DESCARTES, René Discours de la methode: pour bien conduire sa raison, & chercher la vérité dans les sciences, plus La dioptrique, les meteores

Leiden, Joannes Maire, 1637


FIRST EDITION. 4to. pp. 78, [ii], 413, [xxxv]. a-k4, A-3K4. Roman Letter, some Italic. Small woodcut printer’s device on title-page, woodcut initials, very numerous woodcut diagrams in text some full page, extensive early pencil annotations and markings, mostly emphasising passages with various markings (trefoils, “NB”, “Q”, “n”, underlinings, etc.), note in French on rear endpaper citing a passage on the action of seawater, autograph ‘Thomas Henshaw’ (1618-1700), faded pencil inscription on title-page, most probably the author of the annotations, ‘Gaddesden Park’ in pencil on flyleaf with shelf mark above, Gaddesden Library armorial bookplate, of Sir T.F. Halsey, below. Light age yellowing, tiny single worm hole through to quire L, another in lower blank margin to G, small closed tear to foot of R2. A very good, fresh copy, crisp and clean in very good contemporary English calf, covers bordered with a double blind rule, spine with raised bands, later black morocco gilt label and gilt ruling, a.e.r., joints rubbed,tiny single wormholes in spine.

First edition of Descartes’ most important and influential work of philosophy and scientific methodology, one of the most influential philosophical treatises of the modern age, with exceptional contemporary provenance that gives tremendous insight into the book’s reception into English intellectual circles at the foundation of the Royal Society. Descartes stated that knowledge must be based on the experience of the mind which led to the famous quote for which Descartes is best known, “je pense, donc je suis”. His method essentially involved reducing problems down to simpler questions and then building them back up again to more complex queries. The Discours was issued with three other mathematical treatises which Descartes stated would demonstrate his method, as he believed it was more important to show practice than theory. The Cartesian method is outlined in the Four Rules presented in Book II. Books III and IV contain discussions of metaphysics and physiology, the latter of which includes a reference to Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood. The appended essays on optics, meteorology, and geometry demonstrate the type of results that can be obtained by employing his rules of scientific investigation. His essay on optics contains important observations and experiments on refraction as well as one of the earliest mentions of Snell’s law of refraction. His brilliant treatise on geometry laid the foundation for analytic geometry.

“It is no exaggeration to say that Descartes was the first of modern philosophers and one of the first of modern scientists; in both branches of learning his influence has been vast. Although his scope was less comprehensive than Bacon’s, his great predecessor seems nearer to medieval than modern learning by comparison. The revolution he caused can be most easily found in his reassertion of the principle (lost in the Middle Ages) that knowledge, if it is to have any value, must be intelligence and not erudition. His application of modern algebraic arithmetic to ancient geometry created the analytical geometry which is the basis of the post-Euclidean development of that science. His statement of the elementary laws of matter and movement in the physical universe, the theory of vortices, and many other speculations threw light on every branch of science from optics to biology. Not least may be remarked his discussion of Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of blood, the first mention of it by a prominent foreign scholar. All this found its starting-point in the “Discourse on the Method for Proper Reasoning and Investigating Truth in the Sciences’. Descartes’s purpose is to find the simple indestructible proposition which gives to the universe and thought their order and system. … From these central propositions in logic, metaphysics and physics came the subsequent inquiries of Locke, Leibniz and Newton; from them stem all of modern scientific and philosophic thought” (PMM 129).

Remarkable contemporary provenance with most interesting and important annotations. The natural philosopher Thomas Henshaw (1618–1700) inscribed his name on the title of this book and almost certainly made the annotations. He was an English lawyer, courtier, diplomat and scientific writer. While not a published alchemist, he was a significant figure in English alchemical work from the 1650s onwards; he is known to have used the pen-name “Halophilus”. Both his mother and his father were described by Hartlib as ‘great chemists’, and he had a lifelong commitment to the new learning. He spent a period from late 1644 as the travelling companion of John Evelyn, whom he had encountered at Pisa.They visited Athanasius Kircher’s rooms in Rome together. Evelyn, Henshaw and Francis Bramston were then together at Padua. At the end of the 1640s Henshaw left Paris, where he had been staying, to return to England. He spent much of the 1650s engaged in intellectual pursuits as part of a circle of alchemists and natural philosophers, before returning to public life in the 1660s. He had been taught by William Oughtred and his library of alchemical works was used by his friend Elias Ashmole; he was also a founding member of the Royal Society and published a number of treatises in the Philosophical Transactions. His daughter Anne married into the Halsey family of Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, (bookplate) where this book remained for more than 300 years.

USTC 1011874. Dibner, Heralds of Science 81. Grolier/Horblit 24. Guibert, Bib. Descartes 1. Krivatsky 3114. Norman 621. Printing and the Mind of Man 129. Plomer II, pp. 149 – 150.
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