The Sentient Harpsichord
Compare a harpsichord and a philosopher, Denis Diderot urged a fictional d’Alembert in his Entretien entre d’Alembert et Diderot (1769). The harpsichord’s keys are analogous to the philosopher’s senses, its strings comparable to the nerve fibers of the body, which likewise oscillate and set one another resonating so as to enable feeling and thought. In sum, the philosopher is but a harpsichord endowed with sensibility and memory – a sentient instrument, or as Diderot also put it, both musician and harpsichord at once. Taking the parallels further, Diderot imagined granting the sentient harpsichord capacities to feed and reproduce itself, so that it might birth “little harpsichords, living and resonating.”
Though fairly well known, Diderot’s image of a sentient harpsichord has largely been read as a whimsical product of his “cheerful materialism” – a naïve philosophical outlook that was quickly to be snuffed out by anxieties about the displacement of humans by their mechanical simulations and Kantian ideas about brute matter antithetical to living force. The image is thus ripe for reconsideration, for Diderot’s speculations resonate strongly with current critical movements that take “things” seriously. Vital materialisms, object-oriented ontologies, alien phenomenologies: these movements advocate attending to things, recognizing their existential equivalence to humans, and granting them agential roles in our narratives. This talk puts Diderot’s writings in dialogue with such movements, with two ends in mind: to assess – through consideration of mottoes, iconography, lutherie and playing technique – what made the harpsichord an especially apt figure of human-instrument equivalence; and to use Diderot’s sentient harpsichord as a test case for the ethical and political claims of present-day efforts to vitalize matter.