Staging immensity: Subject and scene of sensation in the philosophical art of Denis Diderot

Ilze Daina Rameika, University of Pennsylvania


This study, in examining the development of the esthetic and ethical spaces of Denis Diderot's (1713-84) philosophical art among eighteenth-century materialist and sensationalist doctrines, addresses, in particular, the intuition of the founding scene of human understanding that unfolds in his writings during a period spanning the late 1750's through the early 1770's. During these years, which coincided with the completion of the editorial work on the Encyclopedie, Diderot produced his most important texts on the theater, wrote the greatest and most lengthy of his critical pieces for the Salons, began work on or completed major works such as The Nun, The Nephew of Rameau, D'Alembert's Dream, and The Paradox of the Comedian; and he began gathering notes for what would become The Elements of Physiology, first published nearly one hundred years after his death. The intent of this study is twofold: a reading of the major works of Diderot's middle years that seeks to further recent yet still limited speculation on the phenomenological implications of the Diderotian topos of subjectivity combines with a parallel interrogation which returns current readings of Diderot to the most ancient sources of his poetic genius. The singular force of Diderot's intuition and the characteristic topos of his materialist vision of the scene of human understanding that differentiates his notion of "general sensibility" from the dominant sensationalist theories of his time lies with the recognition of a paradoxical and resonating "order" governing the production of all knowledge and of representation in general, a profoundly sensuous order which engages the constitutive matter of subjectivity and sensation in an active, extravagantly performative manner refusing all ideas of transcendence and resistant to any reduction of subjects to mere passivity. Diderot's philosophical art invites the reader to enter a vast theater of contagious energies where knowledge, truth, and beauty can come into being only as rhythmic occurrences, sensible events demanding interaction with and exposure to another body imagined as radical alterity and opening upon an "immensity of possibles."

Subject Area

Architecture|Philosophy|Romance literature

Recommended Citation

Rameika, Ilze Daina, "Staging immensity: Subject and scene of sensation in the philosophical art of Denis Diderot" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9800917.