Correspondence Between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia and René Descartes

Paperback (Print)
Used and New from Other Sellers
Used and New from Other Sellers
from $18.00
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
(Save 43%)
Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (12) from $18.00   
  • New (9) from $29.39   
  • Used (3) from $18.00   


Between the years 1643 and 1649, Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618–80) and René Descartes (1596–1650) exchanged fifty-eight letters—thirty-two from Descartes and twenty-six from Elisabeth. Their correspondence contains the only known extant philosophical writings by Elisabeth, revealing her mastery of metaphysics, analytic geometry, and moral philosophy, as well as her keen interest in natural philosophy. The letters are essential reading for anyone interested in Descartes’s philosophy, in particular his account of the human being as a union of mind and body, as well as his ethics. They also provide a unique insight into the character of their authors and the way ideas develop through intellectual collaboration.

Philosophers have long been familiar with Descartes’s side of the correspondence. Now Elisabeth’s letters—never before available in translation in their entirety—emerge this volume, adding much-needed context and depth both to Descartes’s ideas and the legacy of the princess. Lisa Shapiro’s annotated edition—which also includes Elisabeth’s correspondence with the Quakers William Penn and Robert Barclay—will be heralded by students of philosophy, feminist theorists, and historians of the early modern period.

Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226204420
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2007
  • Series: The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Lisa Shapiro is associate professor of philosophy at Simon Fraser University.

Read More Show Less

Read an Excerpt

THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS Copyright © 2007 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-20442-0



While the correspondence between Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia (1618-80) and René Descartes covers topics spanning the range of philosophical inquiry, still it was not written for the public. Early on in the correspondence, Elisabeth is quite insistent that their exchanges be kept private. In concluding her letter of 6 May 1643, she charges Descartes to refrain from making their exchange public, and her letter of 10 October 1646 demonstrates that they considered communicating in code. Yet later on, without Elisabeth's permission, Descartes, through his envoy Pierre Chanut, sent Queen Christina of Sweden a copy of both sides of their exchange on the sovereign good. Chanut, in a letter to Elisabeth of 19 February 1650 informing her of Descartes' death, asked for permission to make her letters to Descartes public, suggesting that it might be to her advantage to have their correspondence more widely known. Elisabeth, however, refused permission and requested that the letters be returned to her. It is quite clear that, at least from Elisabeth's point of view, the correspondence was not intended for any audience. While Descartes did see things somewhat differently, Elisabeth's wishes were respected. While Descartes' literary executor, Claude Clerselier, published many of Descartes' letters to Elisabeth in his edition of Descartes' correspondence, Elisabeth's side of the correspondence remained unpublished.

Its privacy marks the exchange as different from other canonical instances of philosophical correspondence-for example, Plato's, Seneca's, and Cicero's letters-which were quite public. Indeed, Descartes' other correspondence seems to have been widely circulated, in accord with common practice. Not much later in the seventeenth century, women thinkers made public the private thoughts contained in correspondence. Mary Astell's letters to John Norris on the love of God were published, and though Margaret Cavendish's Philosophical Letters involved an imagined correspondence, it was premised on blurring this distinction between the public and private in intellectual life.

The privacy of this correspondence need not compromise its status as a work with regard to Descartes. Not only did he share portions of the correspondence, but also philosophical exchanges were simply part of his work. While readers look first to Descartes' published works to glean the philosophical theses he put forward, in order to understand those theses we turn to his correspondence. A full five of the eleven volumes of Descartes' Oeuvres are devoted to correspondence, and the proportion of his corpus devoted to exchanges with others only increases if we include the Objections to his Meditations along with his Replies to Objections, both of which were originally published with that work. Indeed, this is the framework within which readers of the correspondence between Descartes and Elisabeth have usually read their exchange. In trying better to understand central issues in Descartes' philosophical program-his account of the union of mind and body, his ethics, his account of the passions, his political philosophy-scholars turn to the correspondence with Elisabeth for further insight, historical background, or in the case of his idea of the sovereign good and his political philosophy, the most well-considered formulation of his views.

It is harder to know how to treat the correspondence with regard to Elisabeth, for there are no other extant philosophical writings by her. Her letters to Descartes are her philosophical writings. Her letters are thus different from standard philosophical correspondence in at least two ways. They are not written with a wider audience in mind, nor do they supplement other written work. Complicating matters is the fact that so little is known about the place women held in mid-seventeenth-century intellectual life. Elisabeth's engagement in public affairs, from lobbying universities on behalf of professorial candidates to keeping abreast of peace negotiations to arranging marriages for her siblings, makes her something much more than the learned maid defended by her acquaintance Anna Maria van Schurman. For learned maids, according to van Schurman, should study the fine arts, letters, and the sciences, but they should consider military, legal, and political matters only theoretically, for they are "less fitting or necessary." For her, women's learning is to be conducted in private and its effects are to be seen in private. Its aim is to perfect their knowledge of God and assure salvation. While Elisabeth was educated in private by tutors, this education was clearly put to public use and was meant to have served her well in governing, should she have married appropriately or the family have regained its fortunes. Moreover, Elisabeth's exchange with Descartes predates the salons of the latter part of the century, and she does not seem to fit the category of salonière. Elisabeth certainly corresponded with Descartes and sought out intellectual contact with others, but her goal does not seem to have been to form a social circle premised on intellectual discussions. Perhaps Elisabeth stands in an intellectual category all her own-her peculiar position as exiled royalty would allow for that-or perhaps she conforms to a role available to women of a certain class in the mid-seventeenth century, one that proved to be short-lived. Without more study of women intellectuals of the middle part of that century we cannot decide the question.

Without a clearly defined category into which we might fit Elisabeth, I propose to read her side of the correspondence just as we would any other philosophical work. Elisabeth's writings here are substantial, and they afford us a clear sense of her intellect. Moreover, even though she does not put forward theses, as she might have in a treatise, essay, discourse, or other genre of published work, with proper attention we gain a clear sense of her philosophical commitments. Her remarks to Descartes, including her objections to his own positions, are internally consistent. She does not raise objections simply because it is possible to do so. That is, she does not simply press Descartes along certain lines in an effort to help him clarify his position against dissenters, although sometimes her positions do take this form. Her more central objections derive from a set of commitments she holds consistently throughout the correspondence.

Focusing on Elisabeth's philosophical contribution was, of course, almost impossible without any written record of her thought. However, with the revival of interest in Descartes by Victor Cousin in the early nineteenth century, scholars wanted to hear more of what Elisabeth had to say. By then, her letters had gone missing, and all that could be heard of Elisabeth's voice was its echo in Descartes' replies to her. Elisabeth's letters reappeared in the mid-1870s, when Frederick Muller, an antiquarian bookseller, found them amid uncatalogued papers at Rosendael castle outside Arnhem in the Netherlands. Muller notified the philosopher A. Foucher de Careil, who published the letters in 1879, along with two letters of Queen Christina of Sweden. Both sides of the correspondence were then published in the Oeuvres of Descartes, edited by Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, who consulted the manuscripts. Jacques Chevalier also consulted the manuscripts in his edition of Descartes' letters on moral philosophy. But then the manuscripts went missing once again. They have only just been recovered, once again in the collection of the van Pallandt family, the former owners of Rosendael. The manuscripts are not in Elisabeth's own hand but are copies. The provenance of the copies is mysterious.

The mystery of the origin of the letters can divert us from what Elisabeth has to say, even though we now have her letters. Moreover, the correspondence itself contains additional diversions. For one, there are gaps in the correspondence that raise an array of questions about how it fits together. Why is the exchange over the interaction and union of mind and body abruptly suspended before the problem at hand has been satisfactorily resolved? How do Elisabeth and Descartes make the transition from discussing the vagueness of Descartes' account of the union of mind and body to the methods of algebraic geometry? Why does Elisabeth feel she can turn to Descartes with her medical problems in the summer of 1644? Why does the exchange pick up again only when he once again deigns to serve as her physician? Were letters exchanged which are now lost? Or did Descartes and Elisabeth continue their conversations in person?

Historically, there has been another diversion from Elisabeth's philosophical position. Many have been moved to wonder about just what sort of relationship existed between Elisabeth and Descartes. Was it simply an intellectual relation? Did Elisabeth take Descartes as a kind of father figure, standing in the stead of her own father, who died in 1632 when she was thirteen? Did Descartes take Elisabeth as an adopted daughter, standing in the stead of his own daughter Francine who died at age six in 1640? Was there a romantic liaison between the two? Readers have a penchant for profiling the personalities of the two correspondents, and so perhaps it is unsurprising that they have spun from these letters elaborate historical narratives meant to answer one or another of these questions. In this introduction I shall try to resist the temptation to extrapolate from the letters we have to the drama that might underlie them. Telling such a story for oneself is, after all, one of the great sources of pleasure in reading this correspondence.

This pleasure should not detract from that of working through philosophical topics being discussed. Much ink has been spilled trying to sort out Descartes' views as presented in this correspondence. I will not add to that discussion here. Interested readers should consult the bibliography for further direction on this point. I shall, however, outline the central philosophical issues addressed in the correspondence and move on to suggest a particular interpretation of Elisabeth's writings. Readers have only just begun to take Elisabeth's side of the correspondence as representing a positive philosophical view rather than simply a reaction to Descartes' own program. The interpretation I suggest here is meant to be a starting point, to help readers think carefully about Elisabeth's side of the correspondence and so to hear her voice. Before turning to the philosophical content, I provide some biographical notes on both Elisabeth and Descartes.


Elisabeth Simmern van Pallandt was born in Heidelberg on 26 December 1618, the third child and eldest daughter of Frederick V, Elector Palatine and later king of Bohemia, and Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England and sister of Charles I. Elisabeth was one of thirteen children, two of whom, Louis and Charlotte, died in infancy. She died on 8 February 1680 as abbess of the Lutheran convent at Herford in the Rhine valley. Relatively little is known about her life outside of her family relations. These relations, however, not only provide a context for some of the comments Elisabeth makes to Descartes but also help situate Elisabeth in the politics of the early and mid-seventeenth century.

Elisabeth's parents' marriage in 1613 was touted as the union of English and continental Protestantism and so was taken as promise of the new strength of the Protestant movement in Catholic Europe. Shortly after their marriage, the Protestant electors of Bohemia, of which Frederick was one, revolted against the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II. This revolt culminated in the Defenestration of Prague, the event usually taken as the start of the Thirty Years' War. The electors persuaded Frederick V, as president of the Protestant Union, to assume the crown, and in Au gust 1620 he departed Heidelberg for Prague with his wife and eldest son, Frederick Henry. Elisabeth and her older brother Charles Louis (also known as Karl Ludwig) were entrusted to the care of their paternal grandmother, Juliana of Nassau, and aunt, Catherine.

Frederick's reign was short-lived. It did not take him very long to lose the support of the electors, nor did it take Ferdinand long to regain his forces. On 8 November 1620 Frederick, no longer supported by his fellow electors, lost his new kingdom at the Battle of White Mountain. Shortly thereafter, Spanish forces took the other lands of the Palatinate, and Frederick earned for himself the title of Winter King. Frederick V and his wife, Elizabeth, along with their eldest child, Frederick Henry, and their infant son, Rupert, fl ed to Brandenburg, where his sister Charlotte and her husband, the elector of Brandenburg, sheltered them. With the enemy forces approaching Heidelberg, Juliana fled to Brandenburg as well, joined by her daughter Catherine, Elisabeth, and Charles Louis. In 1621, Frederick and Elizabeth moved on to The Hague, sheltered by his maternal uncle, Maurice of Nassau. Princess Elisabeth, along with several of her siblings, stayed at Brandenburg with her grandmother and aunts until the late 1620s, when they were sent for to The Hague.

The events in Bohemia exacerbated already existing tensions in continental Europe and developed into the Thirty Years' War. Not only did the struggle between Frederick V and Ferdinand reflect and deepen divisions between German Protestant princes and German Catholic princes, but it also served as a touchstone for worries about Hapsburg hegemony in Europe. The Spanish king intervened to help Ferdinand because both were of the Hapsburg family. War erupted in southern Germany and ignited a conflict between Denmark and Sweden that spread into northern Germany. As part of this conflict, in 1632, Elisabeth's father died as a result of wounds suffered battling on behalf of King Gustav of Sweden. Gustav was the father of Queen Christina. Eventually, the Dutch and French forces entered the war as well. Peace negotiations did not begin in earnest until 1640 and were quite protracted, even while French and Swedish forces conquered Germany. Negotiations concluded finally with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The Hapsburg empire was in decline, and the German economy, countryside, and population were left ravaged.

Elisabeth's siblings seemed to have figured quite prominently in her life, either through the course of events or through their rather distinctive characters. Frederick Henry, the eldest child, was born in 1614 and died at fifteen as the result of a boating accident during a tour he and his father made of the Spanish fleet at harbor in the Netherlands. Charles Louis was born second, in 1617. At the end of the Thirty Years' War he gained control of what remained of the Palatinate. During his reign he restored and rejuvenated the University of Heidelberg. Rupert, born in 1619, gained fame on two fronts: for his chemical experiments and pioneering use of the engraving technique of mezzotint; and for his soldiering in defense of the crown during the English Civil War. He was instrumental in the founding of the Hudson's Bay Company. Maurice, born in 1620, was also known for his soldiering, though he died in battle in 1654. Elisabeth's sister, Louise Hollandine, was born in 1622 and gained fame as an accomplished painter, taught by Gerritt van Honthorst. She converted to Catholicism and concluded her life as abbess of the convent at Maubisson. Louis, the next born, died at sixteen months. Edward was born in 1624. In this correspondence with Descartes, Elisabeth shows herself to be appalled at the transparency of his bad faith in converting to Catholicism to marry Anne of Gonzaga. Apparently, Louise Hollandine converted in good faith. The sisters remained close until Elisabeth's death. The next sister, Henrietta, was born in 1626 and married a Hungarian nobleman, Sigismund Rakoczy. She died in 1651, just a few months after her marriage. Charlotte, the next sibling, died at age two. Philip, born in 1629, and Sophie, born in 1630, both figure in the correspondence. Sophie served as intermediary for Descartes' letters to Elisabeth while Elisabeth was in Berlin. Later, Sophie, through her marriage to Ernst Augustus, became electress of Hanover. Her son became George I of England, but she is also renowned for her intellectual patronage, most particularly of Leibniz, who tutored her daughter Sophie-Charlotte. Philip's appearance in these letters is not so distinguished. He is the source of some difficulty on Elisabeth's part, having challenged a suitor of his mother's (and perhaps of his sister Louise as well) to a duel, only to stab him to death in a public square instead. Elisabeth, for defending her brother's actions, was sent away from The Hague by her mother. Philip died battling for Spain in 1650.


Excerpted from THE CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN PRINCESS ELISABETH OF BOHEMIA AND RENÉ DESCARTES Copyright © 2007 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Read More Show Less

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
Series Editors’ Introduction  ix
Volume Editor’s Introduction
Volume Editor’s Bibliography
Note on Texts and Translation
The Correspondence
Appendix: Additional Correspondence of Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia
Series Editors’ Bibliography

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously

    If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
    Why is this product inappropriate?
    Comments (optional)