Computers & Texts No. 15
Table of Contents
August 1997

Review: CD-ROM Descartes

Vie, Philosophie et Oeuvre

Tim Unwin
University of Liverpool

Coinciding with the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of Descartes in 1596, there have been a number of significant tributes to the man who has been described as 'the best known philosopher in the Western world since Socrates'. This CD-ROM does not, however, claim to be a new work of scholarship. Rather, it presents itself as a teaching instrument, designed to lead the student in an agreeable and lively manner into and through the work of Descartes. The editors point out that the package is aimed at the final-year high-school student or the undergraduate - although it should be pointed out that the entire CD-ROM is in French and designed mainly with the somewhat different French educational context in mind. However, any student with a good working knowledge of French should find this package easy enough to work with. Alongside the copious inclusion of text (all of Descartes' major works are here), there are audio readings and recorded explanations of various aspects of his system. One of the most striking and appealing features of the package is indeed the quality and the clarity of these readings, for which the student also has access to the written text.


The most significant feature of the CD-ROM is the inclusion of some 5000 pages of text, in other words all of Descartes' philosophical works and most of his correspondence. Sensibly, however, in view of the large corpus, the editors have not tried to establish a new scholarly edition, the more so since their goal is so clearly educational and pedagogical. Their aim has been above all to produce a reasonable and reliable working text. Thus they have based their text, for the most part, on the edition prepared by the great nineteenth-century philosopher, Victor Cousin, except where that edition has been most obviously surpassed or made redundant by more recent work.

But the works themselves, each of which can be consulted with two clicks of the mouse, are only one facet of this package. The main menu, visible at the bottom of each screen, divides into six (admittedly fairly standard) parts: 'Entre', 'Vie', 'Monde', 'Philosophie', 'Oeuvres', 'Outils'. After the 'Entre', which gives us a cheerful burst of baroque music and lists the credits, we have the life of Descartes, a screen which scrolls to the left and reveals basic information in graphical and text form. When the dates are clicked on, a spoken account is given of, for example, Descartes' family origins, his life in Holland, the publication of the Discours de la méthode, or his reaction to Galileo's recantation - all with accompanying texts and references. The next section, 'Monde', is a screen fresco with images which, when clicked upon, call up readings from the works (I myself found this section a little on the lightweight and gimmicky side). More substantially, 'Philosophie' then gives us the main themes and key points of Descartes' philosophy, with approachable explanations, files of important passages linking in, and occasional animations. Among the latter, one finds for example a graphical demonstration of Descartes' principles on physiology, and another on the central question of Cartesian doubt - all made easy and approachable for the uninitiated. Then comes the weightiest section entitled 'Oeuvres' (mentioned above), and finally 'Outils', which is where the real essence of our manipulation of this CD-ROM lies.

descartes screenshot

Fig.1. The works and images of Descartes

descartes screenshot

Use and Manipulatiom

In the utilities menu ('Outils'), apart from a very up-to-date Bibliography (even works from late 1996 are listed), there is also a lexicon listing some 1500 words and terms which Descartes uses in a special sense, and giving explanations of them. Most importantly, however, there is a note-taking facility. Designed either for the individual student or for the teacher who wishes to provide a guided commentary on selected passages, the note-taking facility opens up a dialogue box over the active screen. This box divides into two principal windows (with further possible refinements if one takes many notes and wishes to classify them). One window captures the passages which are already on screen, and the other (to its right) provides space for personal notes and commentaries. These notes can then be exported if necessary, and inserted into any normal word-processing package. It is certainly an attractive way of encouraging the student to interact with the contents of the CD-ROM, and is also a useful facility for the conscientious teacher who is not afraid of her notes being plundered! Unfortunately, however, it is the only way to export text from the CD-ROM, and as such it is rather cumbersome, since the text has to be taken paragraph by paragraph (each time a separate operation). How much easier it would have been, one thinks, to be able to highlight text and copy it straight to the buffer.

Indeed, the drawbacks of this package lie perhaps more generally at the level of the user interface. Although a dedicated student or teacher will no doubt learn a great deal about Descartes' philosophy by a careful perusal of its contents, the CD-ROM is not always easy to manipulate, nor is navigation through it entirely intuitive. There is a certain learning curve involved simply in mastering the framework, and in seeing how the various elements interact. The rather sombre colours used do not help in this respect. From the pedagogue's point of view, there is always of course the fear - as with so many packages of this kind - that the cynical student will simply purloin large sections of text and explanation, and eventually paste them into some assignment with a minimum of real intervention. The serious and the conscientious student or teacher should not, however, be daunted. The CD-ROM is a mine of information, the explanations are by and large excellent, the texts are presented clearly and cleanly, and there are many features which can help navigation.


The editors claim that the CD-ROM will function adequately with a PC 486 or later and a minimum of 8 MB RAM. For the PC platform, this may be a little optimistic. Although I was unable to test the package on a Macintosh, the PC platform I used was somewhat beyond the minimum requirements (Pentium 100 Mhz, 16 MB RAM). Operating and response times were slow even with this combination, indeed irritatingly so at times, so one wonders how those using the minimum recommended requirements might fare. One interesting feature is that two different initialisation files are available for the package when it is used on a PC: one for Windows 95 and one for Windows 3.1. I tried both, but alas found similarly slow response times. Indeed, at certain points in one's navigation through the CD-ROM, the temptation to exit is strong, the more so since short cuts are not always made available.


An excellent and wide-ranging account of Descartes' philosophy, comparable with the very best manuals. For the most part attractively presented, with beautifully clear readings from the texts and excellent audio explanations (its best feature). However, there are some drawbacks in operating terms, and the absence of a more flexible means of exporting text has to be considered a major disadvantage. Aesthetically, the screen colours, tending towards a rather dull brown, are a disappointment. Definitely recommended, however, for those who are both interested in Descartes and at ease with multimedia packages. Further information can be found on the authors' own site at which lists the contents and gives further details of how to order.

The CD-ROM showed somewhat improved operation in terms of speed when used on a Macintosh (16 MB RAM), and the screen colours in particular seem better suited to the Macintosh system.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 15 (1997), p. 19 Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

HTML Author: Sarah Porter
Document Created: 9 September 1997
Document Modified:

The URL of this document is