Lost Descartes letter found after nearly two centuries in Pennsylvania

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New York, Mar. 1 (ANI): Thousands of treasured documents that vanished from the Institut de France in the mid-1800s. An Italian mathematician stole them.

Among them were 72 letters written by Frenchman Ren‚ Descartes, the founding genius of modern philosophy and analytic geometry.

Now, according to the New York Times, one of those purloined letters has turned up at a small private college in eastern Pennsylvania, providing scholars with another keyhole into one of the Western world's greatest minds.

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.

The document, experts say, reveals just how much Descartes tailored his writings to answer his contemporary critics.

Frequently suspected of heresy, Descartes sent copies of his arguments to well-known theologians to gauge their opinions and answer their objections within his text.

If old-fashioned larceny was responsible for the document's loss, advanced digital technology can be credited for its rediscovery.

Erik-Jan Bos, a philosophy scholar at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who is helping to edit a new edition of Descartes's correspondence, said that during a late-night session browsing the Internet he noticed a reference to Descartes in a description of the manuscript collection at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

He contacted John Anderies, the head of special collections at Haverford, who sent him a scan of the letter.

"This was exhilarating," Bos wrote in an e-mail message. "Seeing Descartes' handwriting appear on my screen took my breath away."

Descartes, the author of "Cogito, ergo sum" - "I think, therefore I am" - spent two decades living in Holland.

Bos's research is part of a large project sponsored by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

It turns out the letter had been donated in 1902 to Haverford's library by Lucy Branson Roberts, whose husband, Charles Roberts, was an avid autograph collector. He had bought the letter without knowing that it was stolen.

Gabriel de Broglie, chancellor of the Institut de France, an organization that manages thousands of donations and foundations, described the letter as "a wonderful discovery for science." (ANI)

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