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Stolen Descartes letter found at Haverford by Dutch scholar's online detective work
February 26, 2010 2:47 PM   Subscribe

A letter by Rene Descartes, stolen in 1840s, recovered in 2010 by online detective work. The letter was stolen by Guglielmo Libri, inspector general of the libraries of France, who stole thousands of valuable documents and fled to England in 1848. Since 1902 it's been in the collection of Haverford College, its contents unknown to scholars, and nobody there realized that it was an unknown letter. But because they had catalogued it and recently put their catalogue on line, Dutch philosopher Erik-Jan Bos found it "during a late-night session browsing the Internet". (A Haverford undergraduate thirty years ago had translated it and written a paper on it, in which he recognized that the letter was unknown -- but nobody followed up and the letter had sat in the library since then until it was listed online.) The letter includes some last-minute edits to the Meditations, and some thoughts on God as causa sui. Haverford, whose president was a philosophy major, is returning the letter to the Institut de France.
posted by LobsterMitten (21 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
(also, Gugliermo Libri's biography by Maccioni Ruju is a very entertaining read but not for the book vandalism squirmish)
posted by lucia__is__dada at 2:51 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's been a good few weeks for France as far as rediscovered, thought-lost documents go.

(A Haverford undergraduate thirty years ago had translated it and written a paper on it, in which he recognized that the letter was unknown -- but nobody followed up and the letter had sat in the library since then until it was listed online.)

Boy, is this unsurprising but depressing. Undergraduates of the world, you work is worthless even when it's actually very valuable.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:54 PM on February 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


It would probably be useful to follow the track of Libri's auction sales and papers he left in his last will. It has payed off before...
posted by lucia__is__dada at 2:57 PM on February 26, 2010


Wow. See, academics, this is why we need to rapidly digitize and archive documents. Things get lost in the stacks for years, decompose, and degrade.

-will be off attempting to pitch, again, the portable book scanner project to her department-
posted by strixus at 2:58 PM on February 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Things get lost in the stacks for years, decompose, and degrade.

I may be misunderstanding you, but I hope you're not referring to the letter here. It was carefully preserved by the special collections librarians at Haverford in exactly the way it should have been.

I'm totally pro-digitization, I just bristled a little bit at the characterization (if that was your intent) of things decomposing and degrading while lost in the stacks. We work very hard to make sure that doesn't happen.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 3:21 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love stories like this -- and the thought of all the amazing detective work by indefatigable archivists, librarians, historians, and scholars that goes into making the stories happen.
posted by blucevalo at 3:23 PM on February 26, 2010


France has recovered only 45 of the 72 stolen Descartes letters, Mr. de Broglie explained. One was offered at an auction in Switzerland in 2006 and 2009. "After I protested vociferously and publicly on both occasions in the name of the Institut, the letter didn’t find a buyer," Mr. de Broglie wrote, "but it proved impossible for us to raise the very large sum that the seller demanded, and even though it can’t be sold, this 1638 letter remains in private hands."
Cogito ergo ransom?
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 3:28 PM on February 26, 2010 [6 favorites]


Solon, one thing it points to is that at an elite small college like this, an undergrad can work with a document of huge importance. So, plus for small colleges there. But it's a sad and strange footnote to that, that whatever professor was running the class didn't think to follow up on the idea that this is an unknown letter. So, minus for small colleges if the faculty don't think to try to find outside experts when they're out of their depth in assessing something.

Bos, the guy who found the letter during his research for a collection of Descartes' correspondence, said the undergrad's paper was "very fine" and that if it had been submitted for publication it would likely have been accepted. I wonder if they have contacted the guy and asked if he's like to submit it for publication now?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:40 PM on February 26, 2010


And this work continues; the junior-year program for history majors devotes one semester to research of a document (generally in manuscript, as I recall) and one semester to an artefact (usually some strange unidentifiable object). Where the research leads is up to the student. For the artefact semester, a friend was assigned an object she ultimately determined was a campfire sandwich toaster, and then wrote about the growth of leisure camping in the 20th century. I can't remember what document she was assigned, but I think it was a civil war letter from the collection (but I could be making that up).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:49 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


I love stories like this...

As do I.

Brings to mind Jonathan Harr's 'The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece.'
posted by ericb at 3:49 PM on February 26, 2010


Fantastic post, thanks very much for this.
posted by voltairemodern at 3:50 PM on February 26, 2010


What has struck me about this story is that the chancellor of the Institut de France is a de Broglie. De Broglie? Yes, de Broglie.
posted by Skeptic at 4:04 PM on February 26, 2010 [4 favorites]


Someone I know inherited a crate of books originally owned by a great uncle who had been a wealthy (chairman of the board of one of the regional federal reserve banks) collector in his day.

More than twenty years later, she opened up his old edition (from the late 1800's?) of Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D., and out dropped a letter.

The letter, obviously old, was apparently from Johnson to Boswell, and contains an account of Johnson's reaction to a new play of Oliver Goldsmith's Johnson had recently attended.

She had no idea whether it's authentic, a copy of an authentic letter or a complete fake, or if it is authentic, whether it's known.

We talked about trying to find out more about it, and in the meantime she put it back in the book.

It's still sitting there on that shelf as far as I know.
posted by jamjam at 4:45 PM on February 26, 2010 [5 favorites]


Darn, I was hoping that "during a late-night session browsing the internet" link would have taken me to a site where people compare late-night browsing habits.

Personally I tend toward the Internet Archive and Project Gutenberg, focusing on out-of-print texts that have been mentioned in feature films from the last 40 years.
posted by circular at 4:47 PM on February 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


We talked about trying to find out more about it, and in the meantime she put it back in the book.

I can help you with that, jamjam. Seriously, Memail me.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:14 PM on February 26, 2010


ts authenticity is beyond any doubt

HOLY SHIT.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:45 PM on February 26, 2010


Was Descartes poisoned?
posted by inconsequentialist at 6:03 PM on February 26, 2010


Should have included this in the original post, but here's the translation of the letter, from the first link in the post:
I met Mr Picot here, in whom I recognize a man of good sense, and to whom I am much obliged. I believe he will arrive at Leiden today and has the intention to stay. In his company is a nobleman from Touraine who brought me the greetings from Father Bourdin, whose student he is; he also spoke of Mr Petit in such terms that I am obliged to tone down what I wrote on him in the Preface to the reader, which I send you now to be printed, if you please, at the beginning of the book, after the dedicatory letter to the Gentlemen of the Sorbonne. Neither the fourth part of the Discours de la méthode, nor the little preface I put in next, nor the one preceding the theologian’s objections, must be printed, but only the Synopsis. Finally, rest assured that there is nothing in Mr Gassendi’s objections with which I have problems; the only thing I shall have to attend to is the style. Indeed, he expressed himself with so much elegance, that I should attempt to reply in the same way. I am

Your much obliged and affectionate
servant Des Cartes
27 May 1641
The links give context for why the people he mentions are significant.
posted by LobsterMitten at 6:17 PM on February 26, 2010


the people he mentions are significant.

And this:

The most important historical information can be found at the end of the letter, where it emerges that originally the Meditations were conceived along different lines. Descartes asks Mersenne to completely eliminate three texts: a Latin translation of Pt 4 of the Discourse on method (originally published in 1637), a preface to the Meditations and a preface to the Objections and Replies. They should be replaced by a new general preface, which corresponds to the preface that was printed eventually. The reason for those changes is that a French visitor has convinced Descartes of the good intentions of Pierre Petit (1598−1677), who had been very critical of part 4 of the Discourse — criticism about which Descartes was extremely upset. Now that he knows that Petit changed his mind Descartes has no reason to react to him personally — in the new preface he limits himself to a few general remarks about the criticisms that reached him concerning the Discourse, without naming anybody.

The father of Cartesian dualism could also be petty and vindictive at times.
posted by three blind mice at 8:09 PM on February 26, 2010


I was wondering whether this was all an elaborate practical joke, since "libri" is Italian for "books", and "broglio" is Italian for "fraud" or "intrigue", but corroboration seems to be snowballing, so I guess I'm wrong.
posted by aqsakal at 11:33 PM on February 26, 2010


And this work continues; the junior-year program for history majors devotes one semester to research of a document (generally in manuscript, as I recall) and one semester to an artifact (usually some strange unidentifiable object). Where the research leads is up to the student.

I am riddled with jealousy. I wish something -- ANYTHING -- in my schooling had been as creative and challenging as that.
posted by grumblebee at 11:13 AM on February 27, 2010


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