Figurative system of human knowledge

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Classification chart with the original "figurative system of human knowledge" tree, in French

The "figurative system of human knowledge" (French: Système figuré des connaissances humaines), sometimes known as the tree of Diderot and d'Alembert, was a tree developed to represent the structure of knowledge itself, produced for the Encyclopédie by Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Denis Diderot.

The tree was a taxonomy of human knowledge, inspired by Francis Bacon's The Advancement of Learning. The three main branches of knowledge in the tree are: "Memory"/History, "Reason"/Philosophy, and "Imagination"/Poetry.

Notable is the fact that theology is ordered under 'Philosophy'. The historian Robert Darnton has argued that this categorization of religion as being subject to human reason, and not a source of knowledge in and of itself (revelation), was a significant factor in the controversy surrounding the work.[1] 'Knowledge of God' is only a few nodes away from 'Divination' and 'Black Magic'.

The original version, in French, can be seen in the graphic on the right. An image of the diagram with English translations superimposed over the French text is available. Another example of English translation of the tree is available in literature (see the reference by Schwab). Below is a version of it rendered in English as a bulleted outline.

The Tree of Diderot and d'Alembert[edit]

"Detailed System of Human Knowledge" from the Encyclopédie.

  • Deviations of Nature.
  • Work and Uses of Precious Stones.
  • Work and Uses of Iron.
  • Work and Uses of Skin.
  • Work and Uses of Silk.
  • Spinning.
  • Milling.
  • Needlecraft.
  • Velvet.
  • Brocaded Fabrics, etc.
  • Work and Uses of Wool.
  • Cloth-Making.
  • Bonnet-Making, etc.
  • Working and Uses, etc.
  • Science of Man.
  • Reasonable.
  • Sensible.
  • Demonstration.
  • Art of Remembering.
  • Prenotion.
  • Emblem.
  • Supplement to Memory.
  • Characters.
  • General Science of Good and Evil, of duties in general, of Virtue, of the necessity of being Virtuous, etc.
  • Metaphysics of Bodies or, General Physics, of Extent, of Impenetrability, of Movement, of Word, etc.
  • Mathematics.
  • Elementary (Military Architecture, Tactics).
  • Transcendental (Theory of Courses).
  • Mixed.
  • Physicomathematics.
  • Particular Physics.
  • Hygiene.
  • Hygiene, properly said.
  • Cosmetics (Orthopedics).
  • Athletics (Gymnastics).
  • Pathology.
  • Semiotics.
  • Treatment.
  • Judiciary Astrology.
  • Physical Astrology.
  • Imagination.
  • Sacred, Profane.
  • Narrative.
  • Parable

(Note: This next branch seems to belong to both the narrative and dramatic tree, as indicated by the line drawn connecting the two.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robert Darnton, "Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge: The Epistemological Strategy of the Encyclopedie," The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1984), 191-213.

Further reading[edit]

  • Robert Darnton, "Epistemological angst: From encyclopedism to advertising," in Tore Frängsmyr, ed., The structure of knowledge: classifications of science and learning since the Renaissance (Berkeley, CA: Office for the History of Science and Technology, University of California, Berkeley, 2001).
  • Adams, David (2006) 'The Système figuré des Connaissances humaines and the structure of Knowledge in the Encyclopédie', in Ordering the World, ed. Diana Donald and Frank O'Gorman, London: Macmillan, p. 190-215.
  • Preliminary discourse to the Encyclopedia of Diderot, Jean Le Rond d'Alembert, translated by Richard N. Schwab, 1995. ISBN 0-226-13476-8

External links[edit]