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  • Beyond the Particular and the Universal: D’Alembert’s “Discours préliminaire” to the Encyclopédie
  • Claudia Moscovici (bio)

In academic circles, the debate between universalists and relativists seems to be as lively today as it was during the Enlightenment, when Denis Diderot and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert disagreed about the nature of truth. Although we may be relying upon Enlightenment philosophy to conduct our own current debates about knowledge, the terms of discussion have become more polarized today than they were during the Enlightenment. This essay argues that an important element, namely the middle ground between universalism and relativism, has been left out of contemporary reformulations of Enlightenment thought. Both relativist and universalist theories adopt what I call a “single dialectical” epistemology. 1 According to this paradigm, true knowledge represents the elimination (or negation) of every source of error, social bias, or personal perspective. By contrast, I hope to demonstrate that Enlightenment thought and, particularly, d’Alembert’s “Discours préliminaire” elaborate a more nuanced, “double dialectical” theory of knowledge. 2 As I will explain, a double dialectical process combines the quest for truth with an awareness of human differences and limitations. Let me indicate briefly how contemporary criticism has reduced Enlightenment epistemology to a single dialectical relation between truth and error and, consequently, why we need to reconsider Enlightenment epistemology.

On one hand, objectivist theories claim that the producers of knowledge have the cognitive ability to describe the universe as it really is rather than from a personal or anthropocentric perspective. Objectivist epistemologies thus imply that the producers [End Page 383] of knowledge are (or could become) unbiased in their quest for truth. Such theories also assume that rational individuals share a transhistorical, permanent set of standards which enables them to convey knowledge. Objectivist epistemologies are consequently also universalist because they posit one true way of perceiving the world.

Jürgen Habermas’s theory of communicative action represents one of the most noteworthy scholarly efforts to defend the universalist legacy of the Enlightenment. To establish the validity of empirical and rational knowldedge, Habermas observes a single dialectical process. In The Theory of Communicative Action, Habermas maintains that “a judgment can be objective if it is undertaken on the basis of a transsubjective validity claim that has the same meaning for observers and nonparticipants as it has for the acting subject himself” (emphasis added). 3 I call Habermas’s definition of truth “single dialectical” because the critic represents knowledge as the result of a process of selective negation and incorporation. To reach a transsubjective consensus about the content of truth and the process of acquiring knowledge, a person or community must eliminate all sources of error—such as personal bias, emotional investment, and selfish interests—while concurrently incorporating those methods or facts which have stood the test of time.

Universalist scholarship such as that of Habermas not only seeks to preserve the universalist legacy of the Enlightenment, but also reacts against the perceived threat posed by contemporary scholarly movements that attempt to refute universalism and to retrieve the particularist tendencies of Enlightenment thought. 4 Influential critics such as Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard attribute the notions of truth and falsehood to relations of power rather than to objective standards of validity. Relativist theories assert that there are practically an infinite number of acceptable ways of acquiring knowledge. Although some forms of knowledge may gain more cultural value than others, no knowledge is demonstrably superior to others.

Foucault has been one of the most thorough critics of universalist Enlightenment epistemology and its contemporary legacy. Nonetheless, I would argue that his theory of knowledge also relies upon a single dialectical model. Like Habermas, Foucault defines truth as the negation of human bias and error. In his famous chapter “Man and His doubles” in The Order of Things, Foucault comments upon the apparent paradox of the human condition. 5 On one hand, he states that humans aspire to objective knowledge. On the other hand, he adds that we remain trapped in a human body and mind that reduce our quest for absolute truth to a limited and fragile knowledge: “Man, in the analytic of finitude, is a strange empirico...

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