• April 17, 2014

Key Letter by Descartes, Lost for 170 Years, Turns Up at Haverford

Descartes excerpt1

Haverford College

In the 1641 letter, Descartes explains to his friend Marin Mersenne that he had cut three parts out of his new book, "Meditations on First Philosophy."

A long-lost letter by René Descartes has come to light at Haverford College, where it had lain buried in the archives for more than a century, and the discovery could revolutionize our view of one of the 17th-century French philosopher's major works.

The find, made last month by a Dutch researcher, Erik-Jan Bos of Utrecht University, prompted Mr. Bos to quote another great thinker.

"Eureka," he said he yelled on opening a digital image of the letter that Haverford had scanned from its special collections and e-mailed to him. At the time, nobody knew how important the letter was. In fact, few knew of its existence.

But for Haverford, the discovery was a two-edged sword. The letter, Mr. Bos said, was stolen property.

The president of the Pennsylvania college, Stephen G. Emerson, said this week that when he found out the letter had been stolen—from Paris's Institut de France about 170 years ago—he knew it must be returned. So in June, Mr. Emerson will fly to France with the letter in his carry-on bag, and give it back.

Descartes wrote the letter in 1641 to his friend Marin Mersenne about his major work published that year, Meditations on First Philosophy. According to Mr. Bos, who has done extensive research on Descartes's correspondence, the letter provides an abundance of new information about how the thinker completed his book.

Most important, Mr. Bos said, the letter shows how Descartes drastically changed the book's outline, cutting out three parts entirely. Before the letter was written, Mr. Bos said, "Descartes had a very different idea about how this book should appear."

"When I started reading it, I fell from one surprise to another," Mr. Bos said.

A 19th-Century Thief

After Mersenne died, a collection of letters written to him by Descartes passed to Gilles Personne de Roberval, who donated them to the Académie des Sciences, which became part of the Institut de France.

But from 1837 to 1847, Guglielmo Libri, a mathematician who worked as inspector general of the libraries of France, stole 72 of the 75 Descartes letters there. Before he could be punished for that theft and others, he fled to England, where he sold the Descartes letters to collectors and booksellers.

Eventually, the 1641 letter came into the possession of Charles Roberts, an 1864 Haverford graduate. His widow donated it to the college in 1902 as part of a collection of about 12,000 autograph letters.

"We certainly knew we had a letter by Descartes. What we did not know was that it was an unknown letter," said John F. Anderies, head of special collections at Haverford. "We did not know that it was a stolen letter."

Last fall, Haverford published the names of the authors of the 12,000 letters online, and that's how Mr. Bos learned that Haverford had the letter. Even at Haverford, the letter was not completely ignored. In 1979 a student wrote a paper about the letter's contents and rightfully noted that it was an unknown document. However, Mr. Anderies said he suspected there was not a Descartes scholar on the faculty at the time to recognize how important the letter really was.

The complete text of the letter, Mr. Bos said, will be published this year in the Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, a German journal with a long history of publishing newly discovered letters by Descartes.

Mr. Emerson said the chancellor of the Institut de France was grateful to hear of the Descartes letter's rediscovery and promised return. To show that gratitude, the institute is awarding Haverford a 15,000-euro prize (about $20,000), which Mr. Emerson said would be used to support student and faculty work in France.

"We'll have new relations with the Institut de France, and we'll promote francophone studies at the college," he said. "You can't beat that."


1. 22228715 - February 25, 2010 at 02:11 pm

Wow! Goosebumps!

2. steve1us - February 25, 2010 at 03:55 pm

It is found, therefore it is!

3. azfaculty - February 25, 2010 at 04:14 pm

To be fair, the name of the student who wrote a paper on the letter in 1979 and noted that it was unknown, should be indicated in this story. That is the person who found the letter, although Haverford didn't have a professor on staff to point this bright student further along.

4. 11272784 - February 25, 2010 at 04:24 pm

This is a great example of something of interest to those in the discipline - but otherwise, a tree falling in the forest with no one listening.

5. frankschmidt - February 25, 2010 at 04:30 pm

How appropriate for a Quaker school to repatriate the letter, no questions asked. How many other institutions would have fought this out in court?

6. cicuta - February 25, 2010 at 04:30 pm


7. drhypersonic - February 25, 2010 at 04:34 pm

In this work, we see his first iteration was 'I am, I think."

8. cicuta - February 25, 2010 at 04:36 pm

To: 11272784
Societies that allow "tree falling in the forest with no one listening" will, in the long run, end up with vast deserts.
To: azfaculty
Very good point. The student's discovery, although 30 years ago, should not remain in obscurity or unrewarded. I would certainly hope that future publications on the subject will cite his/her name.
To: steve1us
Very, very witty!

9. v8573254 - February 25, 2010 at 06:28 pm

#4, Descartes affects everything those of us in Academe do.

I do agree the student deserves citation.

10. janderie - February 25, 2010 at 09:40 pm

The student is named in the College's own announcement: http://www.haverford.edu/news/stories/35971/141

11. dhauptmann - February 26, 2010 at 05:21 am

This is fantastic news... could anyone point me to the website mentioned in the article whereby Haverford published that online list of 12,000 authors?

12. mbcopeland - February 26, 2010 at 09:54 am

The list can be found at:

13. tannwalton - February 26, 2010 at 10:17 am

#4 11272784
I wonder which 'discipline' you mean? History (and the lesson of the importance of historical evidence), philosophy (and the important information that comes from such a 'behind the scenes' look at Descartes process), science (and the evidence of Descartes' influence on the development of the scientific method)? I teach sport history and we read part of Descartes second meditation this semester in our discussion on human ontology. I'm going to share this with them and talk about all of the ramifications not just of the find but of the loss in the first place.

14. jbarman - February 26, 2010 at 10:42 am

Part of the excitement here results from the thrill of the discovery. In 1984, I stayed in a B+B in Wales where, just a few years earlier, someone had discovered a minor, lost piece by Beethoven.

I obviously had nothing to do with the discovery, but I experienced a vicarious shiver nonetheless.

15. sblacklaw - February 26, 2010 at 01:30 pm

Just imagine ... in 2180 someone will discover an original Tweet from a leading philosopher of today.

16. massvision - February 26, 2010 at 09:27 pm

<Comment removed by moderator>

17. drmoby - March 01, 2010 at 09:19 am

Way to go, Haverford! This is a success story on so many fronts: fine work by a liberal arts undergrad, integritous treatment of primary sources, digitization of library resources for the international community. Their reward is richly deserved, and let's hope more schools big and small can be so creative and responsible with their resources.

18. jherrera7 - March 01, 2010 at 07:02 pm

Haverford Rocks! How refreshing to find a valued academic source and then have the finder (Haverford) return the source to its rightful owner. The American and the international academic communities applaud you!

Add Your Comment

Commenting is closed.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.