The predicament of Monsieur Diderot

In his famous essay “Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown” (1789) French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote about a new dressing gown he received as a gift and how this apparently minor change in his daily life unexpectedly triggered a chain reaction in the perception of things surrounding him. The replacement of the old dressing gown, that once perfectly fit with his other belongings, with the new one made everything else look out of place to such an extent that he had to replace several items in his house. The so-called “Diderot effect” – at the basis of all marketing strategies – had demolished the “certainty of the objects” which had been solid until that moment, uncovering all the emotional vulnerabilities on which consumerism relies, inducing us to buy what we do not really need. The paradox of Diderot’s dressing gown tells us not only about the perception of objects, but also about the symbolic value we give them, tying it to a personal mythology, to the ambition for greater status, to one’s own identity and to social climbing, “as if what we own allowed us to be what we want to be, like in a game of predicaments” (Eric Fromm).