Dr Erik-Jan Bos (Utrecht University, Philosophy) and Prof. Roger Ariew (University of South Florida) have been awarded a grant of 235,000 dollars by the US National Endowment for the Humanities, that will enable them, Prof. Theo Verbeek (UU, Philosophy), and others, to complete their new critical edition of Descartes' correspondence with a complete English translation.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of René Descartes to philosophy, even these days. Philosophers are not alone in appreciating Descartes’ works: historians of science and mathematics—intellectual historians in general interested in the early modern period, or how we came to be who and what we are at present—need to come to grips with this fascinating figure.
The importance of Descartes’ correspondence
When one goes beyond a first, superficial understanding of one of Descartes’ primary works, whether the Meditations on First Philosophy, Discourse on Method, or a portion of the Principles of Philosophy, one begins to realise that the basis for many of Descartes’ doctrines cannot be found in the primary works themselves. For that, one needs to consult his correspondence.
To capture Descartes’ thoughts on ethics, one must read his letters to Princess Elisabeth or Queen Christina; to understand what he thinks is the relation of God to his creation, one needs to read from his early letters to Marin Mersenne; to capture his notions of “freedom of indifference” or of “principle of knowledge”, one needs to examine one of the letters to Denis Mesland and to Claude Clerselier. Descartes’ correspondence is absolutely crucial to the understanding of his works and ideas.
The need for a new edition
Unfortunately, the standard edition of Descartes’ correspondence (by Adam and Tannery) is about a century old; its second edition, almost forty years old, improved upon the first edition significantly, but made it practically unusable. And there is no complete English translation of the correspondence, just a one-volume selection of partial translations from the French and Latin. A new historico-critical edition and complete English translation of Descartes’ correspondence is a great desideratum in the learned world.
The edition is to be published by Oxford University Press in 2014.