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Mathematician, Doctor, Philosopher

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On 30th August 2004 the following article about Descartes appeared on the philatelic newsgroup news:rec.collecting.stamps.discuss, compiled by Mr. Blair Stannard (Canada).

René Descartes (1596-1650) is one of the most important Western philosophers of the past few centuries. During his lifetime, Descartes
was just as famous as an original physicist, physiologist and mathematician. But it is as a highly original philosopher that he is most frequently read today. He attempted to restart philosophy in a fresh direction. For example, his philosophy refused to accept the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions that had dominated philosophical thought throughout the Medieval period; it attempted to fully integrate philosophy with the 'new' sciences; and Descartes changed the relationship between philosophy and theology. Such new directions for philosophy made Descartes into a revolutionary figure.

The two most widely known of Descartes' philosophical ideas are those of a method of hyperbolic doubt, and the argument that, though he may doubt, he cannot doubt that he exists. The first of these comprises a key aspect of Descartes' philosophical method. As noted above,  he refused to accept the authority of previous philosophers - but he also refused to accept the obviousness of his own senses. In the search for a foundation for philosophy, whatever could be doubted must be rejected. He resolves to trust only that which is clearly and distinctly seen to be beyond any doubt. In this manner, Descartes peels away the layers of beliefs and opinions that clouded his view of the truth. But, very little remains, only the simple fact of doubting itself, and the inescapable inference that something exists doubting, namely Descartes himself.

His next task is to reconstruct our knowledge piece by piece, such that at no stage is the possibility of doubt allowed to creep back in.
In this manner, Descartes proves that he himself must have the basic characterisitc of thinking, and that this thinking thing (mind) is quite distinct from his body; the existence of a God; the existence and nature of the external world; and so on. What is important in this for Descartes is, first, that he is showing that knowledge is genuinely possible (and thus that sceptics must be mistaken), and, second, that,  more particularly, a mathematically-based scientific knowledge of the material world is possible.  

Descartes' work was influential, although his studies in physics and the other natural sciences much less so than his mathematical and philosophical work. Throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, Descartes' philosophical ghost was always present: Locke, Hume, Leibniz  and even Kant felt compelled to philosophical engage (often negatively, of course) with this philosophical giant. For these reasons, Descartes is often called the 'father' of modern philosophy.  

The stamps .... 
The first two stamps to commemorate Descartes were issued by France on a date between May 20, 1937 and June 10, 1937 (sources disagree).  

It was in commemoration of the third centenary of the publication of Discours de la Méthode (Stamp #1 shows "Discours sur la Méthode")

The reissued correction shows "Discours de la Méthode")
;  (see story on the scandal below)

In 1942, Descartes appeared on a French 100 Franc banknote.   
He appeared on them again in 1944

A 100-franc silver coin was issued by France in 1991

Also in 1991, a larger 100-franc (15 ECU) silver proof coin was issued as well as a 500-franc (70 ECU) gold proof coin.

In 1994 France issued a silver 1 ECU proof coin for Descartes. 

The third stamp was issued by France in 1996 on the 400th anniversary of his birth

Number four was issued by Albania in 1996 (this stamp apparently features a misspelling of the Latin form of Descartes, which should be

Number five was issued by Monaco in 1996, his 400th birth anniversary

A medallion was also issued by France in 1996 on the 400th anniversary of his birth

The sixth stamp was issued by Grenada in 2000

The seventh was issued by Sierra Leone in 2000 

The Scandal: Discours "sur" la methode or "de" la methode? 
The international exhibition of 1937  (my translations)

We are in 1937 and preparing for the French international exhibition which, this year will honour the French philosopher Rene Descartes.

The Minister of Postes, Robert Jardillier envisaged to celebrate the event by the emission of a Descartes commemorative stamp of 90 C   intended to replace the previous 90c Puy in Velay stamp.

Moreover, pressed by several important personalities, Jardillier lets people know that this emission is envisaged and will arrive on time.

In fact, the stamp is printed and May 19, and 20, 1937.   692,000 specimens are dispatched at the post offices, and an image of it is communicated to the press.

The Press explodes 
Journalists note with amazement the erroneous legend: "discours sur la  methode".       The press ignites.

The Dunce's cap for the postal and telecommunications authorities
"Everyone knows that the major work of Descartes is entitled "Discours de la Methode". Only the authorities of the administration of posts and telecommunications seem to be unaware of this monumental work of French thought. It is not painful that it has, at its head, an academic in the person of Mr. Jardillier. A simple rural letter carrier would have been better Cartesian. "

Le Figaro, May 20, 1937 
"Up to now, in the contest of the dunce's cap, the office of Mr. Jean Zay had a good lead: that of Mr. Jardillier has just gained a point."

L'Echo de Paris, May 20, 1937 
Immediately, on May 20 at 17:10 (5:10 PM), the minister telegraphs  to all of his regional managers and departmental staff, a circular to direct them to return the Descartes stamps:

"To stop distribution and return to the accounting agencies all Descartes stamps. Particularly rigorous measures will have to be taken to ensure the complete return of all supplies (of stamps) received."

Mr. Jardillier, May 20, 1937 
They also asks Henri Cheffer (the engraver) to modify the stamp model.  HE is satisfied to stick a small piece of paper with "de" over the
word "sur".  The new stamp model: 

The recovery of the stamps
The whole supply of the stamps was recovered except for some in Finistère and l'Indre.  In Indre, a clerk prematurely sold 38 stamps
in the office of Issoudun and 1 stamp in the office of Vatan. As of May 31, 1937  all were recovered except for the specimen sold in

The battleship "Comodoro Rivadavia"** affair 
In Finistère, in Brest the story becomes complicated.  A hundred stamps were sold to the postal officer (purser) of the Argentinian
battleship "Comodoro Rivadavia" at the time of a stopover. 

The telegraphic order sent by the minister was not carried out immediately by the main post office of Brest and, the following day, it is already too late, the Argentinian sailors had used the stamps.

The information did not remain confidential and the Minister of Posts, questioned by the Senate was required to make a report which concludes:  "(...) In short, out of the 692,000 stamps which post offices had been supplied with, 131 did not return to the vaults of the Accounting Agency of postage stamps in the boulevard Brune (signed)  "E Quenot, Director postal production, May 31, 1937" 

Minister Jardillier does not want to be held responsible for speculation.  He decides to carry out the emission of the two stamps (the error and the corrected one) at the same time.  The stamps will be put into circulation on June 10, 1937 in Paris and on June 11 in the provinces.   

Please note that, today,  the erroneous stamp, which is preferred by philatelists, costs less than the corrected stamp, of which less were sold. 

Some Unadopted Descartes Designs

** a brief history of the Comodoro Rivadavia (1914-1957)
including a reference to the 1937 visit to Brest can be found at:

I hope that this information has cleared some of the mystery about the Descartes stamp issue of 1937. 
Blair Stannard  

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