Movies Books Music Food Tv Shows Technology Politics Video Games Parenting Fashion Green Living more >

Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason » User review

Barebones mystery

  • Oct 4, 2008
  • by
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 as semi-holy relics as his ideas had gained in prominence and acceptance. But it was during the French revolution that Descartes was fully rehabilitated to the level of secular sainthood, and his remains were moved again to the Pantheon, a secular chapel/museum of French heroes in Paris. Or were they? Somewhere along the way, the provenance and possession of Descartes' bones got tangled.

Shorto attempts to make a mystery out of a tale of bureaucratic bumbling, mild nationalist fervor, and honest mistakes over insignificant events in the midst of the epoch-changing French Revolution, while at the same time weaving in historical and philosophical background about Descartes and his philosophical progeny. The result is an average mystery story (the mystery mostly consisting of the untangling of sources and positing of some ideas to resolve relatively minor undocumented gaps over the centuries Descartes' bones were being bandied about), and a disjointed skimming of the history of philosophy that is not deep or systematic enough to serve as a textbook or even very organized introduction to the topic.

We do learn that it was Descartes who famously said "I think, therefore I am" (Cogito, ergo sum), and that his ideas about doubt and faith opened the door to the questioning of dogmatic statements of truth and value (hence his banishment by the Church and King of Francs). While his writings, primarily the "Discourse on the Method", were the opening wedge in separating faith from reason, to use an overworked oversimplification, his reliance on philosophical investigation (reasoning over observation, to risk another oversimplification) is sometimes used to frame his ideas in opposition to the scientific method of experimentation and observation which would flourish and drive the Enlightenment he helped to spark. These ideas are in Shorto's chapters, just not highlighted or organized as well as I might like, as Shorto sacrifices the philosophical background for the sake of his mystery of the bones.

What did you think of this review?

Fun to Read
Post a Comment
More Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal H... reviews
review by . December 23, 2008
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 …
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 …
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #36
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
Consider the Source

Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.

Your ratings:
rate more to improve this
About this book


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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
view wiki


ISBN-10: 038551753X
ISBN-13: 978-0385517539
Author: Russell Shorto
Genre: Nonfiction
Publisher: Doubleday
First to Review

"Barebones mystery"
© 2015 Lunch.com, LLC All Rights Reserved
Lunch.com - Relevant reviews by real people.
This is you!
Ranked #
Last login
Member since