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On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, Frenchman René Descartes, the most influential & controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a lonely death far from home. 16 years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes' bones & transported them to France. Why would this devoutly Catholic official care so much about the remains of On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, Frenchman René Descartes, the most influential & controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a lonely death far from home. 16 years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes' bones & transported them to France. Why would this devoutly Catholic official care so much about the remains of a philosopher who was hounded from country to country on charges of atheism? Why would Descartes' bones take such a strange, serpentine path over the next 350 years—a path intersecting some of the grandest events imaginable: the birth of science, the rise of democracy, the mind-body problem, the conflict between faith & reason? Their story involves people from all walks of life—Louis XIV, a Swedish casino operator, poets & playwrights, philosophers & physicists, as these people used the bones in scientific studies, stole them, sold them, revered them as relics, fought over them, passed them surreptitiously from hand to hand. The answer lies in Descartes’ famous phrase: Cogito ergo sum—"I think, therefore I am." In his deceptively simple 78-page essay, Discourse on the Method, this small, vain, vindictive, peripatetic, ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2000 years of received wisdom & laid the foundations of the modern world. At the root of Descartes’ method was skepticism: "What can I know for certain?" Like-minded thinkers around Europe passionately embraced the book--the method was applied to medicine, nature, politics & society. The notion that one could find truth in facts that could be proved, & not in reliance on tradition & the Church's teachings, would become a turning point in human history. In an age of faith, what Descartes was proposing seemed like heresy. Yet Descartes himself was a good Catholic, who was spurred to write his incendiary book for the most personal of reasons: He'd devoted himself to medicine & the study of nature, but when his beloved daughter died aged 5, he took his ideas deeper. To understand the natural world one needed to question everything. Thus the scientific method was created & religion overthrown. If the natural world could be understood, knowledge could be advanced, & others might not suffer as his child did. The great controversy Descartes ignited continues to our era: where Islamic terrorists spurn the modern world & pine for a culture based on unquestioning faith; where scientists write bestsellers that passionately make the case for atheism; where others struggle to find a balance between faith & reason. Descartes’ Bonesis a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind, with twists & turns leading up to the present day—to the science museum in Paris where the philosopher’s skull now resides & to the church a few kilometers away where, not long ago, a philosopher-priest said a mass for his bones.


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On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, Frenchman René Descartes, the most influential & controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a lonely death far from home. 16 years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes' bones & transported them to France. Why would this devoutly Catholic official care so much about the remains of On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, Frenchman René Descartes, the most influential & controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a lonely death far from home. 16 years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes' bones & transported them to France. Why would this devoutly Catholic official care so much about the remains of a philosopher who was hounded from country to country on charges of atheism? Why would Descartes' bones take such a strange, serpentine path over the next 350 years—a path intersecting some of the grandest events imaginable: the birth of science, the rise of democracy, the mind-body problem, the conflict between faith & reason? Their story involves people from all walks of life—Louis XIV, a Swedish casino operator, poets & playwrights, philosophers & physicists, as these people used the bones in scientific studies, stole them, sold them, revered them as relics, fought over them, passed them surreptitiously from hand to hand. The answer lies in Descartes’ famous phrase: Cogito ergo sum—"I think, therefore I am." In his deceptively simple 78-page essay, Discourse on the Method, this small, vain, vindictive, peripatetic, ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2000 years of received wisdom & laid the foundations of the modern world. At the root of Descartes’ method was skepticism: "What can I know for certain?" Like-minded thinkers around Europe passionately embraced the book--the method was applied to medicine, nature, politics & society. The notion that one could find truth in facts that could be proved, & not in reliance on tradition & the Church's teachings, would become a turning point in human history. In an age of faith, what Descartes was proposing seemed like heresy. Yet Descartes himself was a good Catholic, who was spurred to write his incendiary book for the most personal of reasons: He'd devoted himself to medicine & the study of nature, but when his beloved daughter died aged 5, he took his ideas deeper. To understand the natural world one needed to question everything. Thus the scientific method was created & religion overthrown. If the natural world could be understood, knowledge could be advanced, & others might not suffer as his child did. The great controversy Descartes ignited continues to our era: where Islamic terrorists spurn the modern world & pine for a culture based on unquestioning faith; where scientists write bestsellers that passionately make the case for atheism; where others struggle to find a balance between faith & reason. Descartes’ Bonesis a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind, with twists & turns leading up to the present day—to the science museum in Paris where the philosopher’s skull now resides & to the church a few kilometers away where, not long ago, a philosopher-priest said a mass for his bones.

30 review for Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tom Quinn

    [T]he modernist need to distance society from religion didn't obviate the human need to connect with the past, to come to terms with mortality. Just as religious buildings were co-opted for secular, humanistic purposes that were nevertheless somehow transcendent, the notion of certain human bones becoming conduits between the mortal and the divine was taken over and given new meaning. They may have been desacralized, symbolic of worldly achievement and advance, but the Enlightenment still had it [T]he modernist need to distance society from religion didn't obviate the human need to connect with the past, to come to terms with mortality. Just as religious buildings were co-opted for secular, humanistic purposes that were nevertheless somehow transcendent, the notion of certain human bones becoming conduits between the mortal and the divine was taken over and given new meaning. They may have been desacralized, symbolic of worldly achievement and advance, but the Enlightenment still had its relics. (107)Often the best nonfiction reads like a novel. Dramatized events, larger-than-life characters, a blending of known facts and reconstruction—all this makes for a great read, and is the type of presentation Descartes' Bones delivers in spades. It is, as the well-worn book reviewer's cliché has it, hard to put down. Author Russell Shorto's grand and sweeping declarations—that Descartes' method of critical thinking was no less significant than the Industrial Revolution, the French and American Revolutions, the rise of the Internet—make for a big, fierce hook. All told, this book serves as a great primer for Descartes' basic arguments and influence on Western thought. I knew the bare essentials from Philosophy 101 already: Cogito ergo sum, dualism, the mind-body problem, what else is there? Plenty. Shorto carves out a very substantial niche in history for Descartes to occupy, and does so with very lively writing, far above the norm for nonfiction. For example:Layers of tradition had built up around such categories for understanding reality. Centuries of robed scholars and scribes had bent in tallow-tapered light over parchment sheets and leather-bound manuscripts, mouthing words, quill-scratching, rubricating, memorizing, parsing and analyzing and adding levels to the hoary infrastructure that had these categories as elements and that was applied as an increasingly unwieldy tool to explain natural phenomena, human behavior, history, the universe. (18)Descartes' biography and historical role and essential philosophy are all made clear from the start. Our author's "Faith vs. Reason" conflict is murkier at first, but blossoms in the later chapters. He takes a few early swipes at religious fundamentalism, weakly at first but much, much stronger towards the end. I guess he assumes, probably rightly, that his readers already side with Reason over Faith. But the term "conflict" is fitting and takes greater shape as he analyzes how Cartesian logic threatened the Catholic church's doctrine, especially the miracle of transubstantiation. It is in his thorough and articulate explanations that this book really sets itself apart and demonstrates substantial, meaty philosophical and historical research. Descartes' skeleton, and especially its flagship skull, serves as a touchstone around which Shorto describes the various trends of developing European culture and new branches of science that rose and fell with the passing centuries. And it all builds towards a beautiful finale, placing Cartesianism front and center as relevant still today:We are all philosophers because our condition demands it. We live every moment in a universe of seemingly eternal thoughts and ideas, yet simultaneously in the constantly churning and decaying world of our bodies and their humble situations. We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death. The result is a nagging need to find meaning. This is where the esoteric "mind-body problem" of philosophy professors becomes meaningful to us all, where it translates into tears and laughter. (251)5 stars out of 5. Extremely well-done.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Mikey B.

    This is a marvellous historiography of philosophy and the Enlightenment. It gives an overview starting with Descartes and how his views impacted the world. It is very entertaining and readable with a minimum of philosophical jargon. Its’ “European philosophy 101” and I see nothing wrong with that. The basic premise is that Descartes pulled Europe away from an ecclesiastical paradigm. Prior, religion was the primary knowledge source for everything. Descartes liberated the search for knowledge. Nat This is a marvellous historiography of philosophy and the Enlightenment. It gives an overview starting with Descartes and how his views impacted the world. It is very entertaining and readable with a minimum of philosophical jargon. Its’ “European philosophy 101” and I see nothing wrong with that. The basic premise is that Descartes pulled Europe away from an ecclesiastical paradigm. Prior, religion was the primary knowledge source for everything. Descartes liberated the search for knowledge. Nature (man included) was something that could now be studied without the need of religion to intervene – or more bluntly, religion became superfluous for the accumulation and spreading of knowledge. Knowledge came to be viewed as rational and analytical. Theology became relegated to a branch of the learning tree. God was no longer a major player in the acquisition of learning. The author cleverly imparts this overview to us by giving the history of Descartes bones or skeletal remains through the ages. It is a detective story where we learn the influence of Descartes on the history of learning since the publication of his Discourses. There is a brief discussion of the persistence of religion in our society (both Christian and Muslim) and its’ constant collision with the secular world that started with the writings of Descartes. No real solutions are offered except to suggest that the worlds must co-exist by moderates on both sides coming to an accommodation. All-in-all this is a most readable work on the European Enlightenment. The author traces well the different thought patterns or philosophical off-shoots of Descartes legacy.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Clif Hostetler

    The author uses the story of Descartes' bones as a metaphor for the divisive and rambling path toward human progress. The use of Descartes' bones in this way is doubly clever because not only is the physical path of the bones mysterious and controversial; Descartes' philosophy of questioning received wisdom had its own controversy with traditional thinking. The book follows the history of The Enlightenment through to today's three-way tension between moderates, religious fundamentalist, and secu The author uses the story of Descartes' bones as a metaphor for the divisive and rambling path toward human progress. The use of Descartes' bones in this way is doubly clever because not only is the physical path of the bones mysterious and controversial; Descartes' philosophy of questioning received wisdom had its own controversy with traditional thinking. The book follows the history of The Enlightenment through to today's three-way tension between moderates, religious fundamentalist, and secular fundamentalist. Ironically, there is enough traditional thinking in Descartes' writing to allow all sides in the later controversies to claim him, and this is paralleled by the multiple conflicting claims of possessing his bones. The meaning of Descartes' most famous quotation is discussed early in the book: "As philosophers since have pointed out, "I think, Therefore I am," or "Je pense, donc je suis," or "Cogito, ergo sum," does not fully encompass what Descartes intended. Once the acid of his methodological doubt had eaten its way through everything else, what he was left with was not, technically, even an "I" but merely the realization that there was thinking going on. More correct than "I think, therefore I am" would be "Thinking is taking place, therefore there must be that which thinks." but that hardly has the snap to make it a slogan fit for generations of T-shirts and cartoon panels." The following is a portion of the book's discussion of the controversies related to mind/body separation: "There was then, as there is now, what might be termed a liberal-conservative divide in attempts to resolve the problem. Put another way, there is a connection between the esoteric efforts to tackle dualism and the sorts of real-world battles that fill newspapers and occupy TV talk shows. Those on the left have tended to accept the seeming consequences of equating mind and brain: if it means that basic features of society — the self, religion, marriage, moral systems — need to be reconstructed along new lines, so be it. .... The point is not that mind-equals-brain requires one to hold particular positions on these topics but that it allows for a wide range of moral speculations. The "conservative" stance has been to fight to keep "mind" separate from "body" — to preserve the status quo, whether in matters of religion, the family, or the self, to maintain that there is an eternal, unchanging basis of values. With regard to Descartes, the irony is that the man who was once seen as the herald of the modern program, the breaker of all icons and traditions, had by the nineteenth century become part of the conservative argument, the man who built a protective wall around the eternal verities, keeping them from the corrosive forces of modernity."The following is a portion of the author's advocacy for a middle way: "In these pages I have taken up Johathan Israel's thesis that there was a three-way division that came into being as modernity matured. There was the theological camp, which held on to a worldview grounded in religious tradition; the "Radical Enlightenment" camp, which in the advent of the "new philosophy," wanted to overthrow the old order, with its centers of power in the church and the monarch, and replace it with a society ruled by democracy and science; and the moderate Enlightenment camp, which subdivided into many factions but which basically took a middle position, arguing that the scientific and religious worldviews aren't truly inconsistent but that perceived conflicts have to be sorted out." .... If there is a solution to the dilemma of modernity, surely it lies in bringing the two wings into the middle, which is where most people live." The following is an insightful quotation from the book that caught my attention:"We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death. The result is a nagging need to find meaning. This is where the esoteric "mind-body problem" of philosophy professors becomes meaningful to us all, where it translates into tears and laughter."The following is an example of clever use of words in telling the story of the French Academy's decision regarding the genuineness of the skull that was purported to be Decartes':"They had applied their doubts to the very head that had introduced doubt as a tool for advancing knowledge. And in the end they gave the head a nod."The book provides a refreshing and civil discussion of philosophic debates. Weaving the story of Descartes' bones into the narrative makes the otherwise dry subject of philosophy an interesting read. The following is a short review of the book that was on my PageADay Booklover's Calendar for November 3, 2011: THE PHILOSOPHER’S LIFE AFTER DEATH “We are all philosophers because our condition demands it,” writes Russell Shorto in his thoughtful and entertaining account of the importance of Descartes. The relation of faith and reason—a very Cartesian concern—is, after all, a great preoccupation in our own time. In this engaging commingling of ideas, history, and sleuthing, Shorto explores Cartesian ideas as he tracks down the great philosopher’s bones, which were moved at least three times after his death (at one point the skull was even separated from the rest of the skeleton). DESCARTES’ BONES: A SKELETAL HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT BETWEEN FAITH AND REASON, by Russell Shorto (Doubleday, 2008)

  4. 5 out of 5

    Al Bità

    I very much enjoyed reading this clever book, if only for its overarching populist rendering of much of what we understand as the modern mind — or at least, as Shorto understands the modern mind to be… The sub-title of the book is: “A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason”, and as a “refresher” course on this theme I would have given the book five stars. For anyone starting off on this subject, I would strongly recommend this book as an excellent introduction. But I could not I very much enjoyed reading this clever book, if only for its overarching populist rendering of much of what we understand as the modern mind — or at least, as Shorto understands the modern mind to be… The sub-title of the book is: “A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason”, and as a “refresher” course on this theme I would have given the book five stars. For anyone starting off on this subject, I would strongly recommend this book as an excellent introduction. But I could not help entertain a niggling doubt or two (how Cartesian!) about it… I suspect it is because of the structure Shorto uses for his book. There are two “devices” employed: first, the rather obvious use of the amazing story relating to the history of the philosopher’s remains (it involves numerous exhumations and transferrals, and comes across more as a kind of “forensic” detective story of its own, but one which in itself has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of the sub-title). Shorto uses the “bones” as some kind of metaphor (not always successfully, in my opinion) for the subjects Shorto wants to present concerning the philosophical and religious ideas he wishes to talk about. The second “device” is the intellectual conceit that Descartes, more or less considered (in philosophical terms) to be the Father of Modern Philosophy, is, by that very fact equally “father” to just about every modern idea that can be attributed to reason, both absolutely, and in relation to the more subtle conflict this brings with simple matters of Faith. I’m not so sure about that… For starters, one would think the rationalism of most of the Ancient Greek thinkers — e.g. Pythagoras, Lucretius, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, etc .— would have to take a significant part in the story of Reason as it related to the Western world. It didn’t start with Descartes. Descartes’ main philosophical “novelty” was his Universal Doubt: one had to doubt everything in order to find out what, if anything, one can actually know to be real and true (i.e. this is first and foremost an epistemological concern). Descartes gives his “reasons” why we have to doubt everything (and this is the basis of his “Method”), and after all his ratiocinating what he is left with is the “knowledge” that someone, or something, is “ratiocinating”, and that that someone or something is the only thing we can “know” as real and existing… (hence the famous (infamous?) cogito, ergo sum: “I think, therefore I am”). Similarly, the so-called Mind/Body problem. Again, this is not a particularly new problem if one thinks the “mind” is the same as the “spirit” or the “soul”. Duality has been with us forever. Nor will it particularly “go away”, as it is part and parcel of “reality” itself (particularly in its original sense of res (a thing) aliter (other) i.e. “something other”). These are just brief excursions into some of the reasons I quibble about what Shorto is saying — and this is particularly so when he tries at the end to suggest some “middle way” between the Mind/Body problem with a rather wishy-washy concept of “love” or “heart” occupying that slash between the two. Even as I write this, however, I feel I am being too harsh. One thing I do feel sure about is that, provided one does not simply succumb to Shorto’s arguments as “true”, this book will stimulate and provoke, and if it gets the reader to ponder on these important topics, then it will have achieved an end that can only be good: so with that caveat, this book is recommended.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Wayne

    THIS is the book I've been searching for in my dreams. Exactly what happened and how it happened that the revival of philosophy and scientific thinking arose and grew into the 18th Century Enlightenment and laid the foundations of modern thinking which we take for granted. The Enlightenment was a mere plaque in the wall of 100 years plus of solid foundation building. And the roots go back immediately into the 1500's and 1600's and further into Ancient Greece, although Shorto concentrates on the imm THIS is the book I've been searching for in my dreams. Exactly what happened and how it happened that the revival of philosophy and scientific thinking arose and grew into the 18th Century Enlightenment and laid the foundations of modern thinking which we take for granted. The Enlightenment was a mere plaque in the wall of 100 years plus of solid foundation building. And the roots go back immediately into the 1500's and 1600's and further into Ancient Greece, although Shorto concentrates on the immediate causes. Copernicus and Galileo were already under a cloud for their arguments that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of our universe. However, their books were devoured by their contemporaries despite or because of their suppression. Contrary to the Catholic Church's expectations Science and Philosophy,which it had suppressed for over a thousand years took off, due largely to the revival of ancient knowledge with the Renaissance and the printing press which allowed knowledge to be easily disseminated. After a reign of over a thousand years, Theology, the stuff that dreams are made of, was going to come to grief at the hands of its thinking believers. Copernicus and Galileo had no doubts about God's existence, but they also had no doubts that their reasoning had overthrown the accepted teachings of tradition and authority. ENTER Descartes!!! -the dubious villian of the piece, also a good Catholic but a French philosopher, Rene Descartes, whose belief and promotion of rational doubt would wreak unintentional havoc on theology, tradition and accepted authority. Disillusioned with his Jesuit education, from which he salvaged only Mathematics, he found his answer in rational scepticism expressed in his question: "What can I know for certain?" This further strengthened the novel notion that one need not rely on authority or tradition, but on one's own thought processes, observation and experimentation. ie.finding truth in facts that could be proved, and the proof replicated. Descartes' book sold like hot cakes. Social Clubs were formed where experiments and discussion could indulge this new way of seeing the world. Passionate application of his thought was applied - and had already been applied - to medicine,eg.William Harvey and the circulation of the blood, astronomy eg.Copernicus and Galileo, politics eg.Machiavelli, physics and optics eg. Isaac Newton. The genie was out of the bottle. Shorto reveals how Descartes was adopted by both radicals and conservatives to back up their beliefs. And how the journey of his bones was influenced by persons and events whom he had helped to influence and create through his thought. This book is a marvellous blend of a passionate man and philosopher who made thinking a passion in itself, made thinking the Fad of the Times and influenced bloody revolutions. I will never look on Descartes again as a mere thinking machine!!!! A vastly entertaining read.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kara Babcock

    I was ambivalent about the gimmick of basing the history around the journey of Descartes' bones. How interesting could it be? Much to my delight, Russell Shorto managed to surprise me. While this book isn't quite the "historical detective story" it advertises, it does contain some detective work. I was fascinated by the way various people treated Descartes' remains, particularly the skull. For most of the owners of the skull, the object was one of mythical connotations: this was the man who star I was ambivalent about the gimmick of basing the history around the journey of Descartes' bones. How interesting could it be? Much to my delight, Russell Shorto managed to surprise me. While this book isn't quite the "historical detective story" it advertises, it does contain some detective work. I was fascinated by the way various people treated Descartes' remains, particularly the skull. For most of the owners of the skull, the object was one of mythical connotations: this was the man who started it all, the thinker who had rejected Aristotelianism, created analytical geometry, founded the scientific method. Shorto can't resist pointing out the irony of the near-religious reverence with which Descartes' skull has been treated. No matter how much we enslave ourselves to reason, we can't help but at times be oh so very human. And, as humans are wont to do, we like to debate! Bones aside, the meat of this book is in the development of European society (especially French society) after Descartes' death. His legacy lives on in the form of Cartesianism, which influences the French revolutionaries toward the secularization of France. In effect, Descartes laid the groundwork for the secular Europe that exists today and defined the difference between the French Revolution and the one across the Atlantic in America. What I found particularly interesting was the way in which Descartes has, one way or the other, been made a paragon by the power of the day. Shorto spends a good deal of time discussing the disposition of Descartes' bones before, during, and following the French Revolution. In so doing, he presents a side of the Revolution I hadn't yet seen. I learned about the Revolution mostly from a grade 12 history class and a little from War and Peace . The dates and events are easy enough to learn, but it's difficult to grasp the shift in social attitude occurring at the time. It's not just that people began wanting to give their consent to the government. The Revolutionaries embraced Cartesianism and even atheism (actually more its cousin, deism) in their attempts to weaken the power of the Catholic Church and of the monarchy. And I like that, while he does mention the Reign of Terror, Shorto focuses on some of the other unsavoury parts of the Revolution. Shorto makes me cringe with despair as he talks of looting and vandalism of symbols of the monarchy and religious establishments. I'm not Catholic, but I find the idea of looting a church reprehensible. But for the Revolutionaries, this was all sanctioned by the new order, in which atheism and reason held dominion. Descartes, then, was a symbolic father figure of the Revolutionary movement. After all, Cartesianism's dualism poses a problem when it comes to something like the Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist and transubstantiation. But wait a moment! Both before and after the Revolution, when the Catholic Church holds sway in France, Cartesians portray Descartes as a devout Catholic who reaffirms God's role in the universe. The former queen of Sweden, Christina, claims he had a hand in her conversion to Catholicism. Which of these two men was the real Descartes? Was he a rabid atheist, as his opponents often charged? Or was he a pious man, intending only to further the glory of God? The answer is, of course, "both and neither." Shorto explores the myriad posthumous interpretations and portrayals of Descartes with a vim that I found both entertaining and informative. Several famous scientists become involved in attempts to authenticate Descartes' skull. By relating these episodes to the scientific and social developments of the time, Shorto creates a scaffold for the scientific progress of the eighteenth century. In 1861, Pierre-Paul Broca and Louis-Pierre Gratiolet debate whether or not the size and mass of one's brain is an indicator of intelligence—bigger being better, naturally. Broca says yes, pointing to some doctored data that reeks of confirmation bias. Gratiolet says no, and holds up Descartes' skull as an example of an intelligent man with a relatively small cranium. Although authenticated forty years prior by the Academy of Sciences, the skull's true identity is questioned again as Broca claims that its size, then, necessarily makes it a fake. The fact that the Museum of Natural History in Paris even has the skull is forgotten until 1912, and then another flurry authentication ensues. What this teaches us, then, is that society has a very short memory. France easily forgot that it had possession of Descartes' skull, losing it in the minutiae of collecting and the chaos of flood damage repair. Descartes' skull has been authenticated several times throughout history, since each successive time the past authentications were called into question or just forgotten about in general. And this is true of scientific and philosophical concepts as well: Broca and Gall's ideas of a physical or genetic basis to race and intelligence have been thoroughly discredited, but the theories are advanced under different names, slightly tweaked, once every couple of decades. There will always be advocates of other positions—sceptics, in fact, and that's fine. One of the prices for becoming mainstream is that the controversial new philosophy becomes part of the establishment, and the philosophy that it usurps can always try to come back as a contrarian alternative. I'm spending a lot of time talking about Descartes, his bones, and history and not much time reviewing the actual book. That's because Descartes' Bones accomplishes what good non-fiction should: it excites me about its subject matter, makes me enthusiastic and interested in discussing it with other people. Naturally, this gets me strange looks from coworkers and friends as I spontaneously begin talking about Cartesian philosophy. I don't mind. And if I restricted myself to talking purely about how Shorto presents Descartes' effect on history, this review would be short. And boring. One danger of investing myself so much in the subject matter, however, is a loss of objectivity when it comes to judging the book itself. There's a part of me that's itching to give Descartes' Bones five stars; that's the same part in all of us that wakes up when we watch a funny YouTube video and instantly forward it to everyone we know: the OMG-this-is-awesome reflex. I try to avoid that and give the books I read a sobre second thought before sending my review out into the world. I'd love to give Descartes' Bones five stars, but it really only deserves four, in my opinion. Shorto, while a good storyteller, isn't always the clearest of historians. The narrative tends to meander, loop back on itself, and emphasize facts I don't find very important, almost as if Shorto feels the need to remind us that Descartes was buried in Sweden (Sweden, I say!). And while I love that there's a chapter that applies Descartes to modern events, it is too short and too non-specific for my liking. Maybe this is because such a chapter probably deserves a book on its own (those interested may want to take a look at Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason for an American treatment of similar subject matter). Shorto too often fails to properly connect all of the points he's making; as grand a goal as "a skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason" may be, he doesn't quite synthesize everything into a single thesis. My complaints, however, are minor and mostly addressed with some good editing. The core of this book is pure, enjoyable discourse. The name "Descartes" may strike terror into the hearts of the uninitiated and conjure up images of a lengthy treatise on Cartesian philosophy and mathematics. Rest assured, Descartes' Bones is accessible to everyone. Shorto explains what one needs to know about Cartesianism, and the bibliography at the back contains a wealth of recommendations for further reading. This is a book that will fit many people: it's perfect as a coffee table read, because it's intelligent without being pedantic; however, for more serious intellectuals, it's a fine gateway into the greater world of Cartesianism (I say this as someone who has yet to actually read Descartes, so I'm speaking from personal experience here). Although steeped in philosophy and science, this is primarily a history. Such polymath books are always a treat for me, something with which I like to reward myself after a long string of mediocre pulp novels or a particularly difficult, if fulfilling, classic. Why do I like popular science/history so much? Many of these books retrace the same ground over and over—this time it's the Enlightenment—each author inflicting his or her pet grand unified theory as to the causal relationship among the various events of that time period. It's true that this can get repetitive, but it can also be fun to look at the same events from different perspectives. In the case of Descartes' Bones, there is no dying that René Descartes played a major role in jolting Western Europe out of the Middle Ages and setting it on the path to the Enlightenment. As a mathematician, I revere Descartes for his contributions to mathematics; we owe him for things as big as Cartesian coordinates and as small as writing exponents as superscripts (3*3 = 3^2). As an amateur philosopher, it's impossible to talk about Western philosophy without looking at Cartesianism. Descartes was audacious and vain in the development and promotion of his philosophy, but he was also effective at encouraging Europeans to begin looking toward scepticism and reason as foundations of study rather than received wisdom and faith. Descartes' Bones reminds us that, while we can't reduce the events of history to the actions of a single person, one person's actions can and have reverberated through history, setting off new ideas centuries later. We may not be Cartesians, but we are a product of Cartesianism's impact on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Therefore, if one had to pick a single person around whom to weave the story of the French revolution, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, I can think of no one better than Descartes.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    The tale of philosopher-scientist Rene Descartes' bones form the skeleton of Shorto's sketch of Descartes key ideas that shaped our modern world. Descartes, French by birth but exiled by force (his ideas were anathema to the Catholic Church) and choice (one senses that despite his complaints about the cold he enjoyed his place in the Swedish Queen Christina's court), died and was buried in Sweden in 1650. His remains were exhumed and moved to Paris in 1666, this time in procession as semi-holy re The tale of philosopher-scientist Rene Descartes' bones form the skeleton of Shorto's sketch of Descartes key ideas that shaped our modern world. Descartes, French by birth but exiled by force (his ideas were anathema to the Catholic Church) and choice (one senses that despite his complaints about the cold he enjoyed his place in the Swedish Queen Christina's court), died and was buried in Sweden in 1650. His remains were exhumed and moved to Paris in 1666, this time in procession as semi-holy relics as his ideas had gained in prominence and acceptance. But it was during the French revolution that Descartes was fully rehabilitated to the level of secular sainthood, and his remains were moved again to the Pantheon, a secular chapel/museum of French heroes in Paris. Or were they? Somewhere along the way, the provenance and possession of Descartes' bones got tangled. Shorto attempts to make a mystery out of a tale of bureaucratic bumbling, mild nationalist fervor, and honest mistakes over insignificant events in the midst of the epoch-changing French Revolution, while at the same time weaving in historical and philosophical background about Descartes and his philosophical progeny. The result is an average mystery story (the mystery mostly consisting of the untangling of sources and positing of some ideas to resolve relatively minor undocumented gaps over the centuries Descartes' bones were being bandied about), and a disjointed skimming of the history of philosophy that is not deep or systematic enough to serve as a textbook or even very organized introduction to the topic. We do learn that it was Descartes who famously said "I think, therefore I am" (Cogito, ergo sum), and that his ideas about doubt and faith opened the door to the questioning of dogmatic statements of truth and value (hence his banishment by the Church and King of Francs). While his writings, primarily the "Discourse on the Method", were the opening wedge in separating faith from reason, to use an overworked oversimplification, his reliance on philosophical investigation (reasoning over observation, to risk another oversimplification) is sometimes used to frame his ideas in opposition to the scientific method of experimentation and observation which would flourish and drive the Enlightenment he helped to spark. These ideas are in Shorto's chapters, just not highlighted or organized as well as I might like, as Shorto sacrifices the philosophical background for the sake of his mystery of the bones.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dave

    A fascinating, to me, examination of the influence of Rene Descartes on modern thought. Starts with the great philosopher's death, with a brief summary of Descartes' life. Then a circuitous narrative showing the impact of the philosopher's ideas on the split between faith and reason flowing through the following centuries. The narrative meandered considerably but the loops were interesting. The story is part forensic mystery, part history of philosophy and part discussion of the ideals of modern A fascinating, to me, examination of the influence of Rene Descartes on modern thought. Starts with the great philosopher's death, with a brief summary of Descartes' life. Then a circuitous narrative showing the impact of the philosopher's ideas on the split between faith and reason flowing through the following centuries. The narrative meandered considerably but the loops were interesting. The story is part forensic mystery, part history of philosophy and part discussion of the ideals of modernity. I recommend it to readers interested in Rene Descartes' influence on modern worldviews and the apparent battle between traditional faith and science.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bruinrefugee

    At points -- where it appears Shorto has really focused -- this book is a "5." It uses the journey of the bones of the philosopher/polymath Rene Descartes from his 17th century death into the 20th century to reflect upon the relationship between faith, reason and the movements of history. The author's viewpoint is there (which is good) but is not overwhelming (which is better), and he makes a number of intriguing and good points. The tale is often best when describing in detail surrounding events At points -- where it appears Shorto has really focused -- this book is a "5." It uses the journey of the bones of the philosopher/polymath Rene Descartes from his 17th century death into the 20th century to reflect upon the relationship between faith, reason and the movements of history. The author's viewpoint is there (which is good) but is not overwhelming (which is better), and he makes a number of intriguing and good points. The tale is often best when describing in detail surrounding events, but does a good job on explicating the "three-way tangle" between radical Enlightment thinkers, moderate Enlightment thinkers and traditionalists.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Beth

    Excellent delve into the wrestling of understanding of where Cartesian thought and methods have brought us. The scientific and religious forces that shape our views are embedded in so many parts of our daily modern lives. Individual self awareness is linked to the struggle of mathematicians and scientists to bring light/enlightenment to the world, and how the religious institutions responded. The section on transsubstantiation in the Catholic and protestant faiths was fascinating. I enjoyed this Excellent delve into the wrestling of understanding of where Cartesian thought and methods have brought us. The scientific and religious forces that shape our views are embedded in so many parts of our daily modern lives. Individual self awareness is linked to the struggle of mathematicians and scientists to bring light/enlightenment to the world, and how the religious institutions responded. The section on transsubstantiation in the Catholic and protestant faiths was fascinating. I enjoyed this book so much, I went back and reread several parts twice.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jason Pettus

    (Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.) According to long-form journalist Russell Shorto, what will often determine the subjects he ends up writing about will sometimes simply be inspired by a random bit of information he comes across in his daily reading, and then just can't seem to mentally let go of; for example, discovering several yea (Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.) According to long-form journalist Russell Shorto, what will often determine the subjects he ends up writing about will sometimes simply be inspired by a random bit of information he comes across in his daily reading, and then just can't seem to mentally let go of; for example, discovering several years ago that the skull of Enlightenment philosopher Rene Descartes has actually been stolen several times over the centuries, by various different people for various different purposes, and that it's kind of a miracle that it's survived the several secret trips back and forth across Europe in the backs of wagons that it now has. That started Shorto on a three-year process of research and interviews across the EU; and that resulted in his latest book, the informative yet easy-to-read Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. It turns out in fact that the story behind Descartes' remains is indeed as fascinating as Shorto suspected; because as he so deftly shows us here, the fate of Descartes from generation to generation has roughly mirrored the way we've felt about science in general over the years, and that the schism between him being worshipped like a god by some and cursed as a witch by others reflects the extremely difficult relationship between faith and reason that has existed with us since the late Renaissance times in which Descartes lived. For example, the first time Descartes' head was stolen, soon after his death by the soldier in charge of overseeing his burial, the theft of famous body parts was actually a pretty regular occurrence; and that's because of a rediscovered obsession with "religious relics" among citizens of the Baroque period, the belief that the finger of a saint or whatever brings good luck and that no church is complete without one. And this goes hand-in-hand with understanding that Descartes was thought of in a completely different way by his contemporaries than we think of him now; although his reputation in our times is mostly as a simple philosopher, the guy who first came up with the idea that self-sentiency is the only real way we have of proving our existence (or in other words, "I think therefore I am"), at the time of his death he was highly respected as an actual scientist and medical expert as well (before most of his theories were eventually disproved), and considered by a growing amount of acolytes to be nothing less than the "Grandfather of the Enlightenment." And to understand why all that is, you need to understand the style of education that preceded Descartes' theories, the so-called "Aristotelianism" which was essentially the "Intelligent Design" of the 1600s (or in other words, a smattering of what we today recognize as legitimate science, surrounded by a huge pile of mythology and superstition); and understand how blasphemous the church back then considered the very notion that humans might eventually learn to have some small control over their natural environment; and also understand that the first proto-scientists of this period (people like alchemists and natural philosophers) weren't trying to supplant God with their ideas but merely trying to understand Him better, an inherent threat to powerful church figures who had gained their power in the first place by telling others what to think. This is what Shorto is really good at, presenting the dry facts behind the fate of Descartes' skull and then filling in all the cultural details surrounding the sometimes ho-hum events, which in my opinion is why these kinds of contemporary "narrative nonfiction" books are so enjoyable; because really, the ultimate point in books like these is not really to understand the subject at the center of it in any kind of scholarly detail, but rather to get a better idea of the society surrounding this subject and how this society has changed over time. And so does Shorto gently guide us through the 350 years between Descartes' generation and our own, pausing along the way at the French Revolution (at which point the native Descartes was unofficially deified by the reason-worshipping revolutionaries, and his remains defended from drunken mobs by noble pitchfork-wielding nerds), the Romantic Era (where his skull was used to try to prove such Victorian quackery as phrenology, as well as the now-false correlation between brain size and intelligence), and on into Modernism (where such sophisticated technology as x-rays, DNA sampling and forensic reconstruction have been used to erase any doubt of the skull's authenticity, and to reaffirm just what a right decision it's been for us to believe in the "scientific process" for the last half-millennium in the first place). I've said many times now how I consider these days a real golden age for lovers of intelligent yet entertaining "NPR-worthy" documentaries and history projects; and Descartes' Bones is yet another example, a fascinating look at our entire 400-year post-Renaissance history but that will still take most people only a couple of days to zip through, alighting along the way on a whole series of eccentric characters and unbelievable capers which are the very things to make the dusty subject of history come alive in the first place. Just like his previous The Island at the Center of the World which I also quite enjoyed, it comes highly recommended today. Out of 10: 9.5

  12. 4 out of 5

    Leanne

    This book was a wonderful read!! Shorto is a fabulous storyteller and handles the material in a really elegant manner. I loved the book. Since I was mainly listening to it on audible, I was a little surprised by some of the reviews here--but looking at the jacket on the hardcover edition, I see there is some mis-representation right there about this book. Even if it is in the publisher's interest to tell you that this book is about faith versus reason or that Descartes was hounded by the church This book was a wonderful read!! Shorto is a fabulous storyteller and handles the material in a really elegant manner. I loved the book. Since I was mainly listening to it on audible, I was a little surprised by some of the reviews here--but looking at the jacket on the hardcover edition, I see there is some mis-representation right there about this book. Even if it is in the publisher's interest to tell you that this book is about faith versus reason or that Descartes was hounded by the church for years--that is simply not true. First of all, the method is not about proving the primacy of reason over faith but rather proving the primacy of reason over the knowledge we receive from our senses--so that was what was immediately problematic--that is the Method was not concerned with religious faith but rather the attack was against Catholic Scholasticism. i.e. Aristotelianism that’s what he was going against. Descartes was devout and he used his method to prove the existence of God. Also, some people believe the reason he moved around so much was that he was actually a spy in the pocket of the jesuits trying to figure out just what exactly the Rosicrucians were doing. That said, the way Cartesian thinking came down to us over time--especially during the following 18th century really did pave the way in creating our modern world. Shorto writes really moving about the way Descartes held up human reason as being an inherent faculty we human beings have that we can rely on to know the world. Some reviewers complained about the literary device of following the story of Descartes' remains --like Medieval relics they were translated multiple times--even traveling as far as Tokyo! I thought this was extremely successful and made the book even more fascinating to have this added layer of storytelling. The ending was also quite moving, where the author tells a few anecdotal stories related to Cartesian reason and the eye of the mind in terms of his work as a journalist. He even neds with German philosopher Habermas. This is a wonderful book!

  13. 4 out of 5

    Terry Filicko

    I "read" DESCARTES' BONES as an audio book, and it held my interest through most - though not all - of the book. Russell Shorto covers a wide range of topics; there's something for almost everyone here. I was particularly interested in the details of Descartes' life and the impact of his philosophical arguments. Both topics are covered thoroughly, and I would recommend the book for anyone looking for those discussions. The integral role of Descartes in Western philosophy is clear. The surprise, I "read" DESCARTES' BONES as an audio book, and it held my interest through most - though not all - of the book. Russell Shorto covers a wide range of topics; there's something for almost everyone here. I was particularly interested in the details of Descartes' life and the impact of his philosophical arguments. Both topics are covered thoroughly, and I would recommend the book for anyone looking for those discussions. The integral role of Descartes in Western philosophy is clear. The surprise, to me, was the intriguing way in which Descartes' bones -- i.e., his corpse, his remains, his skeleton, and his skull considered separately -- serve as a metaphor for the dialogue between philosophy and science. Metaphor might not be the right word, but the journey of his skeletal remains provides interesting touch points for conversations about religion, science, philosophy, national pride, politics, and so on. Towards the end of the book, the discussion seemed to lose steam for me, but I'd certainly recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about this central figure in Western philosophy, French culture, and/or the dialogue between science and religion.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Marcus

    Before reading this, I was only marginally familiar with Descartes and his contributions to philosophy and science. This book made catching up him and realizing his contributions to, and influence on, modern society very accessible and entertaining. The story of his bones traveling around was at times interesting, though it was definitely overshadowed by the history of his life and his influence after death. I thought the author did a pretty good job of handling the balance between religion and s Before reading this, I was only marginally familiar with Descartes and his contributions to philosophy and science. This book made catching up him and realizing his contributions to, and influence on, modern society very accessible and entertaining. The story of his bones traveling around was at times interesting, though it was definitely overshadowed by the history of his life and his influence after death. I thought the author did a pretty good job of handling the balance between religion and secularism/science. I wondered if he might go the route of Dawkins and his ilk who completely denigrate all religion. Instead he gives an accurate representation of both sides of the issue and treats it fairly, recognizing that secularism runs the risk of having the similar downfalls to the dark side religion if taken to the same extremes that religion has been taken to in the past (e.g. Sept 11). On the whole, I'd say it's a great intro to Descartes and does a great job of putting his philosophy into the context of the world today.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Seth

    The broader view of the book was very rewarding. I really enjoyed the "mind body question" and his explanation of how the modern era is separated by Decartes' grounding observations of rationalism and the absolute removal of assumptions. I enjoyed his treatment of religion and rationalism together. I also enjoyed Decartes' personal story. If the skeletal history theme were presented as a framework to contextualizing history (which was what seemed to be intended), without letting it take over the The broader view of the book was very rewarding. I really enjoyed the "mind body question" and his explanation of how the modern era is separated by Decartes' grounding observations of rationalism and the absolute removal of assumptions. I enjoyed his treatment of religion and rationalism together. I also enjoyed Decartes' personal story. If the skeletal history theme were presented as a framework to contextualizing history (which was what seemed to be intended), without letting it take over the book, then, I would have given this book four stars. Good introductory to rationalism, modern epistemologies, and French History. The writing style is certainly accessible. The author had several very insightful moments and should be acknowledged specifically for handling Philosophy in a popular History book. This must have been a challenging book to write and I think that his year abroad researching this subject possibly morphed into the history of the bones. The bones theme took over his research and unfortunately, overshadowed my interest in Descartes.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    "A Skeletal History" is a good description in itself. Shorto attempts to follow the meanderings of Descartes' remains as they are scattered over the European continent, and in the process he exhumes the more important history of Descartes the man and the impact his system of reason and doubt had on world thought. Shorto's investigation is a fascinating exercise in Cartesian thought itself, if that is taken to be a simple process of reason: the method he uses to authenticate the bones and describ "A Skeletal History" is a good description in itself. Shorto attempts to follow the meanderings of Descartes' remains as they are scattered over the European continent, and in the process he exhumes the more important history of Descartes the man and the impact his system of reason and doubt had on world thought. Shorto's investigation is a fascinating exercise in Cartesian thought itself, if that is taken to be a simple process of reason: the method he uses to authenticate the bones and describe their diaspora owes a debt to its very subject -- which is elegant, but a little overstated. The analogy wears out a bit toward the end, like the body I suppose, and gets old. The sinews that hold the book together loosen and its components maunder. But in its early chapters this is a lively and inventive story, and it is very well written throughout.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Dayna

    This started off slow for me, but once I hit about page 70 I was hooked. Part detective story and part history of Cartesian thought (and how it led to modernity and changed our world), the author thoughtfully weaves together the two stories. I learned a lot about how revolutionary Decartes' thinking was, yet how he himself maintained his religious thinking (soul) separate from his reason (mind). It was others who broke that wide open. For those who are interested in a summary of how we got to mo This started off slow for me, but once I hit about page 70 I was hooked. Part detective story and part history of Cartesian thought (and how it led to modernity and changed our world), the author thoughtfully weaves together the two stories. I learned a lot about how revolutionary Decartes' thinking was, yet how he himself maintained his religious thinking (soul) separate from his reason (mind). It was others who broke that wide open. For those who are interested in a summary of how we got to modernity, this is a good place to start. I'm sure it would read as simplistic to those who have an extensive background in philosophy. For this novice, it was enlightening.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Raully

    A very interesting history of Descartes’ remains, both his body which seems to have disappeared along he way, and his head which appears to have been stolen and preserved. Unfortunately (and I don’t know how the author could have gotten around this) there’s a lot of background material not directly relevant to the corpse that slows the book down.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Noah Goats

    Descartes’ Bones is an exploration of the fate of both Descartes’ literal an figurative bones. In this book Shorto traces the influence of Descartes from his lifetime to debates over things like the mind-body problem and materialism two hundred years later. It also traces the peregrinations of his bones as they are buried and dug up and moved over the decades. Bits of them are made into jewelry, a finger bone is taken from the skeleton and placed in a private citizen’s cabinet of curiosities, an Descartes’ Bones is an exploration of the fate of both Descartes’ literal an figurative bones. In this book Shorto traces the influence of Descartes from his lifetime to debates over things like the mind-body problem and materialism two hundred years later. It also traces the peregrinations of his bones as they are buried and dug up and moved over the decades. Bits of them are made into jewelry, a finger bone is taken from the skeleton and placed in a private citizen’s cabinet of curiosities, and the skull goes missing for a while before having to compete with three other skulls that have claims to belonging to the great man. This book is a quirky and entertaining way to learn about Descartes and his impact.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    I was initially intrigued by the title/subject of this book. I think it was an interesting idea to use the story of Descartes, the Enlightenment, and the varied reaction through time to a new philosophy based on reason (rather than faith). Unfortunately, the "Descartes' bones and skeletal history" part of the book didn't mesh well and felt disjointed from the "history of conflict between faith and reason" aspect. The former might have been interesting as a short article, and the latter is an inte I was initially intrigued by the title/subject of this book. I think it was an interesting idea to use the story of Descartes, the Enlightenment, and the varied reaction through time to a new philosophy based on reason (rather than faith). Unfortunately, the "Descartes' bones and skeletal history" part of the book didn't mesh well and felt disjointed from the "history of conflict between faith and reason" aspect. The former might have been interesting as a short article, and the latter is an interesting subject that would have been better served without what I can only assume was intended as a hook to interest readers. The hook worked, because I picked it up for that reason, but I was sorely disappointed early on and almost didn't read beyond the first 20 or 30 pages. In the end, I finished it because I'm stubborn and wanted to be sure I wasn't giving up on it before the good part. I would recommend looking for another book depending on your interest. If you want to know about Descartes' philosophy - read Descartes! His books are fairly short and accessible, don't go for some secondary source rehash. If you want to know about the Enlightenment and the conflict between faith and reason, maybe this book would be ok, but I'm sure there are better ones that are more cohesive and focused - or, hell, just Google it! Just because I dogged my way through this one doesn't mean you have to! ... But if you still want to, at least you've been warned!

  21. 4 out of 5

    Becky

    A fascinating look at the enlightenment and it's impact on modern society and belief, using the controversies surrounding the loss and location of Descartes bones to illustrate several different aspects and conflicts that have arisen thanks largely to the initial teachings of the great philosopher himself. The manipulation and deviations from his original thoughts are highlighted here in a clear and detailed manner. This book takes us through the courts of seventeenth century Sweden and France, v A fascinating look at the enlightenment and it's impact on modern society and belief, using the controversies surrounding the loss and location of Descartes bones to illustrate several different aspects and conflicts that have arisen thanks largely to the initial teachings of the great philosopher himself. The manipulation and deviations from his original thoughts are highlighted here in a clear and detailed manner. This book takes us through the courts of seventeenth century Sweden and France, via the chaos of the French revolution, and right up to the modern 'War on Terror' with it's fundamentalists on all sides. Shorto seems to be highly sympathetic for those who follow Descartes and allow their reason to continue to admit some doubt about mankind's ability to understand everything about the world and self, and 'fundementalist athists' such as Christopher Hitchens come in for as much criticism as any of the early modern thinkers who spent their time trying to defend and maintain Aristotle's views of the world. The story of the bones is itself complex and very interesting, and I loved the quietly sarcastic tone adopted by Shorto at the more ridiculous elements of the the tale. If you are looking for a highly readable and well written look at the central themes of the Enlightenment and the impact these have had on shaping modern society and thought then this is the ideal book to choose. Concise, entertaining and absolutely fascinating.

  22. 4 out of 5

    David

    This book makes the case that Descartes is the father of modernity. Daddy’s bones make for interesting history, mystery, and detective work, and they form a good platform to go off on other fun and interesting tangents, which the author is not shy about doing. Touching on everything from philosophy to science to religion, the author weaves into the story Descartes biography, biographical sketches from other historic figures that followed in his wake (such as Cuvier), the early history of cranial This book makes the case that Descartes is the father of modernity. Daddy’s bones make for interesting history, mystery, and detective work, and they form a good platform to go off on other fun and interesting tangents, which the author is not shy about doing. Touching on everything from philosophy to science to religion, the author weaves into the story Descartes biography, biographical sketches from other historic figures that followed in his wake (such as Cuvier), the early history of cranial studies and physical anthropology, the enlightenment, religious and scientific relics, the French revolution, and more. Unlike the works of those promoting aggressive atheism, like Hitchens and Dawkins, Shorto tries to advance understanding of the history, nature, and tenuous relationship between faith and reason without being overtly opinionated. Is the book a shallow treatment of the topic and does it spread itself too thin? Of course, the topic is vast and the book only has 336 pages. But it leaves me not satiated by detail nor distracted by frivolity, rather, hungry to learn more and spared of bombastic opinion. There wasn't anything in this book I didn't find fascinating and it got better as the book continued.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ed Holden

    Russell Shorto traces the history of the bones of Rene Descartes, whose admirers kept them like religious relics, and makes a convincing argument about why some of them might be legitimate and others not. The main point of the book, however, is not to talk about bones, but rather to discuss the history of the Enlightenment. Much like Bill Bryson (see, for example, At Home) Shorto takes up the philosopher's skeleton and wanders off-topic for for most of the book, making the real skeleton a metaph Russell Shorto traces the history of the bones of Rene Descartes, whose admirers kept them like religious relics, and makes a convincing argument about why some of them might be legitimate and others not. The main point of the book, however, is not to talk about bones, but rather to discuss the history of the Enlightenment. Much like Bill Bryson (see, for example, At Home) Shorto takes up the philosopher's skeleton and wanders off-topic for for most of the book, making the real skeleton a metaphorical skeleton for his narrative. And it mostly works: occasionally the book wanders farther afield than I expected, but I was always pleasantly surprised to find the bones at the center of the story again. He manages to keep his philosophical discussion topical as well: the Enlightenment is always in trial by fundamentalists of various stripes, and his examples are very current. Still, the framework doesn't always hold together, and some of his "let's all learn to get along" and "both sides have a point" conclusions are rather hand-wavy. It definitely inspired me to read more of Decarte's Discourse on Method.

  24. 4 out of 5

    James

    Interesting premise. The author uses the strange history of Rene Descartes' remains after his internment as a means to illuminate the development of "modern" rationalism (rightly or wrongly attributed to Descartes) and its conflict with "faith" based world views. Not quite finished but overall very thought-provoking and generally well-written. My favorite passage to date: "If the West is heading toward some kind of crisis, it's worth asking ourselves a few basic questions. Modern society as we n Interesting premise. The author uses the strange history of Rene Descartes' remains after his internment as a means to illuminate the development of "modern" rationalism (rightly or wrongly attributed to Descartes) and its conflict with "faith" based world views. Not quite finished but overall very thought-provoking and generally well-written. My favorite passage to date: "If the West is heading toward some kind of crisis, it's worth asking ourselves a few basic questions. Modern society as we normally define it--a secular culture built around tolerance, reason, and democratic values--occupies a rather small portion of the world, and there are signs that it is shrinking. Is modernity the inexorable force of progress that we tend to assume? Is it a mere moment of human history that is fast fading? If it is something to value, how can we rediscover it, separate the good and the bad in it, make it relevant and vital?"

  25. 5 out of 5

    Nelson Rosario

    I tore through this book. René Descartes is well known for his aphorism "I think, therefore, I am," but his impact on the Western world goes far beyond the cogito. The author describes in detail just how much of a departure from prior thinking Descartes approach to Reason was. This explanation is done by tracing the voyage Descartes bones took after his death. The story flows easily, and the author does a great job of interweaving a philosophy lesson into the historical tale. I couldn't help but I tore through this book. René Descartes is well known for his aphorism "I think, therefore, I am," but his impact on the Western world goes far beyond the cogito. The author describes in detail just how much of a departure from prior thinking Descartes approach to Reason was. This explanation is done by tracing the voyage Descartes bones took after his death. The story flows easily, and the author does a great job of interweaving a philosophy lesson into the historical tale. I couldn't help but think about the parallels between the reaction to Descartes ideas in his time (specifically the predictions of his "method" solving all of humanity's problems), and the world we live in today with Big Data, AI, Internet of Things, and so on. Solutions are rarely right around the corner.

  26. 4 out of 5

    David

    Russell Shorto describes the very strong influence that Rene Descartes had in fomenting the Enlightenment and establishing reason rather than faith as the best way to discover truths about the world. But the author traces the influence of Cartesian ideas through the novel approach of following what happened to Descartes' physical remains after his death, a fascinating story in itself. The reason it's a story at all is that Descartes died in Sweden, and was buried there. It wasn't until 16 years Russell Shorto describes the very strong influence that Rene Descartes had in fomenting the Enlightenment and establishing reason rather than faith as the best way to discover truths about the world. But the author traces the influence of Cartesian ideas through the novel approach of following what happened to Descartes' physical remains after his death, a fascinating story in itself. The reason it's a story at all is that Descartes died in Sweden, and was buried there. It wasn't until 16 years after his death that the French woke up to the fact that there was one of their intellectual giants, buried in a modest rural cemetery in a distant country, so they decided they should bring him home. Not everything went to plan... A really interesting, entertaining and informative read.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Merilee

    This was an interesting book about the life of Descartes and then provenance of both his ideas and his bone (not to mention his skull, which often seemed to travel separately. Shorto quotes the Descartes scholar, Richard Watson: The 17th century rise of Modern Science, the 18th century Enlightenment, the 19th century Industrial Revolution, your 20th century personal computer, and the 21st century deciphering of the brain - all Cartesian. The modern world is Cartesian to the core. However Shorto fee This was an interesting book about the life of Descartes and then provenance of both his ideas and his bone (not to mention his skull, which often seemed to travel separately. Shorto quotes the Descartes scholar, Richard Watson: The 17th century rise of Modern Science, the 18th century Enlightenment, the 19th century Industrial Revolution, your 20th century personal computer, and the 21st century deciphering of the brain - all Cartesian. The modern world is Cartesian to the core. However Shorto feels the need to keep a sort of synthesis of the religious and the rational, I view I don't completely buy.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Erik Graff

    This book attempts to do two things, one rather trivial, the other more important. The trivial matter, handled in detail, maybe exhaustively, concerns to disposition of Rene Descartes' remains, particularly his skull. The important matter is the mind/body problem often associated with the philosopher who 'solved' it by appeal to a well-meaning God and the ramifications of this problem in the history of the West from the Enlightenment to the present. Here author Shorto is deficient, his represent This book attempts to do two things, one rather trivial, the other more important. The trivial matter, handled in detail, maybe exhaustively, concerns to disposition of Rene Descartes' remains, particularly his skull. The important matter is the mind/body problem often associated with the philosopher who 'solved' it by appeal to a well-meaning God and the ramifications of this problem in the history of the West from the Enlightenment to the present. Here author Shorto is deficient, his representation of the philosophical issues involved being shallow. Fortunately, this undemanding book is a very quick read.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Joe

    Nice combination of a mystery and an intellectual history. It starts with Descartes internment and flows to the present day. Descartes' bones, if you wonder, did not get a good deal of rest, especially his skull. On the intellectual history side, Shorto makes a good case for Descartes causing not only the mind-body split but the modern split betwixt religion and reason. Shorto offers, without much enthusiasm, the hope that a median path can be found to save us from fanatics on both sides. Well r Nice combination of a mystery and an intellectual history. It starts with Descartes internment and flows to the present day. Descartes' bones, if you wonder, did not get a good deal of rest, especially his skull. On the intellectual history side, Shorto makes a good case for Descartes causing not only the mind-body split but the modern split betwixt religion and reason. Shorto offers, without much enthusiasm, the hope that a median path can be found to save us from fanatics on both sides. Well researched, interesting facts and speculation.

  30. 5 out of 5

    JC

    At once an introrduction and summary of how one man, and his torrents of believers, was able to shape modern thought. Tracing the historic and ephemeral locations touched by Descartes's frequently exhumed and interred bones; from science to religion, Shorto rips open the myriad aspects of modernity built by, what is proven to be, one of the world's most influential figures. Eye opening and well written. At once an introrduction and summary of how one man, and his torrents of believers, was able to shape modern thought. Tracing the historic and ephemeral locations touched by Descartes's frequently exhumed and interred bones; from science to religion, Shorto rips open the myriad aspects of modernity built by, what is proven to be, one of the world's most influential figures. Eye opening and well written.

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