally make worthwhile use of their authority & their rewards. ( ART, in Diderot & d'Alembert, 1751-1772, Vol. 1, p. 717 )

Thus Diderot's agenda was much broader than increasing the status of craftsmen, and in some ways, seemed in conflict with that goal. He felt that increasing freedom in the practice of the mechanical arts and publishing industrial knowledge would result in technical progress. Thus, he sought to weaken guild control and the influence of craft communities, particularly in urban society. Diderot became frustrated at times with craftsmen's tendency to obscure the secrets of their trades and attempted to expose these trade secrets ( Pannabecker, 1994, p. 54 ).

While Diderot and Rousseau both deplored the lower status of artisans, Rousseau questioned the status of the wealthy, not the influence of the craft communities. For him, craftsmen represented a higher stage of moral development than that of the upper classes. Consequently, he promoted an uplifting of the wealthy to the higher physical and moral development of craftsmen through the mechanical arts. He considered the mechanical arts an educational means, not an end, for the upper classes. In contrast, the logical consequence of Diderot's thinking was a confirmation of the higher status of the wealthy. He wanted to elevate the status of artisans, but through a sort of paternalistic assistance in which the formally educated would help artisans become more critical and more philosophical in how they worked. However, his preoccupation with representing technical knowledge systematically, promoting technical progress, and undermining guilds did little to raise the status of artisans in general.

Mechanical Arts, Systems, and Human Development

Diderot emphasized the role of the mechanical arts in promoting technical and economic progress, while Rousseau emphasized the role of the mechanical arts in teaching moral and social values. Diderot's approach was to represent the mechanical arts as disciplinary content; he felt this content needed to be better organized, systematized, written down, and illustrated in order to facilitate dissemination, critical thinking, and progress. By representing all the mechanical arts in a single work, he hoped to promote a sort of science of the arts. In his article "ART" in the first volume of the Encyclopédie , he began by describing the context for his view of the arts:

We began by making observations on the nature, service, usage, qualities of beings & of their symbols; then we gave the name of science or of art or of discipline in general, to the center or unifying point to which we related the observations that we had made, to form a system of either rules or instruments, & of rules tending towards the same goal; because that is what a discipline is in general. ( ART, in Diderot & d'Alembert, 1751-1772, Vol. 1, p. 713 )

Diderot then proceeded to describe the origin of the sciences and arts, their distribution into liberal and mechanical arts, the goal of the arts, and his own project for a general treatise on the mechanical arts.

According to Diderot, a systematic approach was necessary, but he was not interested in a purely theoretical system. He emphasized that experience, reason, and careful observation were essential to his project. Systematic representations of the mechanical arts such as Diderot's were important contributions to modern notions of technology, precisely because of the emphasis on the concept of system and interrelated elements. Such systematic representations also played an important role in the conceptualization of industrial and technological education, not because of any deliberate focus on educational pedagogy, curriculum, or schooling, but because of the emphasis on organized disciplinary content. Diderot did not create a curriculum in the modern educational sense of the term, but he promoted the idea that all the arts could be viewed as a structured body of knowledge, which could be disseminated, at least in part through texts and drawings.

Diderot probably contributed as much to popularizing the rational systematization of the mechanical arts as Rousseau did to popularizing the importance of the stages of human development in their relationship to pedagogy. The practice of identifying, observing, classifying, ordering, representing, and analyzing technical knowledge and skills were all part and parcel of Diderot's enterprise, which reflected similar emphases among other Enlightenment philosophers.

Perhaps one of the most direct connections between Diderot and modern technological education is that the plates of his Encyclopédie promoted the importance of mechanical drawing and representation. For example, his main plate designer, Louis-Jacques Goussier, eventually worked as a machine designer and illustrator at the Conservatory of Arts and Crafts in Paris in the 1790s. This is the same institution where Aleksandr S. Ershov, the original designer of the Russian system of tool instruction, studied in the early 1840s. When Diderot visited Catherine the Great in Russia in 1773, he was made an honorary curator of the Moscow Foundling Home, which eventually evolved into the Moscow Trade School and then the Moscow Imperial Technical School where Ershov worked. Ershov was following an already long-established tradition of systematically organized technical knowledge, which Diderot had popularized ( Pannabecker, 1995b ).

Diderot's emphasis on systematic representation of the mechanical arts in order to facilitate technical progress was one of the major areas in which Diderot and Rousseau diverged. Both identified social problems and wanted to change social attitudes towards the mechanical arts and artisans. But Diderot's emphasis was on the dissemination of technical knowledge and Rousseau's emphasis, at least in Emile , was on constructive social interaction between different groups for moral instruction. Both contributed to views of social change, even though more contemporary notions of "reconstructing" society would be an exaggerated view of the scope of the agendas of Diderot and Rousseau. Nevertheless, they both were outspoken critics of the social, political, and economic order of eighteenth-century France and they proposed ideas that ran counter to conventional wisdom.

Diderot's opposition to urban craft communities' control of knowledge and education in the mechanical arts was part of a new ideological pattern that influenced social changes during the French Revolution a generation later. That generation would eliminate the craft guilds and set the stage for a shift from guild-controlled technical education to schooling. At a time when mercantilist ideas of wealth were still prevalent, Diderot emphasized technical and economic development through industry and freer markets, concepts that are now considered part of conventional liberal economic theory. In Diderot's time, French traditional economic wisdom was generally opposed to his project of publishing as much of the knowledge of the mechanical arts as possible. Diderot criticized the guilds' preference for secrecy, especially in regard to the production of luxury products.

We invite Artists to heed scholarly advice regarding their side of things, & not to allow the discoveries they will make to perish with them. They need to know that when they hide a useful secret they make themselves guilty of larceny in regard to society; & that it is not less vile to prefer on these occasions the interest of a single person over the interest of all, than in a hundred other cases where they would not hesitate to articulate their view. ( ART, in Diderot & d'Alembert, 1751-1772, Vol. 1, p. 717 )

When the first volume of Diderot's Encyclopédie came off the press in 1751, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations , the first systematic exposition of modern capitalism, would not be published for another quarter of a century (in 1776). In fact, Adam Smith ( 1937 ) used the example of systematic pinmaking in Diderot's Encyclopédie to illustrate the division of labor into small, incremental steps of production. (Actually there are two detailed descriptions of the industrial process of pinmaking in the Encyclopédie , the article "Epingle" by Alexandre Deleyre and the description of the plates called "Epinglier" by Jean-David Perronet [ Kafker & Kafker, 1988, p. 97 ].) But there is little evidence that Diderot foresaw any of the major structural changes in industry in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

In contrast to Diderot's focus on representing the arts systematically as a body of knowledge, Rousseau became famous for his innovative pedagogical ideas that emphasized the stages of human development and included the natural sciences and mechanical arts as a means to improve individual physical, moral, mental, and social behavior. In fact, Rousseau was not entirely opposed to the systematic representation of knowledge. Sometime in the late 1740s, while Diderot and Rousseau were still friends, Rousseau attempted to make a flying machine and left an account of his efforts, including his systematic analysis of the problems of flight ( Pannabecker, 1995a ; Plan, 1910 ). During the same period, Rousseau took up the task of writing most of the articles on music in the Encyclopédie . Later in life, Rousseau became interested in Linnaeus' system of botanical knowledge.

But in regard to education, Rousseau held that systematic knowledge should be integrated into education at appropriate levels or stages of human development. Rousseau's extensive exposition of his ideas on the development of the child from birth through early adulthood earned him his position in the history of education. But Rousseau's educational agenda in Emile was somewhat limited; he did not present an educational scheme for the children of artisans in his Emile , but rather for Emile the nobleman. Emile's tutor wanted him to experience the mechanical arts in the context of the artisan and his family in order to understand and respect artisans' values.

Rousseau, unlike Diderot, did not focus on the mechanical arts as separable from the context in which they were practiced. Diderot, although raised among artisans in his own family of cutlers, was more interested in artisans' knowledge as an academic body of knowledge, separable from their context of origin. At one point, he apparently became very frustrated at obtaining knowledge of the mechanical arts from artisans, and admitted the more openness of rural artisans over those of the city:

It is especially when he [editor of texts on the mechanical arts] will have toured the workshops for awhile, money in hand, & one will have made him pay dearly for the most ridiculous falsehoods, that he will know what sort of people these Artists are, especially at Paris, where the fear of taxes holds them perpetually in mistrust, & where they consider anyone who questions them with curiosity as an emissary of the farmers general [tax collectors], or as a worker who wants to set up shop. It has seemed to me that one would avoid these inconveniences, in seeking in the provinces all the knowledge of the Arts that one would like to collect: one is known there; one is dealing with people who are not suspicious; money is scarcer, & time is cheaper. From this, it seems evident to me that one would learn things easier & at less cost, & one would have more accurate information. ( ENCYCLOPEDIE, in Diderot & d'Alembert, 1751-1772, Vol. 5, p. 647 )

But Diderot did not then leave for the country to learn about the mechanical arts. He claimed to have visited many shops in Paris, but there is little evidence that he actually did so. His main task was that of writing and editing. Sometimes he sent an assistant to the country, especially when a specific art was not practiced in Paris. Consequently, Diderot never seemed to fully realize just why artisans would be so protective of their knowledge despite the fact that they had paid dearly in years of experience to develop it. Diderot admired the presumed openness of scientists, but they usually worked under the long-term protection of the well-to-do, or were well off themselves. In contrast, Rousseau emphasized social context and his recommendation for Emile to work alongside artisans was in keeping with his philosophy of social change. He not only understood why one would have to work alongside artisans to learn their knowledge, he also emphasized the importance of exposure to the context in which technical knowledge was transferred, including the social values of artisans. For Rousseau, artisans' values could be fully appreciated only in their social context.

Diderot, Rousseau, and Technological Education Today

The different attitudes of Diderot and Rousseau towards the mechanical arts parallel some of the controversial issues in technological education today, even though Diderot is not very well known. The first issue concerns whether one places an emphasis on a disciplinary, systematic body of knowledge or on pedagogical learning processes, such as problem-solving. The second issue concerns the importance of social context and the relationship between social context and knowledge.

Diderot's emphasis was on conceptualizing and transferring knowledge of the mechanical arts as a disciplinary, systematic body of knowledge. He worked enthusiastically to ensure that artisans' knowledge was analyzed, organized, written down, and represented in graphic form, as carried out in his Encyclopédie . He was also interested in process, but more in the sense of improving technical processes than in the pedagogical sense of teaching the mechanical arts or a trade. Diderot did address some educational issues directly, for example, in his Plan for a University for the Government of Russia , but the focus there was on higher education. His articles "ART" and "ENCYCLOPEDIE" addressed pedagogy only in an indirect manner because his main concern there was the philosophy, structure, and dissemination through texts of the liberal and mechanical arts. It is probably Diderot's lack of emphasis on pedagogical issues that best explains his low profile in the history of educational thought.

Diderot was also not particularly interested in the social context in which apprentices learned technical knowledge, that is, the shops in which artisans constructed and transferred knowledge to others. But he did recognize that book-learning was insufficient for industrial practice and claimed that technical knowledge had to be acquired in the shops. To gather this knowledge, he claimed that he and others would literally have to spend time in the shops, procure machines, and take them apart to analyze their inner workings:

But it seems to me from experience that an Artist can more easily do without intellectual Geometry, than a man, whoever he is, can do without a certain experimental Geometry. All the subject of friction has remained, despite calculations, a matter of experimental and skilled shop Mathematics. Nevertheless, just how limited has such isolated knowledge been in its consequences? Consider how many bad machines are proposed to us everyday by people who have imagined that levers, wheels, pulleys, cables function in a machine like on paper; & who, due to lack of actual practice, have never known the difference between the effects of the machine itself, or its shape? ( ART, in Diderot & d'Alembert, 1751-1772, Vol. 1, p. 716 )

Thus Diderot did grasp some of the limitations of book-learning without experience, and he was probably as adept at articulating the problem as anyone else of his time. It would be unfair to fault him for not having done more actual experimentation in the mechanical arts, given the enormity of his task as writer and editor. But there is little evidence that he actually spent much time in the shops. To further complicate his task as editor of the Encyclopédie , there was only a very small pool of scientists and other intellectuals who were inclined to go into the shops and learn the mechanical arts as he proposed. His own form of analysis of the mechanical arts neglected social context. His primary interest in shops was as a means to his ends-describing technical knowledge and promoting technical progress.

Unlike Diderot, Rousseau had little interest in the improvement of technical processes or discourse outside the social context of practice, especially the small family shop. The main point in exposing Emile to the mechanical arts in the family shop context was to counteract the social prejudices that Emile, a nobleman, had already acquired regarding artisans, peasants, or others of similar social status. Emile's tutor also hoped that Emile would become a skilled craftsman-not in order to write a more complete technical discourse, but to become more independent and gain respect for a living earned through meaningful production instead of a life of leisure.

Rousseau is better known than Diderot to industrial education teachers, probably because Rousseau's pedagogical ideas have become so well established in the history of education, and consequently in traditional histories of American industrial and technological education. In contrast, Diderot is better known among historians of technology, largely because of his emphasis on representing the structure and content of the mechanical arts in the Encyclopédie .

Since the history of technology is a more recent subdiscipline of history than the history of education, its influence on teachers of technology is less pronounced. But its influence is now growing, as is evident in the proliferation of courses in "Technology and Society" and the "History of Technology." The plates of Diderot's Encyclopédie have had a very wide dissemination and are still commonly used to illustrate eighteenth-century crafts and industry, though often without proper citation. Thus the Encyclopédie remains an especially influential part of Diderot's work among historians of technology, even though most of the textual material of the Encyclopédie on the mechanical arts has never been translated.

Writers such as Diderot and Rousseau were not developing comprehensive curricula for schools in a democratic society. Such a social context was not yet even on the horizon. They were interested in social change and focused on their particular interests. But in the process, they influenced the way the modern world looks at things such as, in Diderot's case, the structure and analysis of industry, and in Rousseau's case, pedagogy and human development.

The expanding scope of technological education calls for a reassessment of its historical roots. Diderot's work is important because of the pervasiveness of curricula in technological education that emphasize technology as systematic, disciplinary bodies of knowledge. Yet, Rousseau should not be neglected because his influence is still strong in pedagogical approaches that emphasize human development, as well as the growing interest in problem-solving, the processes of learning, and the relationship of knowledge to context. Elements of the differences between Diderot and Rousseau are still part of the mix in contemporary technological education and will continue to be a part of future patterns in curriculum and instruction.


Pannabecker is Professor, Technology Department, McPherson College, McPherson, Kansas.


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Reference Citation: Pannabecker, J. R. (1996). Diderot, Rousseau, and the mechanical arts: Disciplines, systems, and social context. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 33 (4), 6-22.