Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

Descartes Bones A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason On a brutal winter s day in in Stockholm Frenchman Ren Descartes the most influential controversial thinker of his time was buried after a lonely death far from home years later the French

  • Title: Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason
  • Author: Russell Shorto
  • ISBN: 9780385517539
  • Page: 141
  • Format: Hardcover
  • On a brutal winter s day in 1650 in Stockholm, Frenchman Ren Descartes, the most influential controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a lonely death far from home 16 years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes bones transported them to France Why would this devoutly Catholic official care so much about the remOn a brutal winter s day in 1650 in Stockholm, Frenchman Ren Descartes, the most influential controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a lonely death far from home 16 years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes bones 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 reason Their story involves people from all walks of life Louis XIV, a Swedish casino operator, poets playwrights, philosophers 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 78 page essay, Discourse on the Method, this small, vain, vindictive, peripatetic, ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2000 years of received wisdom 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 society The notion that one could find truth in facts that could be proved, not in reliance on tradition 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 d devoted himself to medicine the study of nature, but when his beloved daughter died aged 5, he took his ideas deeper To understand the natural world one needed to question everything Thus the scientific method was created religion overthrown If the natural world could be understood, knowledge could be advanced, others might not suffer as his child did The great controversy Descartes ignited continues to our era where Islamic terrorists spurn the modern world 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 reason Descartes Bonesis a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind, with twists turns leading up to the present day to the science museum in Paris where the philosopher s skull now resides to the church a few kilometers away where, not long ago, a philosopher priest said a mass for his bones.

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      Posted by:Russell Shorto
      Published :2019-06-19T16:00:38+00:00

    About "Russell Shorto"

    1. Russell Shorto

      Russell Shorto is the author, most recently, of Revolution Song, a new narrative of the American Revolution, which the New York Times called a remarkable achievement and the Chicago Tribune described as an engaging piece of historical detective work and narrative craft He is also the author of The Island at the Center of the World, a national bestseller about the Dutch founding of New York Shorto is senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and was formerly the director of the John Adams Institute in Amsterdam.

    645 thoughts on “Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason”

    1. This is a marvellous historiography of philosophy and the Enlightenment. It gives an overview starting with Descartes and how his views impacted the world. It is very entertaining and readable with a minimum of philosophical jargon. Its’ “European philosophy 101” and I see nothing wrong with that.The basic premise is that Descartes pulled Europe away from an ecclesiastical paradigm. Prior, religion was the primary knowledge source for everything. Descartes liberated the search for knowledg [...]


    2. The author uses the story of Descartes' bones as a metaphor for the divisive and rambling path toward human progress. The use of Descartes' bones in this way is doubly clever because not only is the physical path of the bones mysterious and controversial; Descartes' philosophy of questioning received wisdom had its own controversy with traditional thinking. The book follows the history of The Enlightenment through to today's three-way tension between moderates, religious fundamentalist, and secu [...]


    3. I very much enjoyed reading this clever book, if only for its overarching populist rendering of much of what we understand as the modern mind — or at least, as Shorto understands the modern mind to be… The sub-title of the book is: “A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason”, and as a “refresher” course on this theme I would have given the book five stars. For anyone starting off on this subject, I would strongly recommend this book as an excellent introduction. But [...]


    4. THIS is the book I've been searching for in my dreams.Exactly what happened and how it happenedthat the revival of philosophy and scientific thinking arose and grew into the 18th Century Enlightenment and laid the foundations of modern thinking which we take for granted.The Enlightenment was a mere plaque in the wall of 100 years plus of solid foundation building. And the roots go back immediately into the 1500's and 1600's and further into Ancient Greece, although Shorto concentrates on the imm [...]


    5. A fascinating, to me, examination of the influence of Rene Descartes on modern thought. Starts with the great philosopher's death, with a brief summary of Descartes' life. Then a circuitous narrative showing the impact of the philosopher's ideas on the split between faith and reason flowing through the following centuries. The narrative meandered considerably but the loops were interesting. The story is part forensic mystery, part history of philosophy and part discussion of the ideals of modern [...]


    6. Not really knowing anything about Descartes, this was an excellent introduction to him and his philosophy with the added awesome factor of how his bones and skull trotted across Europe over the course of centuries due to admirers wanting a relic of his remains. Ironic, since Descartes, despite being religious, gave rise to the philosophy of materialism and atheism during the Enlightenment.The narrative flowed smoothly as Shorto laid out the journey of Descartes' bones. It was not linear, but con [...]


    7. I "read" DESCARTES' BONES as an audio book, and it held my interest through most - though not all - of the book. Russell Shorto covers a wide range of topics; there's something for almost everyone here. I was particularly interested in the details of Descartes' life and the impact of his philosophical arguments. Both topics are covered thoroughly, and I would recommend the book for anyone looking for those discussions. The integral role of Descartes in Western philosophy is clear. The surprise, [...]


    8. The broader view of the book was very rewarding. I really enjoyed the "mind body question" and his explanation of how the modern era is separated by Decartes' grounding observations of rationalism and the absolute removal of assumptions. I enjoyed his treatment of religion and rationalism together. I also enjoyed Decartes' personal story. If the skeletal history theme were presented as a framework to contextualizing history (which was what seemed to be intended), without letting it take over the [...]


    9. Before reading this, I was only marginally familiar with Descartes and his contributions to philosophy and science. This book made catching up him and realizing his contributions to, and influence on, modern society very accessible and entertaining. The story of his bones traveling around was at times interesting, though it was definitely overshadowed by the history of his life and his influence after death.I thought the author did a pretty good job of handling the balance between religion and s [...]


    10. "A Skeletal History" is a good description in itself. Shorto attempts to follow the meanderings of Descartes' remains as they are scattered over the European continent, and in the process he exhumes the more important history of Descartes the man and the impact his system of reason and doubt had on world thought. Shorto's investigation is a fascinating exercise in Cartesian thought itself, if that is taken to be a simple process of reason: the method he uses to authenticate the bones and describ [...]


    11. This started off slow for me, but once I hit about page 70 I was hooked. Part detective story and part history of Cartesian thought (and how it led to modernity and changed our world), the author thoughtfully weaves together the two stories. I learned a lot about how revolutionary Decartes' thinking was, yet how he himself maintained his religious thinking (soul) separate from his reason (mind). It was others who broke that wide open. For those who are interested in a summary of how we got to mo [...]


    12. I was ambivalent about the gimmick of basing the history around the journey of Descartes' bones. How interesting could it be? Much to my delight, Russell Shorto managed to surprise me. While this book isn't quite the "historical detective story" it advertises, it does contain some detective work. I was fascinated by the way various people treated Descartes' remains, particularly the skull. For most of the owners of the skull, the object was one of mythical connotations: this was the man who star [...]


    13. A very interesting history of Descartes’ remains, both his body which seems to have disappeared along he way, and his head which appears to have been stolen and preserved. Unfortunately (and I don’t know how the author could have gotten around this) there’s a lot of background material not directly relevant to the corpse that slows the book down.


    14. A fascinating look at the enlightenment and it's impact on modern society and belief, using the controversies surrounding the loss and location of Descartes bones to illustrate several different aspects and conflicts that have arisen thanks largely to the initial teachings of the great philosopher himself. The manipulation and deviations from his original thoughts are highlighted here in a clear and detailed manner.This book takes us through the courts of seventeenth century Sweden and France, v [...]


    15. I am listening to this in my car. Descartes was Catholic, but his thinking made many in the Church feel threatened. He died in Sweden, the story of Queen Christina is fascinating in it's own right. Am still in the early chapters--apparently relics are still a big thing when R.D. dies, so it seems his bones will not be left alone.Now it is the 1790s and DesCartes has been dead for quite some time. The French Revolution has set up a new and disease free republic. Churches are getting attacked. Des [...]


    16. Interesting premise. The author uses the strange history of Rene Descartes' remains after his internment as a means to illuminate the development of "modern" rationalism (rightly or wrongly attributed to Descartes) and its conflict with "faith" based world views. Not quite finished but overall very thought-provoking and generally well-written. My favorite passage to date: "If the West is heading toward some kind of crisis, it's worth asking ourselves a few basic questions. Modern society as we n [...]


    17. At points -- where it appears Shorto has really focused -- this book is a "5." It uses the journey of the bones of the philosopher/polymath Rene Descartes from his 17th century death into the 20th century to reflect upon the relationship between faith, reason and the movements of history.The author's viewpoint is there (which is good) but is not overwhelming (which is better), and he makes a number of intriguing and good points. The tale is often best when describing in detail surrounding events [...]


    18. This book attempts to do two things, one rather trivial, the other more important. The trivial matter, handled in detail, maybe exhaustively, concerns to disposition of Rene Descartes' remains, particularly his skull. The important matter is the mind/body problem often associated with the philosopher who 'solved' it by appeal to a well-meaning God and the ramifications of this problem in the history of the West from the Enlightenment to the present. Here author Shorto is deficient, his represent [...]


    19. This was an interesting book about the life of Descartes and then provenance of both his ideas and his bone (not to mention his skull, which often seemed to travel separately. Shorto quotes the Descartes scholar, Richard Watson:The 17th century rise of Modern Science, the 18th century Enlightenment,the 19th century Industrial Revolution, your 20th century personal computer, and the 21st century deciphering of the brain - all Cartesian. The modern world is Cartesian to the core.However Shorto fee [...]


    20. Disappointing for me. I was expecting a sort of historical detective story, and got some heavy-duty philosophy instead. Shorto is a good writer, but still Also discovered at the end of the Kindle book that there's a big section of notes that was not linked to the text. Boo.


    21. Descartes Bones by Russell Shorto 2-09Table of Contents:1. The Man Who Died2. Banquet of Bones3. Unholy Relics4. The Misplaced Head5. Cranial Capacity6. Habeas Corpus7. A Modern Face8. EpilogueIntro:The bones of Descartes are like poor Yorick from Hamlet. People like to speak to them. xvDescartes’s observations contributed to the scientific method xviDescartes walked into a bar: “Would you like a martini, sir?” asked the bartender. Descartes responded, “I think not,” and then disappear [...]


    22. I really really enjoyed this book on multiple levels. I am not generally fond of reading non-fiction, but Shorto was able simultaneously to draw me into the story of Descartes and his remains, as well as wrestling with all the social, religious, political, scientific, and cultural implications of Descartes' ideas in a way that was engaging rather than dry or tedious. I didn't do any fact-checking, so I cannot speak to how on the mark the author is with regards to all of his history or science.bu [...]


    23. (Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter:]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)According to long-form journalist Russell Shorto, what will often determine the subjects he ends up writing about will sometimes simply be inspired by a random bit of information he comes across in his daily reading, and then just can't seem to mentally let go of; for example, discovering several years a [...]


    24. Nice combination of a mystery and an intellectual history. It starts with Descartes internment and flows to the present day. Descartes' bones, if you wonder, did not get a good deal of rest, especially his skull. On the intellectual history side, Shorto makes a good case for Descartes causing not only the mind-body split but the modern split betwixt religion and reason. Shorto offers, without much enthusiasm, the hope that a median path can be found to save us from fanatics on both sides. Well r [...]


    25. Well-written, informative, fascinating! Following the fate of Descartes the man and then his remains, this story combines history, philosophy, and detective fiction all in one. Along the way, the reader gets a very readable overview of the development of modernity in Europe. I really enjoyed this book and will definitely add Shorto to my list of favorite writers.



    26. Russell Shorto traces the history of the bones of Rene Descartes, whose admirers kept them like religious relics, and makes a convincing argument about why some of them might be legitimate and others not. The main point of the book, however, is not to talk about bones, but rather to discuss the history of the Enlightenment. Much like Bill Bryson (see, for example, At Home) Shorto takes up the philosopher's skeleton and wanders off-topic for for most of the book, making the real skeleton a metaph [...]


    27. A book such as this touches on numerous subjects. Biography, math, science, philosophy, and even a bit of mystery creeps in, but as the subtitle indicates, it is history, and specifically the history of the conflict between faith and reason which is the primary focus of this work. “Descartes’ Bones (A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason)” by Russell Shorto is an all too brief history of the subject, and naturally focuses almost exclusively on the aspect of the subject [...]


    28. Interesting premise, dry execution. Rene Descartes, famous philosopher of the 17th century, died in 1650. His bones were buried but then moved quite a few times. At some point his skull was misplaced/taken from the rest of his remains, everyone tries to figure out where it went, then they found it in a museum where it had been misplaced after its journey into several different hands. That's the book, in a nut shell. Leaving out all the dry, meandering history, the arguments back and forth betwee [...]


    29. This is a stimulating book for those who like a well written, compelling narrative but are also interested in reflecting upon the broader sweep and impact of the history of ideas, more particularly the rise of modernism as summarized in the Enlightenment struggle between systems of Faith and those of Reason (and for that matter, the ongoing consequence of such struggles today, exemplified in fundamentalist challenges to rational understanding of the world around us, both here in the United State [...]


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