04 June 2010

Descartes' Bones

Russell Shorto's book Descartes' Bones straddles several different genres - philosophy, history, religion, and science - and it inhabits this intersection very well. 

As does its subject.  Rene Descartes helped usher in the scientific revolution in addition to creating his namesake mathematical and philosophical theories.  He suffered ostracism from the Church and the academic elite when his mind-body theories whipped-up debate over the nature of God and man (even though Descartes professed to being a devout Catholic until his death; he was also the only Catholic in regular contact with Queen Christina of Sweden who later converted from Lutheranism).  He died after contracting what was probably pneumonia in the dead of a Stockholm winter; his remains did not remain buried, however, and the body was moved from Stockholm to numerous places in France.

The peregrinations of Descartes' skeleton (particularly that of his skull) form the central core of Shorto's book.  Shorto gives the reader a basic overview of Descartes' philosophical views, one that is reasonable and easy-to-understand, and some insight as to how Cartesian theory played into Descartes' journey to Sweden.  Shorto was also meticulous in following the historical record to trace the movements of Descartes' body, particularly his skull, through history; it's a very interesting story  and Shorto doesn't bog down in the details.  Shorto also spends some time on the comparison of the veneration of religious relics (like saints' bones and things) to the veneration of the remains of a "scientific" man like Descartes; the history of Descartes bones in this period (Enlightenment to post-Revolution France) was particularly interesting.  Descartes' Bones runs to about 250 pages so it's a quick and enjoyable read.

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