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Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the…

Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and… (2008)

by Russell Shorto

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6633121,827 (3.69)52
  1. 00
    The Seashell on the Mountaintop by Alan Cutler (Sandydog1)
    Sandydog1: Another beautifully written, rambling account of science, religion, natural history and discovery, albeit perhaps a couple years earlier.
  2. 00
    A Wicked Company: The Forgotten Radicalism of the European Enlightenment by Philipp Blom (Bert.Dekimpe)

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Not bad for pop history

Perhaps inspired by the parallel story of the fate of Einstein's brain, Shorto shares with us the somewhat surprising history of the skeleton--in particular, the skull--of Rene Descartes and uses that tale as a springboard for sharing his (Shorto's) thoughts about naturalist versus supernaturalist understandings of the nature of the world and of humanity.

For popular history, this is pretty good. Shorto writes quite well, and handles an intrinsically controversial subject in a way that I thought was eminently fair and even-handed. Still, I found this book less than completely satisfying. The issues Shorto raises are important and interesting ones, but the nature of this book only allows him to address them in a superficial way. And the story of Descartes' skeleton, while interesting, is a little too thin to hold the reader's attention for very long. Shorto writes for the New York Times Magazine, and this book does have the feel of an extended feature article, one that was perhaps extended a bit too far. ( )
  cpg | Oct 14, 2017 |
This surprisingly readable tale leverages the tale of Descarte’s bones as a framework upon which to hang an engaging exploration of how Descarte’s rationalist philosophy laid the groundwork for today’s modernism. For those of you who I just lost at “rationalist philosophy,” please bear with me! For this book is really more history than philosophy, told in a way that most people should find readable and diverting.

Come on, think back … remember that “Intro to Philosophy” class you took in college? Descartes, the father of Cartesian rationalism? Mr. “I think, therefore I am?” Remember your professor trying to explain how this simple statement was like a bomb dropped on medieval Europe, advocating as it did the assertion that humans should base their beliefs on their own perception rather than divine revelation? Forever pissing off churches but leading to the adoption of true observation-based scientific discovery? The guy who Cartesian planes in math are named after? Yeah … that guy!

I should have as many adventures in my life as the mortal remains of Rene Descarte! Between repeated interments and disinterments, his bones passed through the hands of queens, intellectuals, poets, mercenaries, French revolutionaries, painters, and promoters. What Shorto does is flesh out (sorry, couldn't resist!) the stories surrounding these postmortem meanderings, building the case that Descarte's bones travelled on a path that paralleled many of the most pivotal historical debates over reason vs. religion, debates which laid the groundwork for modern-day rationality.

Yes, I agree with other critics that Shorto strains a bit in his attempts to relate the bones to the story he really wants to tell. And since I didn’t actually take “Intro to Philosophy,” I’m in no position to quibble with folks who claim Shorto has overstated Descarte’s role in the evolution of modern empirical thought. However, I found this to be a fairly thorough and entertaining exploration of the evolution of rational thought from its stormy beginnings in the 17th century to modern times, including its influence on science, medicine, politics, philosophy and religion along the way. Neither light enough for beach reading nor heavy enough to pass as scholarship, but illuminating and worthwhile for all that. ( )
  Dorritt | Jul 31, 2015 |
A rambling essay on reason and religion, with smatterings of taxonomy, phrenology, mesmerism, the metric system, museums, embryology, comparative anatomy, the French Revolution, chemistry and a few other choice topics. Shorto deals with Cartesian philosophy and the Enlightenment the same way the fossil record and the Renaissance are handled in The Seashell on the Mountaintop. I highly recommend both of these science history books. ( )
  Sandydog1 | May 28, 2013 |
This is a delightful book. It uses the curious history to tell the story of several episodes in the development of Modern thought, and to relate this into a broader theme about the struggle between faith and reason through to contemporary society. The book excels in a few key areas.

First, it uses the central thread well. It is a fascinating story on its own, and it ties nicely into his central theme. This book structure can lend itself to books where the central unifying story doesn't really support the full range of stories the author wants to tell, but that is not the case here. The fate of Descartes' bones is both interesting in its own right, and sufficiently relevant to the more central themes to work as the central pillar of the book.

Second, Shorto does an able job with the philosophy. As an academic philosopher myself, I was prepared to be disappointed by sloppy descriptions of Descartes ideas. However, I found that Shorto presented them in a clear way, where the simplifications did not distort Descartes actual views (aside from one bit, see below). A reader with little familiarity with Descartes ideas would come out with a good grasp of the key ideas, and how they tie into the more general story.

Third, the book is well written. It moves crisply through lots of historical episodes without slowing down over the large cast of characters or all of the historical details. It is a breezy, but quite informative read.

There were two areas I felt the book came up a bit short. First, the culminating chapters, where Short engages the faith vs reason theme directly, were not particularly well developed. For example, the second major fault he identifies with Enlightenment ideas is that an overemphasis on reason limits the set of possible explanations that one might offer or need to understand reality. Ignoring religion, he suggests, is a form of intolerance. This may be true, but it is a pretty heavy idea to simply baldly assert. Enlightenment-sympathetic thinkers might simply argue that it is not intolerance to reject modes of explanation which do not provide us with access to the truth. The whole point hinges on the assumption that religion is a good way to understand the world and puzzles like dualism, and that is never really addressed.

Similarly, the final discussion of the mind-body problem are abrupt, and offer very little guidance. Shorto ends on a rather poetic note about all of us solving the mind-body problem on our own (or trying to) and Descartes' ideas from "The Passions of the Soul." While Shorto mentions the idea of there being an encoding of mind and body in the passions, this is hardly a helpful idea without some explanation. Descartes' substance dualism renders direct interaction mysterious. Simply pointing to our emotions as a solution carries rhetorical weight, but it is not an explanation, nor does it add any clarity.

This ties into the second concern I had about the book, which was the occasional flights into rhetorical fancy. The closing discussion of emotion is one. The bit about death is another such example. He notes that death is "why we write poetry, why sex thrills us." Really? Sex thrills us *because* of death? Not because we have evolved to enjoy sexual pleasure because it better enables us to pass on our genes? While one might offer a thoughtful exploration of how the recognition of the possibility of death leads us to savor life experiences, this is a far cry from saying death is the explanation for phenomena like this. I suspect that Shorto is caught up in a nice rhetorical flourish, regardless of whether it is true or not.

Despite these criticisms, the book is ultimately a strong one and is well recommended. Anyone interested in Descartes or Modern thought would find this a pleasurable and informative read.
1 vote jeff.maynes | Feb 13, 2013 |
Highly recommended: Shorto maps the continuing odyssey of Descartes' earthly remains to the evolving discussion between faith and reason ultimately derived from the philosopher's cogito. Fittingly, the ambiguities of Descartes' legacy (and the disposition of his bones) are traced from their beginnings to our own current events. ( )
1 vote Michael_Taylor | Nov 16, 2012 |
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"what can we bequeath
save our deposèd bodies to the ground?"
--Richard II, iii, 2
For my mother
First words
Philippe Mennecier, the Director of Conservation at the Musée de l'homme, the great anthropology museum in Paris, is a tall, narrow man, thin of hair, with wire-rimmed glasses and the aspect of a bird of prey. (Preface)
On the southern edge of Stockholm's Old Town stands a four-story building that was constructed during the busy, fussy period called the Baroque.
Alla febbre era subentrata la polmonite; il paziente aveva il respiro irregolare, gli occhi erratici. Chanut avrebbe voluto mandare a chiamare il medico di corte, ma Cartesio si era infuriato all’idea. Alla fine Cristina, la ventitreenne regina di Svezia, dal suo palazzo fiabesco al capo opposto dell’isola che formava il centro di Stoccolma, mandò il proprio medico ad assisterlo. Era stata Cristina, insieme a Chanut, che aveva convinto il celebre pensatore a venire al Nord. Il dottore, un olandese di nome Wullen, si avvicinò al letto con riluttanza. Ci fu un alterco feroce in cui il filosofo chiarì con asprezza che riteneva il medico uno stupido. Il culmine si raggiunse quando Wullen propose un salasso, al che il paziente reagì con veemenza esplosiva: “Signori, non sprecate sangue francese!” e ordinò che l’uomo fosse condotto fuori. Wullen se ne andò, disinteressandosi della faccenda e borbottando un verso consolatorio di Orazio piuttosto fatuo: “Chi salva uno contro la sua volontà, fa lo stesso di chi lo uccide”.
Oggi si pensa a Cartesio soprattutto come matematico - l'inventore della geometria analitica - e come colui che ha formulato il problema del dualismo nel pensiero filosofico moderno, secondo cui la mente e i pensieri afferiscono a una categoria diversa o in qualche modo a un piano diverso rispetto a quello del mondo fisico, per cui è impossibile trasferire o comprendere gli uni nei termini dell'altro e viceversa. Sotto questo rispetto Cartesio è stato nel frattempo ridimensionato: oggi l'opinione prevalente nelle neuroscienze è che Cartesio sbagliasse a evocare due sostanze distinte. Mente e corpo - mente e cervello - non sono in realtà sostanzialmente diverse. Questa teoria ha molteplici conseguenze, l'esplorazione delle quali impegna filosofi, linguisti, uomini di fede, informatici e altri.
Ma nel corso della sua vita, e nei decenni che seguirono, Cartesio fu una figura di primissimo piano. I suoi contemporanei lo vedevano come l'uomo che aveva gettato le basi intellettuali dell'intero programma moderno, dove tutto, dalla moralità alla legge alla politica all'organizzazione sociale, si fonda sulla ragione e sulla percezione sociale della ragione. C'è del vero in questa visione dell'influenza di Cartesio. Il suo famoso "metodo" - che comporta la messa in questione degli assunti, il rifiuto delle asserzioni dogmatiche e la costruzione della nostra comprensione del mondo su osservazioni documentabili invece che sulla tradizione - divenne la base del metodo scientifico moderno. Il fatto di non basare più la conoscenza sul principio di autorità (i decreti del re, le pretsedella chiesa) ma su un io dalla nuova autorevolezza - la mente individuale e il suo "buon senso" - divenne il punto di partenza per lo sviluppo della democrazia, della psicologia e di molto altro di ciò che pensiamo moderno.
Molti di noi tendono a pensare che il "moderno" sia un dato, una base comune. E con "moderno" non mi riferisco solo alle grandi cose ad esso collegate - la scienza, la ragione, la democrazia - ma anche tutte le reazioni a questi concetti e alle loro rmaificazioni, dalla poesia romantica ai Sex Pistols, dagli appuntamenti via Internet agli investimenti finanziari ad alto rischio. Nel bene e nel male, tutto questo è in qualche modo unito e collegato a ciò che siamo, e perlopiù ne abbiamo un'opinione positiva. O no?
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In 1666, sixteen years after his death, the bones of Rene Descartes were dug up in the middle of the night and transported from Sweden to France under the watchful eye of the French ambassador. This was only the beginning of the journey for Descartes' bones. which, over the next 250 years, were fought over, stolen, sold, revered as relics, studied by scientists, used in seances and passed surreptitiously from hand to hand.

But why would anyone care so much about the remains of one long-dead philosopher? The answer lies in Descartes' famous phrase, cogito, ergo sum: "I think, therefore I am." At the root of this statement is the world-shattering notion that one could look to fact and reason for truth, rather than to faith and authority.

In the years that followed, this powerful idea and Descartes' physical remains became intertwined with many of the major forces that define the modern era, influencing everything from the religious wars of the seventeenth century and the rise of democracy to today's greatest ideological conflicts.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 038551753X, Hardcover)

On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, the Frenchman René Descartes, the most influential and controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a cold and lonely death far from home. Sixteen years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes' bones and 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 and reason? Their story involves people from all walks of life—Louis XIV, a Swedish casino operator, poets and playwrights, philosophers and 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 seventy-eight-page essay, Discourse on the Method, this small, vain, vindictive, peripatetic, ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2,000 years of received wisdom and 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, and society. The notion that one could find truth in facts that could be proved, and not in reliance on tradition and 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 had devoted himself to medicine and the study of nature, but when his beloved daughter died at the age of five, he took his ideas deeper. To understand the natural world one needed to question everything. Thus the scientific method was created and religion overthrown. If the natural world could be understood, knowledge could be advanced, and others might not suffer as his child did.

The great controversy Descartes ignited continues to our era: where Islamic terrorists spurn the modern world and 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 and reason.
Descartes’ Bones
is a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind, with twists and turns leading up to the present day—to the science museum in Paris where the philosopher’s skull now resides and to the church a few kilometers away where, not long ago, a philosopher-priest said a mass for his bones.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:01:47 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

The best-selling author of The Island at the Center of the World chronicles the more than three-hundred-year debate between religion and science as revealed through the long and momentous odyssey of the skeletal remains of French philosopher Renâe Descartes, creator of the famous phrase "I think, therefore I am."… (more)

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