This page contains a list of the six best books on or by Descartes. Finding good introductory philosophy books can be difficult for two reasons. First, searching google for recommendations usually doesn’t bring up anything useful. Second, phrases like “best books on Descartes” are ambiguous. One person may be looking for a short, beginner friendly introduction, someone else may want a comprehensive academic overview, a third person may be looking for classic works by Descartes. This list tries to account for this ambiguity by recommending different types of books on Descartes. Here are the best books on or by Descartes in no particular order:
Discourse on Method – René Descartes
Publisher description: By far the most widely used translation in North American college classrooms, Donald A. Cress’s translation from the French of the Adam and Tannery critical edition is prized for its accuracy, elegance, and economy. The translation featured in the Third Edition has been thoroughly revised from the 1979 First Edition and includes page references to the critical edition for ease of comparison.
Meditations on First Philosophy – René Descartes
Publisher description: Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy, the fundamental and originating work of the modern era in Western philosophy, is presented here in Donald Cress’s completely revised edition of his well-established translation, bringing this version even closer to Descartes’s original, while maintaining its clear and accessible style.
Selected Philosophical Writings – René Descartes
Publisher description: Based on the new and much acclaimed two volume Cambridge edition of The Philosophical Writings of Descartes by Cottingham, Stoothoff, and Murdoch, this anthology of essential texts contains the most important and widely studied of those writings, including the Discourse and Meditations and substantial extracts from the Regulae, Optics, Principles, Objections and Replies, Comments on a Broadsheet, and Passions of the Soul.
Descartes: A Very Short Introduction – Tom Sorell
Publisher description: Descartes is perhaps best known for his statement, “Cogito, ergo sum,” the cornerstone of his metaphysics. But he did not intend the metaphysics to stand apart from his scientific work, which included important investigations into physics, mathematics, and optics. In this book, Sorell shows that Descarates was, above all, an advocate and practitioner of the new mathematical approach to physics, and that he developed his philosophies to support his discoveries in the sciences.
Descartes: An Intellectual Biography – Stephen Gaukroger
Publisher description: René Descartes’s insights into the nature of knowledge and the mind have inspired awe and debate through the centuries. But while philosophers have sought to understand the ramifications of his theories, they have paid much less attention to how, exactly, he arrived at his ideas. What twists and turns of his intellect brought him to his epochal conclusions? How did his personal ambitions and the social conditions of his era shape his thought? These questions and more are masterfully answered in Stephen Gaukroger’s Descartes, a fascinating look at this most influential of all Renaissance thinkers.
In his quest to retrace Descartes’s development as a scientist and philosopher, Gaukroger leaves no stone unturned. From the great man’s first book on music theory (Compendium Musicae) to his masterworks Discours, Essais, Meditationes, and Principia, from his study of mathematics while attending a Jesuit college at age ten, through his dying days in the service of Christina, Queen of Sweden, Descartes brims with penetrating and often surprising insights into the philosopher’s life and work. We discover, for example, that he wasn’t as concerned with developing an all-encompassing theory of knowledge as he was with establishing a natural philosophy that supported the teachings of Copernicus, a man whose work he deeply admired. We also learn that Descartes was willing to alter his publicly stated views to accommodate church doctrine–especially after witnessing Galileo’s condemnation in 1633. We observe how his personal triumphs and failures–from his rumored nervous breakdown in 1614, to his joy at the popular reception of Discours and Essais, to his protracted and very public dispute with the implacable professor Voetius–affected his intellectual development. Along the way, Gaukroger details how Descartes’s theories of metaphysics, mechanics, cognition, and cosmology have been both championed and distorted by philosophers of all stripes for over three hundred years. Packed with helpful diagrams and in-depth interpretations of Descartes’s most celebrated works, the book also includes a useful chronology that highlights his important accomplishments and personal milestones.
The Cambridge Companion to Descartes – John Cottingham
Publisher description: Descartes occupies a position of piviotal importance as one of the founding fathers of modern philosophy; he is, perhaps the most widely studied of all philosophers. In this authoritative collection an international team of leading scholars in Cartesian studies present the full range of Descartes’ extraordinary philosophical achievement. His life and the development of his thought, as well as the intellectual background to and reception of his work are treated at length. At the core of the volume are a group of chapters on his metaphysics: the celebrated “Cogito” argument, the proofs of God’s existence, the “Cartesian circle” and the dualistic theory of the mind and its relation to his theological and scientific views. Other chapters cover the philosophical implications of his work in algebra, his place in the 17th century scientific revolution, the structure of his physics, and his work on physiology and psychology.
This list was created by following a method that I’ve found to be useful when searching for introductory philosophy books. It involves:
- browsing required reading lists on university course syllabi
- searching for books using the Open Syllabus Project
- browsing the bibliographies of articles on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- searching for recommendations on philosophy forums
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Descartes
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Descartes
If you’d like to learn more about Descartes, check out:
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