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DESCARTES’ BONES by Russell Shorto


A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

By Russell Shorto

Pub Date: Oct. 14th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-385-51753-9
Publisher: Doubleday

An oddly enjoyable excursus into Enlightenment history, courtesy of René Descartes’s dismembered cadaver and pop-science/history writer Shorto (The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, 2004, etc.).

Descartes is remembered today—if at all, and if as more than a name—as a stuffy old guy who worried obsessively about how it was that he knew anything and whether he indeed existed. He hit on the fine formula that since he could think, he therefore was. But there’s much more, and therein is the substance of Shorto’s lively look at Cartesian dualism and its discontents. The conceit of the book is that poor Descartes, having been near-deified in life as a very smart fellow—“seen by many of his contemporaries as the man who laid the intellectual foundation for the whole modern program”—was subdivided on his death in 1650. He was partially reassembled some decades later when his remains were removed from Sweden, where he had died cursing his Dutch nemesis and attending physician with his last breaths, to France, where he couldn’t make a living. That conceit worked for Michael Paterniti in regards to Einstein’s brain in Driving Mr. Albert and Paul Collins seeking Paine’s skeleton in The Trouble with Tom, but here it’s mostly a peg on which to hang some thorny problems in Western philosophy. Do we think? Is there a ghost in the machine? What do we know? If we’re so smart, why can’t we live forever? (Some of Descartes’s contemporaries, Shorto writes, refused to believe that the good doctor was mortal.) Descartes was short on confidently settled answers when he died, but, as Shorto writes, he had settled on two enemies: “authority…and fuzzy thinking.” Considering what has followed, those seem good things to resist.

Learning lightly worn but hard won; would that all philosophical history were so accessible.