Friday, December 19, 2008

Descartes Bones by Russell Shorto

This review is a guest post written by Nancy at The Bone Island Blog who has read other works by this author and kindly offered her thoughts on this new non-fiction by Russell Shorto.

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

By Russell Shorto

Non-fiction, Doubleday, $26

Chances are that if you know anything about Rene Descartes, you know one thing: I think therefore I am. Cogito ergo sum is such a brilliant pithy distillation of an entire branch of philosophy that it has survived for centuries, insuring Descartes' immortality.

Except Descartes the man was not immortal – like everyone else, he died and the tale of what happened to his mortal remains offers an illuminating perspective on the history of ideas, especially Descartes' ideas, in the struggle between religion and rationality, mind and body, brain and soul.

Russell Shorto uses those remains as his lodestar in "Descartes' Bones," especially since they themselves were not simply interred and left alone but traveled about, with the skull in particular becoming a controversial and coveted relic of the saint of reason.

Descartes died in Sweden in 1650. His skeleton was later taken to Paris, then disinterred to be added to the new Pantheon in the Revolution – though that process was interrupted by the various roilings within that tumultuous time. It later emerged that the skull itself might have remained in Sweden, where it was sold, engraved and generally treated like a trophy. The irony is not lost on Shorto – the separated head and body of the man "who bequeathed to us the mind-body problem."

That's all an interesting, if macabre, tale – we seem to be having a rush of those lately, with "Driving Mr. Albert" and "Stealing Lincoln's Body" – but Shorto is telling a much more serious story.

Shorto's previous book, "The Island at the Center of the World," was about Dutch Manhattan and it was a masterpiece of popular (ie. nonacademic) history, reviving the mostly forgotten tale of the initial European settlement that became one of the world's most important cities.

This book ranges further, taking in centuries of European history, but Shorto makes complex philosophical debates understandable for the lay reader. And while it's funny, in a way, to consider the fate of Descartes' actual body (they made jewelry out of his bones during the French Revolution), the impact of his thinking is serious, and one we continue to struggle with today.

"The hard fact of modernity is that from the time that Descartes separated the two, nobody has yet come up with a definitive, satisfying way to solder mind and body together again," Shorto writes. Indeed, as we keep debating nature vs. nurture, genetics vs. environment, and neuroscience keeps tapping deeper into how our synapses work, one doubts we ever will.

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Thank you very much Nancy and thank you to Doubleday for the lovely review copy.

3 comments:

  1. wow, sounds like an intriguing read.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That sounds like a really good book! Will definitely have to check that out.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really enjoyed Shorto's first book The Island at the Center of the World - have you read it? I've been intrigued by this book every since I saw a first review of it. I don't know much about Descartes, but I know how great of a story weaver Shorto is, and it sounds almost like a mystery about the bones. I can't wait to read it!

    ReplyDelete

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