He studied in Paris where he became acquainted with Rousseau and translated the works of Locke and Shaftesbury. In 1750, he became editor of the Encyclopedie, to which he contributed several articles on aesthetics, ethics, social theory and the philosophy of history.
The essay Lettre sur les aveugles (1749) advocated a materialist interpretation of nature and examined the influence of the sensese on the acquisition of ideas. Its atheistic overtones led to Diderot’s imprisonment for five months.
His main philosophical works include Le Rêve d’Alembert (1730) and Pensées sur l’interprétation de la nature (1754), in which he emphasizes the complementary roles of observation and reflection in empirical inquiry. Experimental science is possible beacause a single causal principle is neither unitary nor uniform, but composed of essentially different “elements” divisible into molecules.
Diderot’s views foreshadowed later theories in suggesting that all species of living beings pass through stages of development and that the formation of moral values is traceable to childhood influences.