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DESCARTES, René (1596–1650)

Discours de la méthode pour bien conduire sa raison, & chercher la verité dans les scieces . Plus La dioptrique, Les météories, La méchanique, et La musique, qui sont des essais de cette methode ... avec des remarques & des éclaircissemens necessaires

Paris: chez Charles Angot, ruë saint Jacques, au lion d’or, 1668
4to: A–2S4; a–q4, 228 leaves, pp. 303 (i.e. 305, 264–5 repeated) [23]; 127 [1]. Dated titlepage to ‘Traité de la mechanique’ on a1. Woodcut device on each title, numerous woodcut illustrations in the text.
Condition: 230 x 170mm. Extensive worm holes and tracks in the top and bottom of the inner margins, occasionally touching a few letters; light browning.
Binding: Contemporary calf, gilt spine. Headcap chipped, joints cracked at head and tail, but sound.
Third edition (first 1637, second 1658) containing the first edition of La méchanique and the first edition in French of Musicae compendium(1650).
Bibliography: Guibert p. 18 no. 4.

This edition includes the first French editions of two early works, Descartes’ first book, Compendium musicae, written in 1618 and Traité de la méchanique written in 1637. The second edition of the Discours, published at Paris by Henry le Gras in 1658, was a straight reprint of the Leiden first edition of 1637; this third edition adds the two early treatises, with their own dated titlepage, but drops La géometrie.
‘The Compendium is both a treatise on music and a study in methodology. In it Descartes shows himself to be a link between the musical humanists of the 16th century – he was influenced particularly by Zarlino, whom he cited – and the scientists of the 17th. The work is noteworthy as an early experiment in the application of an empirical deductive, scientific approach to the study of sensory perception and as being among the earliest attempts to define the dual relationship between the physical and psychological phenomena in music.’ (Albert Cohen, Oxford Music Online.)
Descartes lent Isaac Beeckman the Latin manuscript of the Compendium musicae, reclaiming it in 1629. Beeckman had however copied it, somewhat inaccurately, and it was Beeckman’s copy that was used for the first edition of 1650. The French translation published here is based on Descartes’ original manuscript found in Stockholm after his death.
The Traité de la méchanique is a brief analysis of the five simple machines titled ‘Explication des machines et engins, par l’ayde desquels on peut avec une petite force, lever un fardeau fort pensant’, followed by Nicolas Poisson’s ‘Remarques sur les méchaniques de Monsieur Descartes’. The text was translated by Poisson from a Latin manuscript in the form of a letter to Constantjn Huygens written in 1637. The Latin text was first published in the Opuscula of 1701 (no. 53).
The illustrations in the Météores and Dioptrique are copies of the blocks used in the first edition. The cuts in the Méchanique illustrate the basic machines, and mechanical principles. Those in the Abregé de la musique include some musical examples as well as tables of proportions which would seem to have been more conveniently set in type as they are in the English edition (see below).
Keywords:     mechanics    philosophy    philosophy of science