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Imagining an Entirety

Takumi Taguchi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Philosophy, literature, history of scientific thought

Encountering Denis Diderot

Is it possible to be aware of all things at once? If it is, how do you do it? Since I was a certain age, I've been obsessed with these seemingly unanswerable questions.

If you ask people these questions, the reactions vary. Some people may think that there's no sense in asking questions that you know are impossible to answer. I think that this is actually a very logical response.

However, if you've ever been fascinated with the extreme complexity of a single object, I imagine you've also contemplated deeply about the near dream-like questions I raised in the beginning, at least once.

The definitive moment for me in my continual pursuit of these questions was when I first encountered the 18th-century French philosopher, Denis Diderot (1713-1784).

The Manifesto of Empirical Science and Inductive Reasoning

Denis Diderot, Pensees sur l'interpretation de la nature (1754)
The original French copy (first edition)
(National Library of France)

Denis Diderot was introduced in my high school World History textbook as a philosopher who was behind the work of the Encyclopedists. He also published many papers on natural science. What commonly gets mentioned when discussing his work is his seminal work On the Interpretation of Nature (1754), which he wrote when he was 41 years old. In the field of scientific history, this work is considered a manifesto of the scientific revolution.

I'd like to explain what kind of revolution I'm talking about when I refer to the scientific revolution. Simply stated, it is the revolution from geometry to empirical science, and from deductive reasoning to inductive reasoning.

Scholarly pursuits in Europe from the 17th to the 18th century began making a major shift from geometry, which attempts to explain natural systems based on deductive reasoning, to empirical science, which attempts to induce the laws of nature based on experiments and observation.

As it is commonly known, deductive reasoning is a method that starts with assumed premises, and attempts to draw a single conclusion. Syllogisms are examples of this, which state that if A is equal to B and B is equal to C, then A is equal to C. In contrast to this, inductive reasoning collects individual truths and attempts to draw a general law from the findings. This method involves steadily and repeatedly conducting experiments and observing the results properly, which leads one to expect that eventually people can become aware of all truths in their entirety.

According to scientific history, Denis Diderot's On the Interpretation of Nature was ahead of this modern scientific approach based on experimentation, observation and inductive reasoning.

The Period of the Emergence of Modern Science

Of course, there is a reasonable amount of historical context to the explanation offered by scientific history as outlined above. In Europe during this era, the advent of the telescope allowed people to observe celestial bodies that are far from Earth, while the microscope allowed people to observe the activities of microscopic organisms.

These technological advances led to a series of new discoveries that could not be explained in the conventional framework based on deductive reasoning. For example, in On the Interpretation of Nature, Diderot enthusiastically reports on some of the latest scientific discoveries that shocked the world of science at that time, such as the parthenogenesis of aphids, the regeneration of polyps, the formation of teratoma and the relationship between auroras and geomagnetism.

In this sense, it would not be far-fetched to say that Diderot's seminal work was a profound declaration that paved the path toward modern empirical science.

However, there's more.

What I noticed while reading On the Interpretation of Nature is the presentation of variegated scholarly methodologies that cannot be constrained to a simple slogan advocating empirical science and inductive reasoning.

Unfortunately, there is not enough space here to get into the details. Here, I'd like to focus on one point.

Intuiting the Whole from the 0.1%

What I want to shine a light on more than anything else is Diderot's approach in focusing on irregular truths and objects. Diderot rarely showed interest in phenomena that were established with 99.9% certainty. He had an extraordinary interest in the 0.1%, which, from the perspective of the 99.9%, is considered to comprise exceptions and deviations.

This is why he had such a deep interest in polyps, which cannot be classified as either plant or animal; aphids, which can reproduce without an encounter between a male and a female; and deformities not found in healthy bodies that nevertheless participate actively in life.

People who consider the natural laws derived from inductive reasoning to be the unwavering measurement of truth brush aside the unclassifiable, the unpredictable and the unmeasurable as noise or bugs. However, Diderot saw what appeared to be noise or bugs as potential for new discoveries that would shake the established system. I think that the reason why this book that he wrote over 250 years ago still feels fresh every time I read it is because of this unique approach.

I like to separate Diderot's approach from both deduction and induction, and call it abduction. Abduction refers to the following method of reasoning: If we are to take the current results that have been derived as clues in our thinking, we should consider them as microcosms of some kind of larger mechanism.

You may be familiar with this fact if you are knowledgeable in the history of ideas, but the term itself was first coined by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). However, I have a unique interpretation of this concept as a method of taking exceptional and extreme phenomena, and seeking traces of the entirety within it that cannot be captured with established natural laws.

Based on this thinking, the concepts we now view as natural laws or standards are in fact not at all self-evident. On the contrary, the 0.1% that we simply discard as exceptions or deviations may be the seam at which the stability of the current laws can come apart.

Detective and Literary Approaches

If you're perceptive, you may have noticed that what I have described so far is not limited to matters relating to natural science.

That's right. For example, the job of a detective is to observe whatever traces are left at the site of the incident, and from them, induce the entire picture of the incident. What's needed for this job is the sort of imagination that can find a consistent pattern in a few clues that are normally overlooked, and an intuition that can view the entirety of the causal relationship that has yielded the series of clues. What is tested in this kind of reasoning process is not the ability to apply the common practice of observing the 99.9%, but the sharp sensibility to discern the phenomenon of the 0.1%.

Others may find my explanations to have a literary component in a sense. In modern French literature, a common theme is the protagonist who takes a considerable departure from the common sense of the 99.9%, and creates a rich story out of it. Through these stories, we follow the lives of these peculiar people to whom we had difficulties relating in the beginning, and eventually understand the entirety of the complex details as to why they had no choice but to act as they did.

The thinking of the 0.1% escapes between the cracks of the simple classifications of natural laws and exceptions, standard patterns and deviations, the normal and the abnormal, and so on. What I learned from Diderot's work is that this is the kind of thinking that will allow us to truly renew our coagulated common sense. This unique method that Diderot introduced can provide many hints not only in any field of study, but also in any kind of human endeavor.

There is one last thing I would like to add.

The question of whether the pursuit of newness without ever being constrained by our common sense as described above will guide us in uncovering the entirety of all things is likely to always remain. Diderot himself persistently asked himself this question in On the Interpretation of Nature.

The wisdom of modern humankind will continue to be caught in this unresolvable dilemma.

Takumi Taguchi
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Philosophy, literature, history of scientific thought

Takumi Taguchi was born in Yokohama in 1973. He grew up in Lisbon, Portugal until the age of six. He graduated from the Faculty of Letters, University of Tokyo in 1996. He completed his doctoral course at the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology / Faculty of Letters, University of Tokyo in 2005. He is a Doctor of Literature (University of Tokyo). He was a full-time lecturer and an associate professor at Utsunomiya University before assuming his current post in 2019. The focus of his research is on the theoretical and historical analysis of the philosophy, literature and science of 18th-century European thinkers. He is currently studying how geological time, which goes far beyond the timescale of humans, impacts human existence on this planet. Major publications include Diderot Genkai no Shiko: Shosetsu ni Kansuru Shiron (Diderot and the Limits of Thinking: Essay on Literature) (Kazuma Shobo, 2009), Kaibutsuteki Shiko, Kindai Shiso no Tenpukusha Diderot (Diderot, the One who Developped Monsterous Thinking by which Modern Thinking was Overturned) (Kodansha, 2016), and Datsugenpatsu no Tetsugaku (The Philosophy of Abandoning Nuclear Power) (coauthored, Jimbun Shoin, 2016).

The author's work related to this piece:Kaibutsuteki Shiko, Kindai Shiso no Tenpukusha Diderot (Diderot, the One who Developped Monsterous Thinking by which Modern Thinking was Overturned)
The author's doctoral dissertation that became a starting point for his cross-sectional research of philosophy, science, and literature: Diderot Genkai no Shiko (Diderot and the Limits of Thinking)