From beginner-friendly introductions to classic works by Descartes, this page features books to suit any learning style. It’s important to note that there is no single best book on Descartes. The best book for you will depend heavily on your preferred learning style and the amount of time/energy you’re willing to spend reading. For example, if you tend to find classic works of philosophy difficult to understand, you might want to start with a short, beginner-friendly introduction. If you prefer more depth, you can choose a more comprehensive introduction or read Descartes for yourself.
It’s also worth noting that it is not a list of personal recommendations. Personal book recommendations tend to be highly subjective, idiosyncratic, and unreliable. This list is part of a collection of over 100 philosophy reading lists which aim to provide a central resource for philosophy book recommendations. These lists were created by searching through hundreds of university course syllabi, internet encyclopedia bibliographies, and community recommendations. Links to the syllabi and other sources used to create this list are at the end of the post. Following these links will help you quickly find a broader range of options if the listed books do not fit what you are looking for.
Here are the best books on or by Descartes in no particular order.
Descartes: A Very Short Introduction – Tom Sorell
Category: Short Introduction | Length: 128 pages | Published: 2001
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
Category: Biography | Length: 520 pages | Published: 1997
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. …
The Cambridge Companion to Descartes – John Cottingham
Category: Comprehensive Textbook | Length: 456 pages | Published: 1992
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.
Discourse on Method – René Descartes
Category: Classic | Length: 58 pages
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
Category: Classic | Length: 72 pages
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
Category: Anthology | Length: 249 pages
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.
The following sources were used to build this list:
University Course Syllabi:
- Seminar on Descartes – Phil 682 | Texas A&M University
- Descartes and Rationalism – PHIL 354 | Simon Fraser University
- Bibliography for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Descartes
- Bibliography for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Descartes
- In what order should I read the works of Descartes?
- Good Descartes Reads
- What’s the best starting point for Descartes? Discourse or Meditations?
If you want to learn more about Descartes, you can find a collection of free articles, videos, and podcasts here.
You might also be interested in the following reading lists:
- The Best Introductory Philosophy Books
- The Best Books on the History of Philosophy
- The Best Introductory Books on the Philosophy of mind
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A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations – Lennox Johnson
Category: Reference | Length: 145 pages | Published: 2019
Publisher’s Description: A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is a collection of the greatest thoughts from history’s greatest thinkers. Featuring classic quotations by Aristotle, Epicurus, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault, and many more, A History of Western Philosophy in 500 Essential Quotations is ideal for anyone looking to quickly understand the fundamental ideas that have shaped the modern world.