Newly Discovered Draft of Descartes’ Meditations Sheds New Light on the Philosopher’s Thoughts and Writing Process

Newly Discovered Draft of Descartes’ Meditations Sheds New Light on the Philosopher’s Thoughts and Writing Process

A simple Google-search opened a new world for Jeremy S. Hyman, an instructor in the Department of Philosophy specializing in the 17th century French philosopher, René Descartes. For many years, Hyman had been scouring the internet in the hopes of finding any of the lost correspondence of Descartes–a common pursuit among Descartes scholars. And he had already had one success: the discovery of the autograph of a 1642 letter from Descartes to the French theologian Gibieuf.

But further spare-time searching was to yield a much more substantial find. Late one night, Hyman searched for “First Philosophy”—a portion of the complete title of Descartes’ major work, Meditations on First Philosophy. Much to his surprise, he found an entry to a manuscript held by the rare book collection of the municipal library in Toulouse, France. The entry mentioned what turned out to be the original title of the work, as well as the fact that the work was preceded by a Synopsis and the fact that there were 68 folio pages in the volume. There was no mention of the other material that appeared in printed editions of the Meditations, which included a Dedicatory Letter to the Faculty of the Sorbonne, a Preface to the reader, and, in the first printed edition and an Index.

Intrigued, Hyman set off to Toulouse to investigate. Upon arriving at the library and being presented with the manuscript, Hyman had no doubt that this was a true find.

Jeremy Hyman
It was a common practice for philosophers to send early drafts of their work to peers, in search of feedback and counter-arguments, called “objections.” These objections were then incorporated, together with Descartes’ responses, into the printed edition.

Marin Mersenne acted as an intermediary between Descartes and various scholars who were to prepare objections to the work, and other documents had revealed that he had sent a copy of the draft of the Meditations to the mathematician, Pierre de Fermat, who resided in Toulouse. There was additional correspondence which showed that Fermat had received the copy, but, together with a fellow mathematician from Montpelier, had decided it wouldn’t be prudent for Fermat to reply, given the acerbic relation between Fermat and Descartes.

The headings for the six individual chapters, or “meditations,” as well as the title of the work,  represented Descartes’ original intentions. These were revised in the printed edition in light of complaints Mersenne had received from the various objectors that it was too hard to locate topics they were interested in.

“It’s a remarkable find,” said Daniel Garber, professor of philosophy at Princeton and author of several books on Descartes. “This is the only manuscript copy of the Meditations or any other Descartes publications that has been located.”

This watermark is an important feature of the manuscript and Hyman worked with experts to identify it.

In order to establish the provenance of the manuscript, Hyman worked with experts in publishing, handwriting, and watermarks. As a philosopher, Hyman was most used to thinking about the arguments and theories in a work, but for this project, he also had to focus on the manuscript itself.

“What struck me most is that it’s very material, very physical,” he explained. “The watermarks, the line breaks, the careted-in corrections, the handwriting.”

In order to confirm the date of the manuscript, Hyman consulted with French, Dutch, and American scholars who had special technical expertise in different aspects of manuscript and book production. One resource that he found especially useful was a group of French collectors who specialized in watermark identification. Another colleague, an expert in copyists hired by Mersenne, agreed to help locate this manuscript in the context of other Descartes works that Mersenne had circulated. Still another researcher, this one an expert in Descartes’ correspondence, offered useful information about the various printings of the first edition of the Meditations, giving Hyman insight into changes that Mersenne and Descartes had made as the manuscript evolved into the printed edition.

“All in all,” Hyman said, “I’m hoping this becomes a truly international effort—one in which Descartes scholars worldwide can participate.” To facilitate this, Hyman has posted a reproduction of the manuscript on his website.

Hyman was invited to present to manuscript to a conference of researchers at the Sorbonne in Paris, and a spirited hour-long discussion followed the presentation. He plans to return to the Sorbonne in April. Hyman has also been invited to present a paper to a Descartes research institute at Lecce Italy.

Hyman has received a $50,000 National Endowment from the Humanities Fellowship to continue his work on the manuscript next year, as well as a publishing contract from Norton for a new translation and commentary on the Meditations in its Critical Editions series.

“Of course I’m excited by the scholarly importance of discovering a draft of what is a major foundational work in the history of western philosophy,” he said. “But I’m also looking forward to using my new translation in the core course I teach in philosophy. Sure, we do research up here, but we also teach students and build citizens. Reading great philosophical works—studying their theories and evaluating their arguments—is an important part of our mission, too.”

“It’s a wonderful discovery,” said Garber. “Everyone in the Descartes world is pleased with this and grateful to Jeremy for the work that he has done.”

About The Author

Camilla Shumaker is the director of science and research communications. She writes about physics, chemistry, political science and other topics. Camilla can be reached at or (479) 575-7422.

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