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Key Letter By Descartes Found After 170 Years 165

Posted by kdawson
from the therefore-it-is dept.
Schiphol writes of a long-lost letter by René Descartes to Marin Mersenne that has come to light at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania, where it had lain buried in the archives for more than a century. The discovery could revolutionize our view of one of the 17th-century French philosopher's major works. "[T]housands of treasured documents... vanished from the Institut de France in the mid-1800s, stolen by an Italian mathematician. Among them were 72 letters by René Descartes... Now one of those purloined letters has turned up at a small private college in eastern Pennsylvania... The letter, dated May 27, 1641, concerns the publication of Meditations on First Philosophy, a celebrated work whose use of reason and scientific methods helped to ignite a revolution in thought."
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Key Letter By Descartes Found After 170 Years

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  • by thomasdz (178114) on Friday February 26, 2010 @11:24AM (#31285326)

    Yeah, we don't have that "é " letter in our alphabet, so we must have lost it. However I'm thinking René Descartes may have just stolen it... you know how those French are...

  • by ByOhTek (1181381) on Friday February 26, 2010 @11:31AM (#31285410) Journal

    Chapter 1 was great, and ended in the pinnacle of the work "I think therefore I am".

    After that, he couldn't go any farther, so he decided that you couldn't trust the world without the presence of God. At which point, I lost interest.

    Chapter 1: A+
    Chapter >1: D

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      I think, therefore I am. I am, therfore (I think...)

    • by SpeedyDX (1014595) <speedyphoenix@NoSpAM.gmail.com> on Friday February 26, 2010 @12:10PM (#31285890)

      Descartes might have been wrong, but that's kind of missing the point. During an era when scepticism was viewed as being inherently blasphemous and absurd, he embraced scepticism as a practical philosophy. Descartes, along with Hume and several others during the early modern period, began to establish moderate scepticism as the basis for a practical philosophy of scientific enquiry.

      There's no doubting that Descartes made many mistakes in Meditations. But from the fact that the work isn't perfect, it doesn't entail that it wasn't a great and influential work that's brought us one step closer to understanding the nature of reason. One step of many, to be sure, but one step nonetheless.

      Also, he didn't say that he can't trust the existence of the world without God. Rather, he gave an ontological argument for God, established His existence, and then, because God exists and He doesn't deceive, Descartes no longer had to justify the existence of the world (without a God). Of course, this is what led to the famed Cartesian circle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartesian_circle), but your short analysis showed that you didn't really understand the text. As I replied in another thread, Jonathan Bennett is translating early modern works to more modern language, resulting in more clear and accessible works (available: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/de.html [earlymoderntexts.com]). I highly encourage that you read it over again and try to get more out of it.

      While I'm at it, it seems that a more empirical philosophy would interest you more. Descartes had some influence on Hume's work. Hume's Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding is one of the best treatments of the philosophy of science in the early modern era, and definitely my favourite work out of that era. if you're interested, you should definitely check it out: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/he.html [earlymoderntexts.com]

      • So he shifted his flawed argument from "I exist, therefore I exist" to "God exists, therefore I exist?" That's still completely invalid.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          "I exist, therefore I exist" is not invalid.

          P therefore P is always valid, for any value of P. It's trivial, but anything that's trivially true is valid.

          P always follow from P. The implication that the Cogito is invalid is just an absurdity. What you might mean is that it's a tautology, but tautologies are always true. The Meditations makes several dozen laughable logical blunders, but this isn't one of them.
      • by ByOhTek (1181381)

        I was more questioning his methods than saying 'right or wrong', although the 'nothing can create something more perfect/complex/etc.' stuff kindof irked me, because it can be taken way to out of context (it fits through thermodynamics, but people have trouble recognizing open systems).

      • by six11 (579)

        Thanks for the reference to Bennett's site. Those translations will probably help me a lot.

      • by radtea (464814) on Friday February 26, 2010 @04:05PM (#31289842)

        Couldn't disagree more, except that Descartes was clearly an important transitional figure whose philosophical work, like Hume's, is as relevant to what serious modern philosophy ought to be doing as Newton's alchemical work is to what serious modern chemistry ought to be doing.

        "Having God as a first premise" is trivially incoherent. It leaves unanswered and the questions, "What is God?" and "How do I know anything about God in the first place?" which can obviously only be answered by reference to something else, which in fact is sense-experience, rather that "thought" as Descarte imagined. Since sense-experience is trivially prior to the very notion of God, it is clear that having God as a first premise is incoherent at best and dishonest at worst.

        Descartes big mistake in this regard was to believe that since he could fantasize about a disembodied intelligence that it had some ontological weight. Everyone but philosophers now knows that this method is useless, because we know that it is easy for us to imagine things that are contradictory and impossible. Humans suck at deducitve closure, so it is easy for us to fail to notice the incoherence of our own imaginings. We have only two methods of ensuring such coherence: empirical investigation and mathematical deduction, neither of which philosophers have adopted because they don't care about truth. They continue to treat their imaginings and the limits of their imaginings as being ontological determinative.

        Descartes' mathematical work, which was fundamental to the eventual melding of algebra and geometry that gave us modern mathematics, has had lasting value. His philosophical work was important only for its transitional role. He was a step on the way that's best forgotten today by all but historians.

        Hume is even less coherent than Descarte, with less excuse. His attempts to undertake an empirical analsyis of sense-experience are so far off the mark as to be laughable. Even knowing what was known in his own time about the perception of objects it was obvious he didn't have a clue what he was talking about with his fantasies of pure sensations, which are incredibly hard to produce even in the laboratory. Hume somehow failed to notice that he had never had a pure sensation in his life. That tells you something about the quality of his philosophy. That he ultimatly ends up arguing that his own books should be burned--since they clearly fail to fulfill the criteria for non-burning he sets out--is another clue to just how incoherent he was.

        Hume is to be honoured for waking Kant from his "dogmatical slumber", but not much else.

    • Actually, it was med #2, and he never actually said "I think, therefore I am" in that work, though it sumarizes his point. He declared it not as a conditional statement, but rather as an axiom.
    • by Mikkeles (698461)

      I guess now it's: 'He's dead, therefore he isn't'?

    • by SAN1701 (537455)
      Yeah, I felt the same way.

      Reminds me of Einstein. Both of them made huge discoveries that ended up scaring them. Einstein negated quantum mechanics (which his works helped create), and even came with a "cosmological constant" when he saw his equations couldn't contemplate a peaceful, organized space in which he (and the rest of the world) believed at that time. Descartes have made such a gigantic leap in thinking, came to the aforementioned conclusion, that even he got scared with the implications and t
      • by ByOhTek (1181381)

        Actually, it didn't read as a proof of the existance of God, so much as, in modern scientific jargon "I cannot continue without the existence of God, therefor, for all subsequent steps I shall assume the existence of God."

      • by holmstar (1388267)
        I suspect Descartes fear had more to do with the possibility of ending up on a burning stake... roman inquisition and all that... but I could be wrong.
  • by sxltrex (198448) on Friday February 26, 2010 @11:32AM (#31285418)

    Rene Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender asks "can I get you a beer?" Descartes replies "I think not!" and he disappears.

    Thanks, I'm here all week!

  • by Jurily (900488)

    can we have the text please? (Preferably in a human language)

    • Re:So (Score:5, Funny)

      by Culture20 (968837) on Friday February 26, 2010 @11:45AM (#31285584)

      can we have the text please? (Preferably in a human language)

      Sorry, it's written in French.

    • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

      by SpeedyDX (1014595)

      Which text? Text of the letter? TFA says that "the letter would be published in a collection later this year."

      As for the Meditations, Dr. Jonathan Bennett does a wonderful job of translating early modern works into modern English so that they're more clear and accessible. Here are the Meditations: http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/de.html [earlymoderntexts.com]

    • by ari_j (90255)
      Dear Mssr. Mersenne:

      I have just written the funniest book. My only fear is that some readers may fail to understand the subtle humor in it, and take it seriously. The far-reaching implications for our sacred field of study could be disastrous.

      Sincerely,

      /s/ Renee
  • heresy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by rarel (697734) on Friday February 26, 2010 @11:40AM (#31285520) Homepage
    Interestingly this comes just a few days after I read an article supporting the theory that Descartes was actually assassinated for his controversial views and his influence on Queen Christina of Sweden, by his own priest to boot.

    (in french)

  • by gmuslera (3436)
    Too used to the digital age to think right about it. How something know and being somewhat available for 200 years before they were stolen could revolutionize something now because were recovered? I suppose that now that letters will be available both as scanned images, pdfs, plain text and even google books, but still, if when they were available (and if not well full copies, but at least references could have been made of the critical points) couldn't make a revolution, should have little chance by now.
  • Sorry, couldn't resist. Actually I guess it should be ARM with the "A" being analog (remember that?).

    • by mcgrew (92797) *

      Actually I guess it should be ARM with the "A" being analog (remember that?).

      Well, in reality everything you experience is analog. Even the digital music must be converted to analog before you can hear it.

      • Even the digital music must be converted to analog before you can hear it.

        Psh. I listen to all my music as a series of logic pulses directly output from the MP3, and decode it in my head.

  • The letter was found at Haverford. Just out of curiosity, what's that school like? Any grads or current students out there who would like to share?

    • Re:Haverford? (Score:5, Informative)

      by buttersnout (832768) on Friday February 26, 2010 @12:15PM (#31285968)
      I graduated from Haverford in 2005. It's a fairly prestigious small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia (it was ranked 4th when I got in in 2001 but much of its endowment in 9/11 and is now ranked 8th by us news). It's a very liberal college with a quaker history though I believe it no longer has an official religious affiliation. The college is strong in the sciences which is the reason I went there. My faculty advisor, Gerry Gollub, for example, is recognized as a leader in the field of fluid dynamics. It takes pride in its campus and arboretum and I've heard many people with no affiliation with the college say it has the most beautiful campus in the US. Most students take about a quarter of their courses at Bryn Mawr college which is a similar but all girls college. Most events are shared between the colleges and there's considered to be little difference between a Haverford student and a Bryn Mawr student in terms of what they have permission to do. There is also a lesser relationship with Swarthmore college and the University of Pennsylvania. The college also is very proud of its honor code. Students, for example, may take tests home and are trusted not to open their text books while taking them. I would guess the college's pride in their honesty and trustworthiness was a major motivation in their decision to return the letter.
      • Thanks. I had my heart set on going to Haverford when I graduated high school in 1978. I couldn't get in and wound up going to Rice in Houston. That's not a bad second choice but I've always wondered what I missed at Haverford.

      • But 170 years? Were 169 of them spent going, "You bring it!?""Why me? I didn't find it! You return it!"

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I'm currently a junior at Haverford College, majoring in Computer Science with possible minors in Physics and/or Astronomy (depending on how the rest of my time here works out).

      It's definitely a small school -- 1200 kids or so -- but I've found this to be quite beneficial. I'll frequently walk in on CS department meetings (unknowingly; it's just the three professors meeting in an office) and they'll ask for input on what classes they should offer in the next few semesters. I couldn't imagine this individual

  • So (Score:4, Insightful)

    by OrangeMonkey11 (1553753) on Friday February 26, 2010 @11:54AM (#31285692)

    How did Guglielmo Libri the Italian mathematician got away with stealing 30,000 books and manuscript from France and got away with it. How did the official at the French Public Library not notice that one of their employee had made off with 30,000 items that does not belong to him.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by abigor (540274)

      He just waited until their backs were turned.

    • He declared war on them, they rubberstamped "we surrender" beneath... Ya know how this works.

      • by haruchai (17472)

        Yeah, keep bashing the French because you know, they never overthrew a corrupt goverment that was actually
        located on the same side of the world as the freedom fighters.
        Oh and they never had to fight against an occupation either.

        So, when will the US be giving back the Statue of Liberty?

        • I'd prefer bashing the Italians, but, let's be honest, right now, when you look at their politics and politicians, there ain't so much difference, and we're currently aiming at France, so...

        • by holmstar (1388267)
          The statue of liberty was a gift, and we'll keep it thank you.
    • Re:So (Score:5, Funny)

      by DriedClexler (814907) on Friday February 26, 2010 @12:32PM (#31286310)

      I think it's the variant on the old joke.

      "For 30 years, the guard at the French Public Library for the evening shift noticed Gugli walking out with a book tucked under his arm. He always make sure to talk to Gugli, as Gugli would look very suspicious, as if he'd done something wrong. The guard always figured there wasn't something quite right about Gugli. So he'd search him, but always find nothing.

      "After retiring, the guard wanted this mystery solved, so one day he followed Gugli home. He asked, 'Okay, I know you've been making some kind of mischief all these years, but I've never been able to figure out what. What have you been stealing?'

      "Gugli responded, 'Books!'"

    • by geekoid (135745)

      Hos did you manage to type such a redundant sentence? How did you manage to get through school without learning about the question mark?

      So many questions.

  • Goddamnit, it's not like the letter is written in some prehistoric code that will take months to decrypt. 90% of the article is about fates of the paper, less than two short paragraphs on what is written on the paper.

  • Somewhere in the literary continuum, Dan Brown was roused from his fitful sleep and his dreams of multicolored zebra-striped kittens by a frantic phone call from his agent.

  • Dear Marin (Score:5, Funny)

    by goffster (1104287) on Friday February 26, 2010 @12:40PM (#31286438)

    I still can't get laid at the local bars, maybe I should stop talking about Math.
    Perhaps astrology might work better. Do you have any good charts?

    Thanx,
    Rene

  • My son was baptized in the same church Descartes (aka Cartesius) was buried. :)
  • Finally, someone thought, and therefore, it was.
  • by geekoid (135745) <dadinportland AT yahoo DOT com> on Friday February 26, 2010 @01:58PM (#31287888) Homepage Journal

    Historically is was a place for science and mathmatics. Since those disciplines now have there own fields, what the hell good is philosphy?

    Before someone responds with the boring and done arguments, my initial goal in college was to become a philosophy professor. It was then I realized it ahs nothing new to offer the world. Even the most basic philosophy question have been answered.

    Which came first, chicken or the egg? Evolution has taught is it was the egg.

    If yopu walk towards something, but only half the remaining difference, will you ever get there: Quantum mechanics has shown us that, yes, we would get there because there is a smallest distance that can be moved.

    These may be interesting papers because they come from a time when philosophy was critical to develop logical, rational, and skeptical questions.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by DragonWriter (970822)

      Before someone responds with the boring and done arguments, my initial goal in college was to become a philosophy professor. It was then I realized it ahs nothing new to offer the world. Even the most basic philosophy question have been answered.

      No, they haven't.

      Which came first, chicken or the egg? Evolution has taught is it was the egg.

      That's not really a "basic philosophy question".

      If yopu walk towards something, but only half the remaining difference, will you ever get there: Quantum mechanics has shown

    • by Zedrick (764028) on Friday February 26, 2010 @02:27PM (#31288446)
      "Which came first, chicken or the egg? Evolution has taught is it was the egg."

      Eh, what? No. An almost-chicken lays an egg with a mutated embryo (the 100%-chicken). The egg is still an almost-chickenegg, and the first chicken egg is later laid by the chicken.
      • "Which came first, chicken or the egg? Evolution has taught is it was the egg." Eh, what? No. An almost-chicken lays an egg with a mutated embryo (the 100%-chicken). The egg is still an almost-chickenegg, and the first chicken egg is later laid by the chicken.

        I think the grandparent was referring to dinosaur eggs, etc. Also, presumably, your "almost-chicken" laid unmutated (almost-chicken) eggs.

        • Sorry for replying to myself, but I should have pointed out that if the the saying is taken to mean "which came first, the chicken or the chicken egg?", then the original parent I was responding to is correct with "chicken". Otherwise, as I think the question is more conventionally asked, the answer is egg.
      • by ari_j (90255)
        It's really a question of what you mean by the "egg." Is the egg the growing embryo inside the eggshell, or is it the shell itself? All philosophical arguments devolve to semantics, after all. ;)
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      > Historically is was a place for science and mathmatics. Since those disciplines now have there own fields, what the hell good is philosphy?

      What good are science and mathematics? Well, some of it has practical application. But the main reason people study those things is that they find them interesting. People don't become scientists or mathematicians for "the good" of anything, they just do it because it's interesting. It just happens to have useful side effects down the line. So it is with p
    • by FooRat (182725)

      Was that a lousy attempt a humor or a lousy attempt at a troll? I can't quite tell, but you certainly aren't making any serious points about philosophy; every one of your points is absurdly bizarre.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Merc248 (1026032)

      Though mathematics is useful as a technology in the sciences, its ontological basis is questionable (and therefore, its link to the sciences might be specious at best.) Note, I'm not questioning the entire enterprise of science as a whole, but I'm simply bringing up the fact that there are real problems with mathematics and science that still require philosophical inquiry.

      Read:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Formalism_(mathematics) [wikipedia.org]
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mathematical_realism#Mathematical_realism [wikipedia.org]
      http://en [wikipedia.org]

    • by Kismet (13199)
      <quote>Historically is was a place for science and mathmatics. Since those disciplines now have there own fields, what the hell good is philosphy?</quote>

      Well, philosophy is about discovering the nature of being and the nature of knowledge. What is reality? How reliable is a given predicate or assertion? How can we say that something is "true" or "false"? For any given axiom, must it obey its own rule (suggesting an even more fundamental axiom), or will it exclude itself (hence a contradiction..
  • The letter was blank, though, because the writing was an independent phenomena and it went off on its own.

The meat is rotten, but the booze is holding out. Computer translation of "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

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