The Philosophical Instrument – Illness and Truth

Posted: June 8, 2017 in Uncategorized

DIDEROT: It’s possible I have prompted this objection. But perhaps you’d not have made it if you’d considered the difference between the philosophical instrument and the instrumental keyboard. The philosophical instrument is sentient — it is at the same time the musician and the instrument. As something sentient it has the momentary consciousness of the sound it is making; as an animal, it has the memory of that. This organic faculty, by linking the sounds in itself, produces and keeps the melody there. Suppose there is a keyboard with sense and a memory. Tell me if it won’t know and repeat on its own the melodies which you have executed on its keys. We are instruments endowed with sensibility and memory. Our senses are so many keys which are struck by nature surrounding us and which often strike themselves. And there we have, in my judgment, everything which goes on in an organic keyboard like you and me. There’s an impression that has its cause either inside or outside the instrument, a sensation which is born from this impression, a sensation which lasts, for it is impossible to imagine that it is made and extinguishes itself in an indivisible instant, another impression which follows this one, and which similarly has its cause either inside or outside the animal, a second sensation and voices which designate them by natural or conventional sounds.

D’ALEMBERT: I see. And so if this sentient and vital keyboard was now endowed with the faculty of feeding and reproducing itself, it would live and give birth to little keyboards, living and resonating, either on its own or with its female partner.


Francois Couperin
“Drifting Clouds”
“The Visionary”
“The Mystic”
“The Convalescent”


Philippe de Champaigne
Christ The Only Doctor of Body and Soul (1662)
64″ in × 92″
Musée du Louvre, Paris


Rembrandt van Rijn
The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
85” × 67”
Mauritshuis, The Hague

DIDEROT: . . . There can come a moment of delirium when the sensitive keyboard thought it was the only keyboard in the world and that all harmony in the universe was coming from it all by itself.

  1. branden frieden says:

    This seems like a strange way to interpret the human body by today’s standards, but I see how a mechanistic society like the one they were living in could lead them to view the body as no more than a keyboard with sense and memory. It reminds me of Descartes explanation of the body of it being totally mechanical.

  2. Jordan Franchina says:

    Would they have considered changes in the body, or modifications that survived through generations (like disease or body type) as upgrades to this mechanistic view of the body? They didn’t have Darwin’s writings at the time, but would it just be a newer model? Or would they view it as the keyboard breaking down?

    • There were many complex debates over this and a host of related issues in Diderot’s day. He mentions a number of them in his essay. His own positions seems to be a rather early version of ‘transformism’, the sort of thing we later see in Lamarke. While this is not exactly Darwinian evolution, it certainly seems to be a forerunner of it. Modern scholars continue to argue over the extent to which key figures from the pre-history of Darwinism lead to the British naturalists idea. We probably won’t have time to discuss these modern debates, but I’ll try to make them available to interested students anyway.

  3. Grace Heaps says:

    It’s eerie how similar the painting of the anatomy demonstration and the video of the bowed piano ensemble seemed. It is interesting too to think, like Diderot suggests, that our “melodies” are composed of the way nature plays our strings. No person can develop on his or her own – we are surrounded by influences in our environment and interactions with others that shape the people we become.

    • I’m glad my analogy was not lost on you. It’s eery to witness the way playing the instrument appears to take the form of a surgical and forensic procedure, with a ghostly voice arising out of the open body.

  4. Anurag Tripathy says:

    While reading this, I was reminded to the social-cognitive perspective of personality development and the notion of reciprocal determinism which stated that the human personality and identity develop from the reciprocal interactions between thoughts/emotions and the surrounding environment in a continuous fashion.

    • To an extent this is true. Rousseau of course argues for the importance of reciprocal relations between parents and children, and students and tutors. Still, there is a great difference between sympathy and dialectic, which is something we’ll see Hegel. I think the difference comes down to need for mediation, and the vehicle through which mediation takes place.

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