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

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."
February 25, 2010

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."