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Study of nature but when his beloved daughter died aged 5 he took his ideas deeper To understand the natural world one needed to uestion everything Thus the scientific method was created religion overthrown If the natural world could be understood knowledge could be advanced others might not suffer as his child did The great controversy Descartes ignited continues to our era where Islamic terrorists spurn the modern world pine for a culture based on unuestioning faith; where scientists write bestsellers that passionately make the case for atheism; where others struggle to find a balance between faith reason Descartes’ Bonesis a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind with twists turns leading up to the present day to the science museum in Paris where the philosopher’s skull now resides to the church a few kilometers away where not long ago a philosopher priest said a mass for his bones. At points where it appears Shorto has really focused this book is a 5 It uses the journey of the bones of the philosopherpolymath Rene Descartes from his 17th century death into the 20th century to reflect upon the relationship between faith reason and the movements of historyThe 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 but does a good job on explicating the three way tangle between radical Enlightment thinkers moderate Enlightment thinkers and traditionalists NITRO: The Incredible Rise and Inevitable Collapse of Ted Turner's WCW religion overthrown If the natural world could be understood knowledge could be advanced others might not suffer as his child did The great controversy Descartes ignited continues to our era where Islamic terrorists spurn the modern world pine for a culture based on unuestioning faith; where scientists write bestsellers that passionately make the case for atheism; where others struggle to find a balance between faith Wild Man Creek (Virgin River, reason Descartes’ Bonesis a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind with twists turns leading up to the present day to the science museum in Paris where the philosopher’s skull now Homewrecker really focused this book is a 5 It uses the journey of the bones of the philosopherpolymath Rene Descartes from his 17th century death into the 20th century to Make your own model forts & castles reflect upon the Tremors of Fury (The Days of Ash and Fury relationship between faith How Julian and Nigel Turned Each Other Gay (Inadvertently), or So They Both Claim reason and the movements of historyThe 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 but does a good job on explicating the three way tangle between

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

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 remains of a philosopher who was hounded from country to country on charges of atheism Why would Descartes' bones take such a strange serpentine path over the next 350 years a path intersecting some of the grandest events imaginable the birth of science the rise of democracy the mind body problem the conflict between faith reason Their story involves people from all walks of life Louis XIV a Swedish casino operator poets playwrights philosophers physicists as these people used the bones in scientific studies stole them sold them revered them as relics fought over the. 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 uestioning 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 secular fundamentalist Ironically there is enough traditional thinking in Descartes writing to allow all sides in the later controversies to claim him and this is paralleled by the multiple conflicting claims of possessing his bones The meaning of Descartes most famous uotation is discussed early in the book As philosophers since have pointed out I think Therefore I am or Je pense donc je suis or Cogito ergo sum does not fully encompass what Descartes intended Once the acid of his methodological doubt had eaten its way through everything else what he was left with was not technically even an I but merely the realization that there was thinking going on More correct than I think therefore I am would be Thinking is taking place therefore there must be that which thinks but that hardly has the snap to make it a slogan fit for generations of T shirts and cartoon panels The following is a portion of the book s discussion of the controversies related to mindbody separation There was then as there is now what might be termed a liberal conservative divide in attempts to resolve the problem Put another way there is a connection between the esoteric efforts to tackle dualism and the sorts of real world battles that fill newspapers and occupy TV talk shows Those on the left have tended to accept the seeming conseuences of euating mind and brain if it means that basic features of society the self religion marriage moral systems need to be reconstructed along new lines so be it The point is not that mind euals brain reuires one to hold particular positions on these topics but that it allows for a wide range of moral speculations The conservative stance has been to fight to keep mind separate from body to preserve the status uo whether in matters of religion the family or the self to maintain that there is an eternal unchanging basis of values With regard to Descartes the irony is that the man who was once seen as the herald of the modern program the breaker of all icons and traditions had by the nineteenth century become part of the conservative argument the man who built a protective wall around the eternal verities keeping them from the corrosive forces of modernityThe following is a portion of the author s advocacy for a middle way In these pages I have taken up Johathan Israel s thesis that there was a three way division that came into being as modernity matured There was the theological camp which held on to a worldview grounded in religious tradition the Radical Enlightenment camp which in the advent of the new philosophy wanted to overthrow the old order with its centers of power in the church and the monarch and replace it with a society ruled by democracy and science and the moderate Enlightenment camp which subdivided into many factions but which basically took a middle position arguing that the scientific and religious worldviews aren t truly inconsistent but that perceived conflicts have to be sorted out If there is a solution to the dilemma of modernity surely it lies in bringing the two wings into the middle which is where most people live The following is an insightful uotation from the book that caught my attention We are graced with a godlike ability to transcend time and space in our minds but are chained to death The result is a nagging need to find meaning This is where the esoteric mind body problem of philosophy professors becomes meaningful to us all where it translates into tears and laughterThe following is an example of clever use of words in telling the story of the French Academy s decision regarding the genuineness of the skull that was purported to be Decartes 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 nodThe book provides a refreshing and civil discussion of philosophic debates Weaving the story of Descartes bones into the narrative makes the otherwise dry subject of philosophy an interesting readThe following is a short review of the book that was on my PageADay Booklover s Calendar for November 3 2011THE PHILOSOPHER S LIFE AFTER DEATH We are all philosophers because our condition demands it writes Russell Shorto in his thoughtful and entertaining account of the importance of Descartes The relation of faith and reason a very Cartesian concern is after all a great preoccupation in our own time In this engaging commingling of ideas history and sleuthing Shorto explores Cartesian ideas as he tracks down the great philosopher s bones which were moved at least three times after his death at one point the skull was even separated from the rest of the skeletonDESCARTES BONES A SKELETAL HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT BETWEEN FAITH AND REASON by Russell Shorto Doubleday 2008

characters Descartes' Bones a Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

M passed them surreptitiously from hand to hand The answer lies in Descartes’ famous phrase Cogito ergo sum I think therefore I am In his deceptively simple 78 page essay Discourse on the Method this small vain vindictive peripatetic ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2000 years of received wisdom laid the foundations of the modern world At the root of Descartes’ method was skepticism What can I know for certain Like minded thinkers around Europe passionately embraced the book the method was applied to medicine nature politics society The notion that one could find truth in facts that could be proved not in reliance on tradition the Church's teachings would become a turning point in human history In an age of faith what Descartes was proposing seemed like heresy Yet Descartes himself was a good Catholic who was spurred to write his incendiary book for the most personal of reasons He'd devoted himself to medicine the. 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 uite 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 started it all the thinker who had rejected Aristotelianism created analytical geometry founded the scientific method Shorto can t resist pointing out the irony of the near religious reverence with which Descartes skull has been treated No matter how much we enslave ourselves to reason we can t help but at times be oh so very humanAnd as humans are wont to do we like to debate Bones aside the meat of this book is in the development of European society especially French society after Descartes death His legacy lives on in the form of Cartesianism which influences the French revolutionaries toward the secularization of France In effect Descartes laid the groundwork for the secular Europe that exists today and defined the difference between the French Revolution and the one across the Atlantic in America What I found particularly interesting was the way in which Descartes has one way or the other been made a paragon by the power of the dayShorto spends a good deal of time discussing the disposition of Descartes bones before during and following the French Revolution In so doing he presents a side of the Revolution I hadn t yet seen I learned about the Revolution mostly from a grade 12 history class and a little from War and Peace The dates and events are easy enough to learn but it s difficult to grasp the shift in social attitude occurring at the time It s not just that people began wanting to give their consent to the government The Revolutionaries embraced Cartesianism and even atheism actually its cousin deism in their attempts to weaken the power of the Catholic Church and of the monarchy And I like that while he does mention the Reign of Terror Shorto focuses on some of the other unsavoury parts of the Revolution Shorto makes me cringe with despair as he talks of looting and vandalism of symbols of the monarchy and religious establishments I m not Catholic but I find the idea of looting a church reprehensible But for the Revolutionaries this was all sanctioned by the new order in which atheism and reason held dominionDescartes then was a symbolic father figure of the Revolutionary movement After all Cartesianism s dualism poses a problem when it comes to something like the Catholic interpretation of the Eucharist and transubstantiation But wait a moment Both before and after the Revolution when the Catholic Church holds sway in France Cartesians portray Descartes as a devout Catholic who reaffirms God s role in the universe The former ueen of Sweden Christina claims he had a hand in her conversion to Catholicism Which of these two men was the real Descartes Was he a rabid atheist as his opponents often charged Or was he a pious man intending only to further the glory of GodThe answer is of course both and neither Shorto explores the myriad posthumous interpretations and portrayals of Descartes with a vim that I found both entertaining and informative Several famous scientists become involved in attempts to authenticate Descartes skull By relating these episodes to the scientific and social developments of the time Shorto creates a scaffold for the scientific progress of the eighteenth century In 1861 Pierre Paul Broca and Louis Pierre Gratiolet debate whether or not the size and mass of one s brain is an indicator of intelligence bigger being better naturally Broca says yes pointing to some doctored data that reeks of confirmation bias Gratiolet says no and holds up Descartes skull as an example of an intelligent man with a relatively small cranium Although authenticated forty years prior by the Academy of Sciences the skull s true identity is uestioned again as Broca claims that its size then necessarily makes it a fake The fact that the Museum of Natural History in Paris even has the skull is forgotten until 1912 and then another flurry authentication ensuesWhat this teaches us then is that society has a very short memory France easily forgot that it had possession of Descartes skull losing it in the minutiae of collecting and the chaos of flood damage repair Descartes skull has been authenticated several times throughout history since each successive time the past authentications were called into uestion or just forgotten about in general And this is true of scientific and philosophical concepts as well Broca and Gall s ideas of a physical or genetic basis to race and intelligence have been thoroughly discredited but the theories are advanced under different names slightly tweaked once every couple of decades There will always be advocates of other positions sceptics in fact and that s fine One of the prices for becoming mainstream is that the controversial new philosophy becomes part of the establishment and the philosophy that it usurps can always try to come back as a contrarian alternativeI m spending a lot of time talking about Descartes his bones and history and not much time reviewing the actual book That s because Descartes Bones accomplishes what good non fiction should it excites me about its subject matter makes me enthusiastic and interested in discussing it with other people Naturally this gets me strange looks from coworkers and friends as I spontaneously begin talking about Cartesian philosophy I don t mind And if I restricted myself to talking purely about how Shorto presents Descartes effect on history this review would be short And boringOne danger of investing myself so much in the subject matter however is a loss of objectivity when it comes to judging the book itself There s a part of me that s itching to give Descartes Bones five stars that s the same part in all of us that wakes up when we watch a funny YouTube video and instantly forward it to everyone we know the OMG this is awesome reflex I try to avoid that and give the books I read a sobre second thought before sending my review out into the world I d love to give Descartes Bones five stars but it really only deserves four in my opinionShorto while a good storyteller isn t always the clearest of historians The narrative tends to meander loop back on itself and emphasize facts I don t find very important almost as if Shorto feels the need to remind us that Descartes was buried in Sweden Sweden I say And while I love that there s a chapter that applies Descartes to modern events it is too short and too non specific for my liking Maybe this is because such a chapter probably deserves a book on its own those interested may want to take a look at Susan Jacoby s The Age of American Unreason for an American treatment of similar subject matter Shorto too often fails to properly connect all of the points he s making as grand a goal as a skeletal history of the conflict between faith and reason may be he doesn t uite synthesize everything into a single thesisMy complaints however are minor and mostly addressed with some good editing The core of this book is pure enjoyable discourse The name Descartes may strike terror into the hearts of the uninitiated and conjure up images of a lengthy treatise on Cartesian philosophy and mathematics Rest assured Descartes Bones is accessible to everyone Shorto explains what one needs to know about Cartesianism and the bibliography at the back contains a wealth of recommendations for further reading This is a book that will fit many people it s perfect as a coffee table read because it s intelligent without being pedantic however for serious intellectuals it s a fine gateway into the greater world of Cartesianism I say this as someone who has yet to actually read Descartes so I m speaking from personal experience hereAlthough steeped in philosophy and science this is primarily a history Such polymath books are always a treat for me something with which I like to reward myself after a long string of mediocre pulp novels or a particularly difficult if fulfilling classic Why do I like popular sciencehistory so much Many of these books retrace the same ground over and over this time it s the Enlightenment each author inflicting his or her pet grand unified theory as to the causal relationship among the various events of that time period It s true that this can get repetitive but it can also be fun to look at the same events from different perspectivesIn the case of Descartes Bones there is no dying that Ren Descartes played a major role in jolting Western Europe out of the Middle Ages and setting it on the path to the Enlightenment As a mathematician I revere Descartes for his contributions to mathematics we owe him for things as big as Cartesian coordinates and as small as writing exponents as superscripts 33 3 2 As an amateur philosopher it s impossible to talk about Western philosophy without looking at Cartesianism Descartes was audacious and vain in the development and promotion of his philosophy but he was also effective at encouraging Europeans to begin looking toward scepticism and reason as foundations of study rather than received wisdom and faith Descartes Bones reminds us that while we can t reduce the events of history to the actions of a single person one person s actions can and have reverberated through history setting off new ideas centuries later We may not be Cartesians but we are a product of Cartesianism s impact on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Therefore if one had to pick a single person around whom to weave the story of the French revolution the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution I can think of no one better than Descartes


10 thoughts on “Descartes' Bones a Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

  1. says:

    The 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

  2. says:

    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 thatThe basic premise is that Descartes pulled

  3. says:

    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 uestioning received wisdom had its own co

  4. says:

    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 t

  5. says:

    THIS is the book I've been searching for in my dreamsExactly what happened and how it happenedthat the revival of philosop

  6. says:

    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 uite the historical detective story it

  7. says:

    The tale of philosopher scientist Rene Descartes' bones form the skeleton of Shorto's sketch of Descartes key ideas that shaped our modern worldDescartes French by birth but exiled by force his ideas were anathema

  8. says:

    A fascinating to me examination of the influence of Rene Descartes on modern thought Starts with the great philosopher's death with a brief s

  9. says:

    At points where it appears Shorto has really focused this book is a 5 It uses the journey of the bones of the philosopherpolymath Rene Descartes from his 17th century death into the 20th century to reflect upon the relationship between faith

  10. says:

    Excellent delve into the wrestling of understanding of where Cartesian thought and methods have brought us The scientific

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