String Theory

Denis Diderot’s Philosophy of Sound and Everything

Authored by: Veit Erlmann

The Routledge Companion to Sounding Art

Print publication date:  August  2016
Online publication date:  July  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138780613
eBook ISBN: 9781315770567
Adobe ISBN: 9781317672777


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“I have sometimes been led to compare the fibers that make up our sense organs with sensitive, vibrating strings.” So wrote Denis Diderot in 1766 (Diderot 2001: 100). The philosophe may be soft-pedaling here. The truth is, strings were one of Diderot’s obsessions, haunting him throughout his life. As early as 1748 he had flung himself into the study of strings, producing two larger essays that are centrally concerned with the mechanics and acoustics of strings: the Principes généraux d’acoustique and the Examen d’un principe de mécanique sur la tension des cordes, both part of his Mémoires sur différents sujets de mathématiques, published in 1748. Numerous shorter texts on the more technical uses of strings in crafts as diverse as weaving, goldsmithing, bookbinding, gardening, or watchmaking soon followed, before the metaphysics of strings stages a spectacular return in four of Diderot’s most powerful and best known works: the three dialogues with (or about) d’Alembert—from which my opening quote is taken—and the unfinished Elements de physiologie that he had worked on for more than a decade until his death. Without a doubt, Diderot was not only a “high-strung” thinker, as it were, he is also the modern era’s first cordologist, the first string theorist who invoked strings as the basis for a theory of everything.

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