Edition of the Correspondence

Description and aim of the edition

Descartes’ correspondence is still a treasure trove containing many secrets of enormous importance to European intellectual history. As Daniel Garber observed in his article ‘A different Descartes’, the correspondence may well count as an unknown publication in itself (Garber, 2000). Playing a role comparable to journal articles today, Descartes’ letters represent a major part of his output.

About 800 letters survive in one form or another: as autograph manuscript (some 270), as contemporary copy, as contemporary printed text, or as quotations and abstracts in seventeenth-century sources. The letters, written in Latin, French and a few in Dutch, are occasionally dated; the addressee is often unknown; references to contemporary events and persons are sometimes clear, yet many questions remain to be answered: about chronology, the quality and reliability of the text, about historical circumstances, and about the scientific and philosophical context. At the same time, these letters are not only essential for Descartes’ philosophy, but also for understanding his contemporaries, and the development of early-modern philosophy and science. Once properly edited and adequately annotated, the letters allow us to follow the evolution of Descartes’ ideas as well as the genesis of his treatises, and make it possible to situate the latter in a wider intellectual and historical context.

The modern standard edition of Descartes’ works and correspondence was prepared by Charles Adam (1857–1940) and Paul Tannery (1843–1904), and published between 1897 and 1910 in 11 volumes (referred to as AT). Adam and Tannery managed to retrieve a lot of unknown material, publishing almost 600 letters. Their edition, however, is far from complete and has lots of defects, especially since a 1960s reedition of the series has made it into a labyrinth of texts and notes that is a nightmare even for specialists. Anyone who does not feel comfortable with French and Latin, moreover, will be positively discouraged from using AT. Currently, there is only a one-volume selection of the letters in English, most of them partially translated. Still, the English anthology has given students of Descartes all over the world a tool that proves to be extremely useful, despite its limited range of passages from the letters. The volume has stimulated a renewed interest in Descartes’ correspondence, and its very success is an indication of how welcome a complete translation of the correspondence would be. Recent translations of the complete correspondence in Italian, French, Romanian and Japanese, moreover, indicate that there is a worldwide desire to read all of Descartes’ letters. None of these editions, however, goes much beyond the AT edition.

The new critical edition and complete English translation of all of Descartes’ letters is being prepared by Erik-Jan Bos, Theo Verbeek (Utrecht University), and Roger Ariew (University of South Florida). The primary editorial work and coordination of the project is done by Bos. Biographical and historical information is collected and processed by Verbeek. Ariew prepares the English translations and reviews the annotation. Han van Ruler will to replace Verbeek as editor once volume has appeared.

For the annotation, the editors have assured themselves of the collaboration of prof. Carla Rita Palmerino (who specializes in early modern physics, Radboud University Nijmegen), dr. Delphine Bellis (who specializes in Descartes’ optics, University of Montpellier III), dr. Sébastien Maronne (a specialist in the history of mathematics, University of Toulouse III), and dr. Rudolf Rasch (a specialist in musicology, Utrecht University).

Oxford University Press (OUP) have accepted the edition for publication after receiving very positive review reports. These reports referred to the “extremely high standard” of the editorial work and to the fact that this edition “takes the scholarship to a new level.” Preparation of the Oxford edition will enormously contribute to the potential of the interpretative parts of Decoding Descartes by offering relevant pre-publication data and allowing for discussion and debate on interpretations of detail among the members of the research team.