Principia Philosophiae

By: René Descartes

Collection ID



Printed Book








Printed on Paper


7.8 × 6.9 × 3.1 in. (19.8 × 17.5 × 7.8 cm)

Exhibit Location

Not on View

René Descartes was a towering figure in the history of philosophy and mathematics. He was also a devout Christian. In his 1644 Principia Philosophiae (Principles of Philosophy), Descartes summarized his epistemology—including the famous “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am)—and presented a comprehensive natural philosophy, or system of physics and cosmology. Descartes examined the relationship between divine action and natural causes and outlined a mechanistic universe that laid the foundation for Isaac Newton’s development of physics. This 1656 copy is part of a collection of Descartes’s works produced by Louis and Daniel Elvezir.

Printed in 1656 by Daniel and Louis Elvezir, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, bound with other printed works of Descartes.[1] Acquired by 1827 by Hieronymus Fränkel, Dessau, Germany.[2] Acquired by Jonas Cohn;[3] Gifted between 1939 and 1947 to Selly Oak Colleges Library, Birmingham, England.[4] Acquired by 2020 by Ted Steinbock, private collector, Louisville, Kentucky;[5] Privately purchased in 2020 by Museum of the Bible, Washington, DC.

Notes: [1] Descartes’s collected works were printed in many editions throughout the latter half of the seventeenth century, with varied and unpredictable arrangements of individual texts contained in each copy. The bulk of this book is a 1656 third edition of Descartes’s Opera philosophica printed by Daniel and Louis Elvezir. It contains: Meditationes de prima philosophica (1670) by Daniel Elvezir, Principia philosophiae (1656), Dissertatio de methodo with Dioptrice and Meteora (1656), Tractatus de passionibus anime (1656) by Daniel and Louis Elvezir, and Tractatus de homine (1686) by Joan Blaeu. [2] Handwritten note on the title page of Meditationes reads, “Hieronymous Fränkel Dessauiensis 1827.” This is likely F. Hieronymous Fränkel, a physician who practiced in Dessau, Germany, in the nineteenth century. [3] Jonas Cohn was an early twentieth-century German-Jewish philosopher. His bookplate appears on the front pastedown. It includes Cohn’s name and a line from Goethe’s “Vermächtnis” reading, “Das alte wahre, fass es an.” [4] Cohn fled to England during World War II and eventually settled in Birmingham, where the now-defunct Selly Oak Colleges was located. A bookplate on the front flyleaf indicates the book was presented to Selly Oak Colleges Library by Jonas Cohn. [5] Written records from Ted Steinbock indicate the purchase of collected volumes of Descartes’s works in 1985, 1987, and 1991—the former two from Rootenberg Rare Books & Manuscripts in Los Angeles, California, and the latter from an unidentified seller. Further research is necessary to confirm the exact purchase date and seller.

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