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Book Review: Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason

(This is the first and what I hope will be a series of short book reviews of material that I have read over the past few months. I will rate each book on a scale of 1 to 5 lightbulbs depending upon how illuminating the work.)

Author: Russell  Shorto
Publisher: Doubleday
Copyright: 2008

Descartes’s Bones, written by Russell Shorto examines the impact of a man who is arguably the most influential philosopher in the modern age.  He was seen by many of his contemporaries as someone who laid the intellectual foundation for the entire modern program which grounds everything from morality to law, politics and social organization on reason and the individual. Man became the truth agent of discovery instead of god as the revealer of truth. Instead of seeing creation as an example of God’s handiwork it became an object of study unto itself. His “I think therefore I am” revolutionized not only the study of philosophy which until that time was founded upon the Aristotelian categories, and replaced it with the rational method. 

This change, though seemingly insignificant or self evident to us today, led to an explosion of new knowledge in the fields of science, philosophy, politics, and theology. Alas it lead to the expulsion of God as the first and final cause of creation and replaced it with the edicts of pure physicalism or materialism, systems of thought that leave no place for supernatural or teleological ends. Lost was the belief that creation worked towards a higher purpose of revealing God and we were left with the conviction that the material world was little more than the random amalgamation of smaller parts  evolving on it’s own to greater and greater complexity.

By following the path of Descartes’s remains from Sweden where it was first interred in 1650 to their translation to France during the French Revolution Shorto demonstrates the implications of Descartes’s radical new philosophy using the philosophers bones as a metaphor for its promulgation throughout the world.

One of the interesting facets of this corporeal journey is the fact that Descartes’s remains became separated over the years with the skull and at least one finger failing to make the journey from Sweden to France with the rest of his bones. The skull, which today held in the Musée de l’homme in Paris, has had a particularly unique journey. It has been inscribed with the names of its various owners who ranged from the pedantic (a bar owner) to the learned and powerful who each desired to possess part of ‘le grand philosophe’. What’s more appropriate Icon of the founder of rationalism could they possess other than the skull which encapsulated the brain of the man who launched such a profound revolution that today he is credited as the inspiration for everything from modern technology, medical science, and indeed democracy itself.

A must read for anyone interested in philosophy and its impact on our society.

 Rating:  five bulbs!


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