Book Review -- Descartes' Bones

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Russell Shorto's Descartes' Bones is a smart and informative book about the philosopher Rene Descartes and the interesting story behind his remains and specifically his skull in the 360 years since his death. Most people have run across Rene Descartes in a college philosophy class as he is mostly known for the phrase "I think therefore I am" (cogito ergo sum). Which basically means that the mind (and the act of thinking) is separate from the body. This mind-body dualism was radical stuff back in the 17th Century as the Church felt that God held dominion over the entire human experience. If one could think independently of the body, then one could think independently of God. Shorto describes it as "the mind and its thoughts exist in a different category or somehow on a different plane from the physical world."

Shorto argues that this declaration was actually the start of rationale, modern thinking and was the crux behind the Enlightenment as well as the use of evidence and experimentation in the scientific method. Shorto describes how followers of Cartersian thinking were those who created the chemical Periodic Table of Elements, the metric system, and Genus-Species classification system we still use today. All of which are foundations to the modern, scientific way of looking at the world.

Rene Descartes actually dies about 40 pages into the book and the remaining 200 plus pages deal with what happens to his remains. Descartes died in Sweden and was buried in a modest grave in 1650. Sixteen years later the French felt that their greatest thinker deserved a grander burial and moved to have his remains transferred to Paris. Along the way a Swedish officer took Descartes' skull as he felt that Sweden should have a piece of the great thinker. He basically kept at in his home and it was passed down generation to generation. Officials in France didn't take a good inventory of the remains and he was reburied at a Paris church without a skull.

Fast forward to 1789 and the French Revolution. Roving bands of thugs were marauding through the streets of Paris and destroying and looting relics of the French past. French officials worked to move some of France's greatest treasures to a safe place, including Descartes' remains. Later in the mid-19th Century, a French official comes across someone selling Descartes' skull. After much inquiry and research, the French Academy authenticates the skull as genuine. Shorto also makes a pretty compelling case that Descartes other remains never survived the French revolution and were either looted or demolished in a church renovation.

Shorto is intrigued by the ironic and macabre fact that the man who first postulated the mind-body dualism actually had his skull removed from the rest of his body. It is this desire to re-combine Descartes' head to his body that drives the story and Shorto's detective work. (Much of which was not known to the public until Shorto started digging around).

Descartes' Bones is really a fascinating book that is a detective story, philosophical treatise, and a decent history of the forces and thinking behind modern thought. If interested in any of these topics I recommend this book wholeheartedly.

25 Comments

Need to find a forum for serious salvage collectors other than antiques.com. I am looking to buy some architectural antiques off the site linked but never hear of them.

nice book. I have always loved reading it. I may have read the book almost 6 times so far.

It is rare to find such an endeavor as Descartes Bones outside the space of academic research. Russell Shorto gives us a well documented dissertation of the end of pre-modern thinking through the real birth and evolution of modern scientific philosophy. Although most works are too heavy for the average reader, this fascinating little book can engage even the novice interest. This discussion is not so much about the life of Rene Descartes but of his death and how his influence had engaged a serious interest in who might enjoy the ownership of his bones.

Pre-modern philosophy saw life as a spiritual balance. Science was less of an independent examination and more of an homage to the works of God or gods. Rene Descartes was on the cusp between this pre-modern thought and the modern philosophies geared toward investigation separate from the constraints of religious teaching. This reader feels that Shorto was attempting to demonstrate in his description of the movement of the remains of Descartes post mortem a parallel between Descartes life and death. The continuous controversy over the burial of Descartes bones reflects the tension evolving from pre-modern to modern philosophy. Not only were his bones exhumed and moved but they were examined and measured along with the bones and brains of others in some of the original attempts to link body and mind. The tension over his bones was the result of his having opened the gates of thoughts and allowed the growth of intellectualism that others had wanted but feared.

Such was the socio-political atmosphere that nurtured the French Revolution. People saw themselves capable of greater things than servitude to a religious rule that they feared more than understood.

Russell Shorto steps outside the traditional philosophical discussion and provides a meaningful work that is available to a larger audience. Descartes Bones can be useful to to graduate seminar as well as the fireside chat. This book is highly recommended to anyone interested in the birth of Natural Philosophy as well as the philosophy of Science and Medicine.

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