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Understand Descartes, the first philosopher of Modernity

  • Dec 23, 2008
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The regulations placed on the desires and sexuality by the Church suggests that it is part of a belief that individual passion of any sort is dangerous to a superior rationality. Can we have human attachments to people; such as, intimacy, caring, familial ties, and still function as obedient citizens? That is a question that very much organizes the anxieties of the Church that we see erupting around the invention of the individual. What is the Church's anecdote, what is the response? Obviously not education, cultivation, and reason. The individual is dangerous because the individual can't be reasonable. Individuals left to their own devices, left to their own desires become unreasonable. So, the Enlightenment philosophes to fight Church dogma decides to make a fetish out of reason.

Russell Shorto's excellent and intriguing book "Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason" tells the story of how nobody made a fetish out of reason then the "High Priest" of the Cartesian philosophic school Renee Descartes. This is where we find ourselves when next we meet his famous aphorism, "Cogito Ergo Sum," "I think therefore I am." This is how Descartes is going to try to preserve the individual and the promise of reason. Descartes believed that we have to somehow make reason innate in the individual, we have to bridge that divide, create a whole new subject of humanity and the humanities. It has to be a subject who's very being is rooted in its reasoning capacities. That is going to be a major shift in how we understand what it means to be human, it has to resolve that problem. If reason is contrary to the individual, and if the individual is in fact going to rule then we have to reconcile this contradiction between reasoning capacity and the individual. Descartes' Cartesian philosophy sets out on this project by arguing that only through scientific empirical evidence meshed with reasoning and geometric precision can we subdue our base passions and rule through our reasoning intellect. Thus, Shorto's book is a great introduction on how Descartes' philosophy changes how we approach philosophy, politics, and the arts.

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review by . October 04, 2008
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 …
review by . October 04, 2008
Part philosophical musings, part European history, this story is difficult to categorize. I will confess that I like the idea of philosophy, but I find the actual study of the subject boring. Although it is not a page-turner, this story proved to be interesting. The author follows the curious passage of Descartes' bones through time. Shorto takes a dubious concept and turns it into an engaging story.    The book is definitely offbeat in style. He is a competent writer, but Shorto …
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Michael Neulander ()
Ranked #43
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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At the center of this philosophical tale by the acclaimed author ofThe Island at the Center of the Worldis a simple mystery: Where in the world is Descartes's skull, and how did it get separated from the rest of his remains? Following the journey of the great 17th-century French thinker's bones—over six countries, across three centuries, through three burials—after his death in Stockholm in 1650, Shorto also follows the philosophical journey into modernity launched by Descartes's articulation of the mind-body problem. Shorto relates the life of the self-centered, vainglorious, vindictive Descartes and the bizarre story of his remains with infectious relish and stylistic grace, and his exploration of philosophical issues is probing. But the bones are too slender to bear the metaphorical weight of modernity that he gives them. Their sporadic appearance in the tale also makes them a shaky narrative frame for the sprawling events Shorto presents as the result of Descartes's work: the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the 19th century's scientific explosion, 21st-century battles between faith and reason. Given Shorto's splendid storytelling gifts, this is a pleasure to read, but ultimately unsatisfying.(Oct. 14)
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ISBN-10: 038551753X
ISBN-13: 978-0385517539
Author: Russell Shorto
Genre: Nonfiction
Publisher: Doubleday
First to Review

"Barebones mystery"
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