René Descartes' playing cards aka flash cards aka memory palace

Earlier today a fellow researcher tipped me off that

René Descartes (1596-1650) designed a deck of playing cards that also functioned as flash cards to learn geometry and mechanics. (King of Clubs from The use of the geometrical playing-cards, as also A discourse of the mechanick powers. By Monsi. Des-Cartes. Translated from his own manuscript copy. Printed and sold by J. Moxon at the Atlas in Warwick Lane, London.)

My immediate thought is that this deck of cards was meant not just as flash cards, but they are also their own memory palace to which one might associate the geometry and mechanics facts! I’m curious what training in rhetoric/memory methods Descartes must have had?

By the way, you can download the entire deck from the Beinecke Library.

In your link
Page was not found there.

The correct link :slight_smile:


Yates has quite a bit on Descartes , who sought to reform the art of memory. TBH I have a stinking cold this morning and Yates is a bit above my mental pay -grade so I CBA to read it in depth but I’m sure you have a copy.

Here a bit of what Yates has to say on Descartes:

Descartes also exercised his great mind on the art of memory and how it might be reformed, and the mnemonic author who gave rise to his reflections was none other than Lambert Schenkel. In the Cogitationes privatae there is the following remark:

On reading through Schenkel’s profitable trifles [in the book De arte memoria ] I thought of an easy way of making myself master of all I discovered through the imagination. This would be done through the reduction of things to their causes. Since all can be reduced to one it is obviously not necessary to remember all the sciences. When one understands the causes all vanished images can easily be found again in the brain through the impression of the cause. This is the true art of memory and it is plain contrary to his [Schenkel’s] nebulous notions. Not that his [art] is without effect, but it occupies the whole space with too many things and not in the right order. The right order is that the images should be formed in dependence on one another. He [Schenkel] omits this which is the key to the whole mystery.

I have thought of another way; that out of unconnected images should be composed new images common to them all, or that one image should be made which should have reference not only to the one nearest to it but to them all – so that the fifth should refer to the first through a spear thrown on the ground, the middle one through a ladder on which they descend, the second one through an arrow thrown at it, and similarly the third should be connected in some way either real or fictitious.14

Curiously enough, Descartes’s suggested reform of memory is nearer to ‘occult’ principles than Bacon’s, for occult memory does reduce all things to their supposed causes whose images when impressed on memory are believed to organize the subsidiary images. Had Descartes consulted Paepp on ‘detecting’ Schenkel15 he would have known of this. The phrase about the ‘impression of the cause’ through which all vanished images can be found might easily be that of an occult memory artist. Of course Descartes is certainly not thinking on such lines but his brilliant new idea of organizing memory on causes sounds curiously like a rationalization of occult memory. His other notions about forming connected images are far from new and can be found in some form in nearly every text-book.

It seems unlikely that Descartes made much use of local memory, which, according to quotations in Baillet’s Life , he neglected to practise much in his retreat and which he regarded as ‘corporeal memory’ and ‘outside of us’ as compared with ‘intellectual memory’ which is within and incapable of increase or decrease.16 This singularly crude idea is in keeping with Descartes’s lack of interest in the imagination and its functioning. Rossi suggests, however, that the memory principles of order and arrangement influenced Descartes, as they did Bacon.

Both Bacon and Descartes knew of the art of Lull to which they both refer in very derogatory terms. Discussing false methods in the Advancement , Bacon says:

There hath been also laboured and put into practice a method, which is not a lawful method, but a method of imposture; which is, to deliver knowledges in such a manner, as men may speedily come to make a show of learning who have it not. Such was the travail of Raymundus Lullus in making that art which bears his name…17

And Descartes in the Discours de la méthode is equally severe on the Lullian art which serves but to enable one ‘to speak without judgment of those things of which one is ignorant’.18

Thus neither the discoverer of the inductive method, which was not to lead to scientifically valuable results, nor the discoverer of the method of analytical geometry, which was to revolutionize the world as the first systematic application of mathematics to the investigation of nature, have anything good to say of the method of Ramon Lull. Why indeed should they? What possible connexion can there be between the ‘emergence of modern science’ and that medieval art, so frantically revived and ‘occultized’ in the Renaissance, with its combinatory systems based on Divine Names or attributes. Nevertheless the Art of Ramon Lull had this in common with the aims of Bacon and Descartes. It promised to provide a universal art or method which, because based on reality, could be applied for the solution of all problems. Moreover it was a kind of geometrical logic, with its squares and triangles and its revolving combinatory wheels; and it used a notation of letters to express the concepts with which it was dealing.

When outlining his new method to Beeckman, in a letter of March 1619, Descartes said that what he was meditating was not an ars brevis of Lull, but a new science which would be able to solve all questions concerning quantity.19 The operative word is, of course, ‘quantity’, marking the great change from qualitative and symbolic use of number. The mathematical method was hit upon at last, but in order to realize the atmosphere in which it was found we should know something of those frenzied preoccupations with arts of memory, combinatory arts, Cabalist arts, which the Renaissance bequeathed to the seventeenth century. The occultist tide was receding and in the changed atmosphere the search turns in the direction of rational method.


@GibtsDochGarNicht Thanks for the reference to Yates as well as circling back around with a longer quote. I gave up on Yates in chapter 6 as I felt she had a strong grasp on the historical aspect, but didn’t seem to actually grok the actual aspects and applications of memory she was writing about. From her writing, I always felt like she never tried any of the methods directly. This always made it seem so bloodless.

I’ve been meaning to come back to her work and finish it out, but have been distracted by the texts by Mary Carruthers and @LynneKelly lately.

1 Like

I wasn’t joking when I said that Yates was above my intellectual paygrade. It is a very dense scholarly work, and invaluable as a reference but TBH I usually let Anthony Metivier and others explain it in language i can follow.
That said, it must have a central place on every serious mnemonist’s bookshelf. It is still, as far as I know. THE go-to work.
One of the many great things about Lynne Kelly’s books are that they are written for ‘normal’ people.


Thank you so much for the lovely comments. And thank you for reminding me of Yates on Descartes. I had forgotten all that.

This is a lovely theme. I hadn’t seen the card deck so really appreciate the link. I use a playing card deck and a tarot deck as a memory palace of sorts, for the set of historical figures I have chosen as my ‘ancestors’ - people I can learn from and link other people to. My two decks give me 130 of them. Descartes is there as the Queen of Clubs. I didn’t do too well on matching genders to the picture cards!

But I haven’t redrawn them. I rather like that idea. Another experiment to try!

I must go back to Yates. I also find it heavy going, but agree she is an essential part of any memory bookshelf.


One of the ‘downsides’ to this whole memory thing…there’s just so much to try! After reading your thoughts on ‘singing’ I am playing around with ‘singing’ (and I use the term in the loosest possible sense of the word, being profoundly tone-deaf) various bits of Old English grammar! It seems that Old English adjectives fit quite well to Bowie’s ‘Major Tom’…who knew? And ‘rapscallions’ are on the list too.


Love it! I sing memory songs in the shower every day and it sounds great to me. Pity the rest of the family don’t agree!

Love my rapscallions!


Yeah I live with a similar bunch of Philistines! People, who in the words of the bard(s) “ain’t got no culture!”…ooooooh now there’s a thought…Old English might fit nicely into “A Simple Desultory Philippic” ,oh yes, ♬"I’ve been Ayn Rand’ed… Him ða Scyld gewat to gescæphwile"♬