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

3.68  ·  Rating Details ·  1,430 Ratings  ·  251 Reviews
A New York Times Notable BookSixteen years after René Descartes' death in Stockholm in 1650, a pious French ambassador exhumed the remains of the controversial philosopher to transport them back to Paris. Thus began a 350-year saga that saw Descartes' bones traverse a continent, passing between kings, philosophers, poets, and painters. But as Russell Shorto shows in this d ...more
Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published (first published January 1st 2008)
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Mikey B.
May 20, 2013 Mikey B. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, philosophy
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 knowledge. Nat
May 31, 2012 Wayne rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Passionate Thinkers!!!
Recommended to Wayne by: my own boredom with Descartes, no less!!

THIS is the book I've been searching for in my dreams.
Exactly what happened and how it happened
that 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
Apr 06, 2009 Dave rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction-read
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
Clif Hostetler
Jan 09, 2009 Clif Hostetler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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 ...more
Jan 19, 2009 Marcus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 20, 2012 Seth rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Oct 23, 2011 Kerrie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 01, 2009 Dayna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Al Bità
Sep 27, 2014 Al Bità rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 tithes 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 I could n ...more
Erik Graff
Jun 21, 2016 Erik Graff rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: no one
Shelves: history
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 ...more
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
Terry Filicko
Jan 09, 2013 Terry Filicko rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
Ben Babcock
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 ...more
Feb 15, 2016 Bruinrefugee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
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
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
Jan 09, 2009 James rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
"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 ...more
Jan 12, 2010 Merilee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Todd Stockslager
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 re
I was feeling pretty good after I finished the book "The Swerve" so decided to tackle another book that had long been on my TBR stack that dealt with essentially the same time period and the same dawn of modernity.

Russell Shorto also wrote "The Island at the Center of the World" about the Dutch new world settlement New Netherland. It remains one of my favorite historical books regarding that time frame. It was well written and extremely readable. So I had high hopes for "Descartes' Bones."

Jan 11, 2015 Stven rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Stven by: library
This is an excellent narrative of, first, the strange disposition and travels of the skeleton and skull of René Descartes since his death in 1650. The author amplifies this history with a wealth of information about the tremendous impact of Descartes' thinking on religion, philosophy, and science. The controversy created by this pioneer of self-aware rationality was huge in his era. Descartes himself was a devout Catholic and believed that faith and intellectualism were complementary rather than ...more
Jul 20, 2014 Miranda rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed
This is a light, enjoyable, and educational reading of how Descartes' philosophy impacted Western civilization and science, from the time of the publication of his Discourse on Method, to the founding of the American colonies.

It's not often you come across a philosophy book that explores the real-world ramifications of a philosophy. The author was very good about explaining how Cartesian philosophy was seen as a threat to the Church, to Aristotelian principles, and revolutionized the science fi
Apr 11, 2014 Geoff rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Not that interested in the topic of the book. Quick two chapters on Rene Descartes, a philosopher, mathematician, scientist in the 1600s. Died in Sweden in 1650. View the human body as a machine that can be fine tuned, and wanted to find out how to make humans live forever. Made a clear distinction between the mind and body, i.e. dualism. Descartes is considered the father of Modernity. Achieved cult like following after death. Challenge the Catholic Church a bit, but overall studied to show sci ...more
Jeni Enjaian
This was one of those audiobooks I snapped up on my "get all the nonfiction audiobooks possible from the library" spree a few months back. From the brief description on the jacket I was intrigued but knew nothing more than that.

I wish I had passed it up. It's not that it is a bad book; I simply learned nothing from it. It's not actually a good book either.

First, the narrator was fairly decent though a bit boring.

I knew from the start that I would be frustrated by this book. The word "skeletal
Rodney Harvill
In this book, Mr. Shorto provides an account of Rene Descartes' life as well as the adventures, or misadventures, of his remains following his death. In a way, the handling of his remains is symbolic both of his philosophy and its treatment by those who have followed in his footsteps.

The account of Descartes' life was truly entertaining. He was at least as arrogant as he was brilliant, as shown in his dispute with Blaise Pascal regarding whether a vacuum could exist in nature. Pascal believed th
Kristen Neiding
I was a philosophy major, so I'm interested in the philosophical ideas, and I was unaware that there was a mystery regarding the location of Descartes' remains.

I enjoyed the sections of the book that featured thought-provoking ideas. I enjoyed the discussion of the philosophical differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and the way that Descartes' philosophy lead to both, and the way that those philosophies have continued to shape those countries to the current day.
Mar 10, 2016 David rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Russell Shorto describes the very strong influence that Rene Descartes had in fomenting the Enlightenment and establishing reason rather than faith as the best way to discover truths about the world.

But the author traces the influence of Cartesian ideas through the novel approach of following what happened to Descartes' physical remains after his death, a fascinating story in itself. The reason it's a story at all is that Descartes died in Sweden, and was buried there. It wasn't until 16 years
Nelson Rosario
Feb 22, 2016 Nelson Rosario rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memory
I tore through this book. René Descartes is well known for his aphorism "I think, therefore, I am," but his impact on the Western world goes far beyond the cogito. The author describes in detail just how much of a departure from prior thinking Descartes approach to Reason was. This explanation is done by tracing the voyage Descartes bones took after his death. The story flows easily, and the author does a great job of interweaving a philosophy lesson into the historical tale. I couldn't help but ...more
Mario Gutierrez
Descartes' Bones is certainly not a "Page turner", but to say that it wasn't an interesting read would be both unfair and wholly inaccurate. The commentary on our conception of modernity that it draws out from historical events surrounding Descartes' bones is, I think, an interesting and important one.

The first half of the book is fairly historically oriented, and unless you're a fan of this style, it can come off as rather bland. Make it through the first half successfully, however, and the boo
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Russell Shorto is the author of a book on the Dutch origins of New York City: The Island at the Center of the World. His most recent work, published in October 2008, is Descartes' Bones, which traces the wanderings of the literal skull and bones of René Descartes through three and a half centuries, and also traces the metaphorical remains of the French philosopher in the modern world.
A 1981 gradua
More about Russell Shorto...

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“We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death.” 8 likes
“They had applied their doubts to the very head that had introduced doubt as a tool for advancing knowledge. And in the end they gave the head a nod.” 2 likes
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