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Descartes' Bones Descartes' Bones Descartes' Bones

3.69  ·  Rating Details ·  1,492 Ratings  ·  258 Reviews
A "New York Times" Notable BookSixteen years after Reneeacute; Descartes' death in Stockholm in 1650, a pious French ambassador exhumed the remains of the controversialphilosopher 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 i ...more
ebook, 320 pages
Published October 14th 2008 by Vintage Books USA (first published January 1st 2008)
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Mikey B.
Nov 18, 2012 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
Clif Hostetler
Dec 26, 2008 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
Apr 17, 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
Mar 29, 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
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 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 I could not ...more
Oct 14, 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
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,
Jan 23, 2009 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
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
"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
Mar 25, 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
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
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
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
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
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
Jan 03, 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.
Patti Brugman
Jul 06, 2010 Patti Brugman rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
May 15, 2017 Amy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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... ...more
Jason Pettus
May 30, 2009 Jason Pettus rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography []. 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 yea
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 which ...more
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
Mar 03, 2010 Scot rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jan 25, 2011 Walter rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a fascinating, excellent book. The subject matter is intriguing - essentially an examination of modernity through the lens of the tale of the imminent philosopher Rene Descartes' remains - and the writing is strong, fluid and melodious as well. True, the tale does weaken a tad as it draws to a close (as the author seems to try to make too broad a statement/to weave too many themes together in order to arrive a big finish that is in fact diminished by the attempt). Until the last chapter ...more
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
Anna Ligtenberg
Jan 15, 2013 Anna Ligtenberg rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: religion
ISBN 038551753X - It was the "faith and reason" part of the subtitle that made me curious about this book. I've read everything that's come my way on this topic and The Da Vinci Code really opened the floodgates in popular books to feed the obsession. Descartes is just enough of a recognized historical figure for the average, non-philosophy reader, to make the book sound like something it isn't. I think that both the serious philosophy student and the less-informed casual reader will be disappoi ...more

Rene Descartes is credited as the first modern philosopher. Most of us have heard his seminal statement, “Cogito ergo sum”; I think therefore I am. For me it was a sidebar in a high school algebra text. Beyond that I really didn’t know that much about him until I read Russell Shorto’s incredible and fascinating book, Descartes Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason.

Descarte’s “Discourse” – the first work of modern philosophy – helped give birth to the Enlightenment in
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
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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
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“We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death.” 9 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.” 3 likes
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