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Book Review: Descartes’ Bones 

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Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason
Russell Shorto
Doubleday, October 2008, $26

In this engaging and entertainingly discursive book, The Island at the Center of the World author Russell Shorto shows his flair for bringing an elegantly conversational tone to the page, whether he is narrating revisionist history of the Enlightenment, delving into the world of science, or navigating the choppy waters of philosophy, religion and the dawn of the age of modernity.

Descartes’ Bones tracks the mysterious posthumous journey of French mathematician and philosopher Rene Descartes’s skeletal remains over a period of 350 years as they were buried, exhumed, buried again (or were they?), stolen, sold, bequeathed, misplaced, discussed, examined, verified, and even taken for a brief appearance in Japan.

Descartes’s most famous utterance—“I think, therefore I am”—has been knocked around and knocked off (“I think, therefore I shop”; “I think, therefore I drink”; etc.) untold times since it first appeared in his Discourse on Method, published in 1637. The discourse, “written not in Latin but in French so that, its author asserted, it could be read by laypersons (French laypersons, anyway), including, somewhat scandalously, women,” laid the foundation upon which would be built the concepts of modern scientific thought: doubt. Exactly how do we know what we know?

Religious and state authorities were mortified. What on Earth might happen if the populace actually began thinking about, as opposed to simply believing in, religious dogma and government doctrine? “Philosophers,” Shorto writes, “held real sway in the 17th- and 18th- centuries. They wrote in newspapers, manned the presses that printed their own tracts, thundered in parliaments and councils, debated church leaders, and otherwise molded popular opinion. As a result, the new secularism began to make inroads among ordinary people.”

As Descartes’s ideas gained popularity, he came under increasing attack from the established powers. A devout Catholic, he found himself defending his views against accusations of atheism, “a catch-all term for materialism and all it might imply,” arguing, as Shorto explains, that “his philosophy was built on a hard distinction between mind and body, and because he included the soul in the concept of mind, he believed that rather than draining the meaning from humanity he had in fact maintained the separate integrity of the mind-soul while allowing science to work on the physical side of things.” Descartes fled to Sweden, where, in 1650, his body would be buried—for the first time, anyway.

The arcane logistics underlying the 1666 exhumation and return of the Cartesian remains to Paris and the subsequent maneuverings by assorted authorities and individuals to utilize the bones toward their own ends, be they political, religious, academic, or financial, form the backbone of the story. That the philosopher’s skull was apparently separated from the rest of his skeleton serves as a perfect metaphor: the originator, in life, of the concept of dualism—the mind/body problem that even today perplexes philosophers and scientists—had, in death, a skull/bones problem.

While unraveling the mysterious and sometime devious circumstances surrounding the multiple exchanges of Descartes’s skeletal remains, the author frequently finds occasion to digress, and delightfully so. The cast of characters includes 17th and 18th century luminaries in the fields of science, mathematics, politics, and the arts. The French Revolution itself plays heavily in the story.

Shorto, who divides his time between Putnam County and Amsterdam (Holland, not New York), weaves his way through an impressive array of topics, leaving not a trace of unsightly seam as he wends from one intellectual arena to another, all the while following the evidential thread of the path taken by the philosopher’s skull.

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