"A Word Newly Introduced into Language": The Appearance and Spread of "Social" in French Enlightened Thought, 1745-1765

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In the early 1760s, the entry dedicated to the term "social" in Diderot's Encyclopédie claimed that it was "un mot nouvellement introduit dans la langue." Strictly speaking, this description was inaccurate: "social" had already appeared (though very sporadically) in seventeenth-century French texts. But the essence of the Encyclopédie's argument was correct: "social" had been so marginal in French up until the mid-eighteenth century that its wide deployment in enlightened discourse from the 1740s onward could be treated as a new appearance. The article main argument is that "social's" new appearance in the mid-1740s was of considerable intellectual importance. To support this argument, the article is divided into three parts. The first outlines the general premises of the research into the word "social" and its significance. By placing this research within the ongoing investigation of the semantic field around "société" in enlightened philosophy, the article claims that such an investigation is much more than an etymological exercise. The special epistemological status of "social" in enlightened philosophy makes an understanding of the reasons for its rapid domination of French philosophical discourse a most rewarding project from the perspective of intellectual history. The second part of the article provides empirical evidence for the argument that "social" had been all but completely absent from French intellectual discourse before the mid-eighteenth century. It is of course harder to ascertain the absence of a word before a given point in time than to confirm its presence, but many different indications substantiate the essence of the Encyclopédie's claim. These indications also allow one to follow "social's" discursive rise after about 1745 and to speculate about the identity of the author(s) responsible for it. All evidence lead to two philosophes, the article claims: Diderot and Rousseau. Finally, the third part of the article presents an argument about the reasons for "social's" rapid naturalization in French enlightened thought and discusses what the philosophes tried so intensively to do, achieve, or express with "social." Possible answers to this question lead to a reevaluation of mid-eighteenth century enlightened thought in general and contemporary philosophes in particular. Most importantly, such answers allow us to reflect on how we write and think about the intellectual achievements of the mid-eighteenth century, and in what way we, too, still inhabit the mental universe the philosophes helped to create.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)500-513
Number of pages14
JournalHistory of European Ideas
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2008
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Philosophy


  • Diderot
  • Encyclopedia
  • Enlightenment
  • Rousseau
  • Social
  • Society


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