The Correspondence of René Descartes

Primary Contributors:

ePistolarium, CKCC project, Huygens ING, The Hague

René Descartes, by Jan Lievens. 1644–49. Black chalk, 241 by 206mm. (Collection Groninger Museum, photograph Marten de Leeuw).

René Descartes (1596–1650)

The mathematician, scientist, and philosopher René Descartes was born in France but spent the majority of his working life in the Dutch Republic. He was educated at the Jesuit college in La Flèche and, after studying law at Poitiers, moved to Breda in 1618, where he met Isaac Beeckman, and enlisted in the army of Prince Maurice of Nassau. After further travels to Denmark and Germany, he returned to France in 1622 and from there travelled to Italy where he remained until 1625. For the following three years he lived in Paris, before settling once more in the Low Countries in 1629. All his publications, including the Discours de la méthode and Essais, the Meditationes, and the Principia philosophiae were written during this second period in the Dutch Republic. In 1649, at the invitation of Queen Christina, he moved to Sweden, where he died in February 1650.

Partners and Additional Contributors

The Circulation of Knowledge project [CKCC] was established in 2008 as a partnership between the Descartes Centre at the University of Utrecht, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek (National Library of the Netherlands), the Huygens Institute for the History of the Netherlands (Huygens ING), the Data Archiving and Networked Services (DANS), and the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The project began by digitizing the metadata and curating existing full-text transcriptions of c.20,000 letters to or from nine prominent intellectuals resident in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. In 2013, this material was published as open access in a sophisticated web application — the ePistolarium — which provides scholars with multiple means of exploring and analysing both metadata and full texts across all nine correspondences. As well as conducting full-text searches, mapping and graphing the metadata, and extracting people mentioned, the ePistolarium is capable of interrogating the entire corpus to analyse and visualize co-citation networks, and produces the results of keyword extraction and experimental topic-modelling.

CKCC’s 20,020 records represent the largest single dataset contributed to EMLO during the second phase of Cultures of Knowledge. The re-publication of these records within EMLO marks the inauguration in 2014 of the rolling incorporation of major new catalogues which will continue into 2015 and beyond. As well as integrating CKCC’s metadata into an expansive union catalogue, EMLO’s records link back to the original letter texts published within the ePistolarium.

The metadata and transcripts for René Descartes’s correspondence (Adam and Milhaud edition, see below) were supplied to CKCC by Utrecht University under the supervision of Erik-Jan Bos. EMLO would like to thank Walter Ravenek for his careful preparation of CKCC metadata, Miranda Lewis for her work on the people and place records associated with the correspondence, and Erik-Jan Bos for the text on this introductory page.

Key Bibliographic Source(s)

The metadata and texts for the transcriptions published in ePistolarium were prepared by Erik-Jan Bos and Dirk Roorda (DANS). They are based upon the exquisite work by professors Katsuzo Murakami (University of Tokyo), Meguru Sasaki (École normale supérieure d’Hokkaido), and Takehumi Tokoro (University of Chyuo), who had carefully converted the edition of Charles Adam and Gérard Milhaud, Correspondance de Descartes, 8 vols (Paris, 1936–1963), into a computer readable text in the 1990s. Details of the subsequent conversion by Bos and Roorda for CKCC can be found on GitHub.


The manuscripts of the letters recorded in EMLO, 727 in total, span the years 1619 to 1650, the year of Descartes’s death. The majority is written in French (85%) and Latin (14.5%), but a few letters are in Dutch as well. In his correspondence Descartes both raises topics he does not explore in print and discusses in greater details many of the theories that appear in his publications and his letters to Marin Mersenne (1588–1648), his most significant and regular correspondent outside the Dutch Republic, is particularly revealing. Other important correspondents include the Dutch statesman and poet Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618–1680), and the Utrecht professor of medicine Henricus Regius (1598–1679).

A link is provided from the metadata of each record in EMLO to the online transcription in the ePistolarium catalogue where, it should be noted, the Gregorian calendar is used throughout.

As the texts in the ePistolarium are based ultimately on the edition by Adam and Milhaud, the French orthography is modernized and letters discovered since 1963 are not included. The texts are without annotation of any kind.

Detail of the letter from Descartes to Joachim de Wicquefort, 2 October 1640 (Berlin, Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin  – Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Slg. Darmst. 2a 1637 (1), fos. 3-4. [signature on fo. 3r];
published in: Bos, E.-J., and C. Vermeulen, ‘An Unknown Letter of Descartes to Joachim de Wicquefort’, Studia Leibnitiana, 34 (2002), pp. 100–09).

Letter from Descartes to Jacobus Golius, 9 May 1635 (Leiden, University Library, HUG 29 A).


To date about 250 autograph letters of Descartes are extant. The most important collections of these autograph letters are at the Bibliothèque national de France (Paris), the library of the Institut de France (Paris), and Leiden University Library (Leiden). Apart from a small amount of contemporary manuscript copies, the greater part of the correspondence is known solely from the publications by Claude Clerselier (1614–1684) (Lettres de M. Descartes, 3 vols, Paris, 1657–1667) and Descartes’s biographer Adrien Baillet (1649–1706) (La vie de Monsieur Des-Cartes, 2 vols, Paris, 1691). The standard edition of the correspondence is Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Œuvres de Descartes, 12 vols, Paris, 1897–1913 (vol. 12 containing a biography by Adam, and supplements); the correspondence is in volumes 1–5 and 10. This was reprinted without the biography in 11 volumes (Paris, 1964–1974), with additional notes and new material by P. Costabel and B. Rochot; a paperback reprint of this so-called new edition was published in 1996. Confronted with the rediscovery of the almost complete correspondence between Descartes and Constantijn Huygens (1596–1687), edited by Leon Roth (1926), Adam revised extensively the dates of many other letters (1933). His conclusions found their way into a new edition of the correspondence in eight volumes, which he undertook together with Gérard Milhaud. The Adam-Milhaud edition offers French translations of the Latin texts, no critical apparatus, hardly any annotation, and the orthography of all French texts were modernized.

Further resources

Examples of an autograph letter of Descartes

Descartes to Jacobus Golius, 9 May 1635, Special Collections, Leiden University Library.

Descartes to Constantijn Huygens, 10 July 1643, Waller Collection, Uppsala University Library.

Relevant editions of the correspondence

Claude Clerselier, Lettres de M. Descartes, 3 vols (Paris, 1657–1667).

Leon Roth, Correspondence of Descartes and Constantyn Huygens 1635–1647 (Oxford, 1926).

Charles Adam and Gérard Milhaud, Correspondance de Descartes (Paris, 1936–1963).

Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, Œuvres de Descartes, new edn (Paris, 1964–1974; published originally between 1897 and 1913; reprinted in paperback, Paris, 1996).

Erik-Jan Bos, The Correspondence between Descartes and Henricus Regius (Utrecht, 2002).

Theo Verbeek, Erik-Jan Bos, and Jeroen van de Ven, The Correspondence of Descartes: 1643 (Utrecht, 2003).

Jean-Robert Armogathe and Giulia Belgioioso, Lettres: esemplare annotato dell’Institut de France (edizione di Claude Clerselier, 1666-1667), 3 vols (6 bindings) (Lecce, 2005).

Giulia Belgioioso, Jean-Robert Armogathe, Igor Agostini, et al., Tutte le lettere, 1619–1650: testo francese, latino e olandese (Lecce, 2005; second improved edn: Lecce, 2009).

Jean-Robert Armogathe, René Descartes. Correspondance, 2 vols, (Paris, 2013; offers French translations only of Latin and Dutch texts).

English translations

John Cottingham, Robert Stoothof, Dugald Murdoch, and Anthony Kenny, eds, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, vol. 3, The Correspondence (Cambridge, 1991).

Andrea Nye, ed., The Princess and the Philosopher: Letters of Elisabeth of the Palatine to René Descartes (Lanham, MD, 1999).

Lisa Shapiro, ed., The correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes (Chicago, 2007).

Letters published since the completion of the edition by Adam and Milhaud (1936–1963).

Note: If the letter was incorporated in the new edition of Adam and Tannery (1964–1974), this is indicated using the abbreviation AT followed by volume and page number.

1970. Descartes to Roderich Dotzen, 6 February 1642. Albert Heinekamp, ‘Ein ungedruckter Brief Descartes an Roderich Dotzen’, in Studia Leibnitiana, BD 2, Heft 1 (1970), pp.1–12; AT III, pp. 735–6.

1971. Descartes to [Claude Clerselier?], [1646]. Joseph Beaude, ‘Une page inedite de Descartes’, in Archives de Philosophie, 34 (1971), pp. 47–9. AT IV, pp. 742–4.

1971. Jan van Foreest to Descartes, 29 January 1647. Hans Bots, ‘Descartes, le bon Francais: Lettre inédite de Jan Van Foreest à Descartes’, in XVIIe siècle, 92 (1971), pp. 133–41; AT V, p. 658.

1972. Juan Caramuel de Lobkowitz to Descartes, 7 July 1644. Dino Pastine, ‘Caramuel contro Descartes: Obiezioni inedite alle Meditazioni’, in Rivista critica di storia della filosofia, 27 (1972), pp. 177–221; not in AT.

1973. Descartes to Henricus Regius, 6 February 1642. Judith Esze, ‘Deux documents inédits sur Descartes’, in Acta Litteraria Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, 15 (1973), pp. 230–44; not in AT. Published again by Paul Dibon, ‘Sur deux lettres de Descartes à Regius’, in Nouvelles de la République des Lettres, 1985-II, pp. 167–89; see however E.J. Bos, ed., The Correspondence between Descartes and Henricus Regius (Utrecht, 2002), pp. 119–24.

1979. Descartes to Marguerite Ferrand de la Porte, 24 February 1634. M. Jurgens and J. Mesnard, ‘Quelques pièces exceptionelles découvertes au minutier central des notaires de Paris’, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France, 79 (1979), pp. 739–54; not in AT.

2002. Descartes to Joachim de Wicquefort, 2 October 1640. Erik-Jan Bos and Corinna Vermeulen, ‘An Unknown Autograph Letter of Descartes to Joachim de Wicquefort’, Studia Leibnitiana, 34 (2002), pp. 100–09; not in AT.

2002. Descartes to Roderich Dotzen, 25 March 1642. Herbert Breger, ‘Ein wiedergefundenes Autograph von Descartes’, Studia Leibnitiana, 34 (2002), pp. 110–16; not in AT.

2004. Descartes to Cornelis van Hogelande, [late 1639/early 1640]. Jeroen van de Ven and Erik-Jan Bos, ‘Se nihil daturum—Descartes’s Unpublished Judgement of Comenius Pansophiae Prodromus (1639)’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 12 (2004), pp. 369–86; not in AT.

2010. Descartes to Marin Mersenne, 27 May 1641, and Descartes to Matthias Pasor, 26 May 1645. Erik-Jan Bos, ‘Two Unpublished Letters of René Descartes: On the Printing of the Meditations and the Groningen Affair’, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie, 92 (2010), pp. 290–302; not in AT.

General Note

A new historico-critical edition of Descartes’s correspondence, complete with English translations, is being prepared by Roger Ariew, Erik-Jan Bos, and Theo Verbeek, to be published by Oxford University Press.

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