Descartes’ Bones by Russell Shorto is a lively, curious tracing of the antecedents to the current arguments of the interaction of faith and reason. Shorto concludes that extreme views on faith and reason miss the mark in their own world views – somewhere in between the extremes we can find answers. The thesis from Shorto draws forth from the historical account of what happened to Descartes’ remains. This is a very clever approach both as a story telling device and as a way to contextualize so many of the anchor-less statements we have today regarding faith and reason.
The book reads quickly as Shorto is a capable writer. The historical record is sufficiently deep and he avoids digging too deep of a philosophic or rhetorical hole that plagues so many other popular science history books. The basic tracing of the ownership of Descartes’ remains is incredibly bizarre and even without story telling embellishment makes you want to read to find out what happened. What makes this book stand out is the curiosity it inspires to go find out more about all the tangent plots and philosophic journeys. For example, we learn brief details on the creation of museums. I’d never really thought about when and why museums – strange places when you think about it – came about in the course of humanity going about its business.
I don’t at all agree with Shorto’s conclusions on the implication of the never ending battle between faith based worldviews and scientific reasoned worldviews. I do agree that the search for absolute truth continues to invite bizarre behavior – like the trading and use of Descartes’ skull as a relic and to make “scientific arguments” about brain size and intelligence. Shorto did inspire me to drag out a copy of The Method and remind myself about why a book written 350 years ago continues to be used a reference for modern thought and science. And though Descartes didn’t invent the mind-body philosophy he did package it up nicely enough to make sure some people now sign their emails with “I think, therefor I am” In fact, Descartes did such a good job of marketing the mind-body view of man a good portion of practicing scientists and most of America still believes in the Mind and that the body is a machine.
Read this book.
Read other historical records on Descartes, modernity, the French Revolution and early mathematics – you’ll be surprised, perhaps horrified, at how much of 300 year old thought still shapes our culture.