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

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3.71  ·  Rating details ·  1,677 ratings  ·  280 reviews
On a brutal winter's day in 1650 in Stockholm, Frenchman René 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 rem ...more
Hardcover, 319 pages
Published October 16th 2008 by Doubleday (NY et al.) (first published January 1st 2008)
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3.71  · 
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 ·  1,677 ratings  ·  280 reviews


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Tom Quinn
Feb 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
[T]he modernist need to distance society from religion didn't obviate the human need to connect with the past, to come to terms with mortality. Just as religious buildings were co-opted for secular, humanistic purposes that were nevertheless somehow transcendent, the notion of certain human bones becoming conduits between the mortal and the divine was taken over and given new meaning. They may have been desacralized, symbolic of worldly achievement and advance, but the Enlightenment still had it
...more
Mikey B.
Nov 18, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Clif Hostetler
Dec 26, 2008 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
Al Bità
Sep 27, 2014 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
Wayne
Apr 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing
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
...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
Bruinrefugee
Feb 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Dave
Mar 29, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Beth
Nov 04, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent delve into the wrestling of understanding of where Cartesian thought and methods have brought us. The scientific and religious forces that shape our views are embedded in so many parts of our daily modern lives. Individual self awareness is linked to the struggle of mathematicians and scientists to bring light/enlightenment to the world, and how the religious institutions responded. The section on transsubstantiation in the Catholic and protestant faiths was fascinating. I enjoyed this ...more
Todd Stockslager
Jun 08, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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
...more
Terry Filicko
Jan 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
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,
...more
Seth
Jan 23, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Marcus
Jan 19, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Thomas
Apr 03, 2009 rated it liked it
"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
Dayna
Mar 25, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Leanne
Apr 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
This book was a wonderful read!! Shorto is a fabulous storyteller and handles the material in a really elegant manner. I loved the book. Since I was mainly listening to it on audible, I was a little surprised by some of the reviews here--but looking at the jacket on the hardcover edition, I see there is some mis-representation right there about this book. Even if it is in the publisher's interest to tell you that this book is about faith versus reason or that Descartes was hounded by the church ...more
Raully
Dec 24, 2017 rated it liked it
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.
Amanda
Dec 28, 2012 rated it it was ok
I was initially intrigued by the title/subject of this book. I think it was an interesting idea to use the story of Descartes, the Enlightenment, and the varied reaction through time to a new philosophy based on reason (rather than faith).

Unfortunately, the "Descartes' bones and skeletal history" part of the book didn't mesh well and felt disjointed from the "history of conflict between faith and reason" aspect. The former might have been interesting as a short article, and the latter is an inte
...more
Becky
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
...more
Ed Holden
Jul 24, 2017 rated it liked it
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 ...more
David
Jun 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This book makes the case that Descartes is the father of modernity. Daddy’s bones make for interesting history, mystery, and detective work, and they form a good platform to go off on other fun and interesting tangents, which the author is not shy about doing. Touching on everything from philosophy to science to religion, the author weaves into the story Descartes biography, biographical sketches from other historic figures that followed in his wake (such as Cuvier), the early history of cranial ...more
James
Jan 09, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Ruth
Mar 17, 2010 rated it it was ok
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
...more
David
Mar 05, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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
...more
Nelson Rosario
Feb 17, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Merilee
Jan 03, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
...more
Erik Graff
Jun 21, 2016 rated it it was ok
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
Joe
Nov 19, 2017 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
JC
Nov 30, 2016 added it
At once an introrduction and summary of how one man, and his torrents of believers, was able to shape modern thought. Tracing the historic and ephemeral locations touched by Descartes's frequently exhumed and interred bones; from science to religion, Shorto rips open the myriad aspects of modernity built by, what is proven to be, one of the world's most influential figures. Eye opening and well written.
Elizabeth
Jan 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
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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. S ...more
“We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death.” 11 likes
“Embedded in this outlook is an idea of the body as a machine, so that illness is seen as a breakdown of the machine, healing involves repairing the broken parts, and a doctor is a kind of mechanic with medications as his or her tools.” 3 likes
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