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Descartes' Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict between Faith and Reason Hardcover – Deckle Edge, October 14, 2008

4.0 out of 5 stars 91 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

At the center of this philosophical tale by the acclaimed author of The Island at the Center of the World is a simple mystery: Where in the world is Descartes's skull, and how did it get separated from the rest of his remains? Following the journey of the great 17th-century French thinker's bones—over six countries, across three centuries, through three burials—after his death in Stockholm in 1650, Shorto also follows the philosophical journey into modernity launched by Descartes's articulation of the mind-body problem. Shorto relates the life of the self-centered, vainglorious, vindictive Descartes and the bizarre story of his remains with infectious relish and stylistic grace, and his exploration of philosophical issues is probing. But the bones are too slender to bear the metaphorical weight of modernity that he gives them. Their sporadic appearance in the tale also makes them a shaky narrative frame for the sprawling events Shorto presents as the result of Descartes's work: the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the 19th century's scientific explosion, 21st-century battles between faith and reason. Given Shorto's splendid storytelling gifts, this is a pleasure to read, but ultimately unsatisfying. (Oct. 14)
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From Booklist

The earthly remains of René Descartes have been disinterred several times since his death in 1650, and with each disturbance, some of his bones vanished into the hands of venerators. The irony of the material legacy of the philosopher of reason being regarded similarly to the relics of saints is not lost on Shorto, who pairs a detective narrative with his thoughts about what the story reveals about skepticism versus belief as features of modernity. As Shorto relates, uncertainty about the authenticity of the contents of Descartes’ coffin accompanied its travels from Stockholm to Paris in 1666, culminating––when a skull purportedly that of Descartes surfaced in 1821––in an inquest conducted by the French Academy of Sciences. After describing subsequent attempts to fix the provenance of Descartes’ remains, Shorto tenders his speculation that they were lost in the turmoil of the French Revolution. Giving rein to his curiosity about the postmortem Descartes, Shorto will pull in readers who enjoy a good history mystery seasoned with philosophical thoughts. --Gilbert Taylor

This Book Is Bound with "Deckle Edge" Paper
You may have noticed that some of our books are identified as "deckle edge" in the title. Deckle edge books are bound with pages that are made to resemble handmade paper by applying a frayed texture to the edges. Deckle edge is an ornamental feature designed to set certain titles apart from books with machine-cut pages. See a larger image.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Doubleday (October 14, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038551753X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385517539
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (91 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,139,939 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By Angie Boyter VINE VOICE on October 10, 2008
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Whether you are a " philosophile" or know Descartes only for the famous "Cogito, ergo sum", you will probably find this well-told tale of the continuing legacy of Descartes' thinking fascinating and informative. I enjoyed this book so much that I almost feel guilty not giving it a 5-star rating, but it DOES have two serious flaws. As others have pointed out, the "hook" of the title, the story of Descartes' bones over the past 350 years, is not well integrated into the rest of the book and is not a big enough "hook" on which to hang the book anyway (It might make a nice magazine article.). The second big flaw is the use of the current journalistic "cliche" in which serious topics are introduced through character sketches. Descartes' Bones opens with a vignette of Philippe Mennecier, the curator at Paris' Musee de l'Homme, a vignette which is not very interesting and makes no contribution to the topic of the book. Other modern sketches intrude at other points in the book.
The reviewer in the New York Times called this an "investigative book, one that goes off on frequent philosophical, historical and forensic tangents." I hesitate to disagree with the august Times, but I believe he has it backwards, and this may be the source of the flaws. I consider this to be primarily a wonderful history of philosophy and ideas, encompassing religion, science, and political thinking and tracing the influences of Descartes through them all for 350 years. This is a tall order and a weighty topic, and the flaws in the book may come from an attempt to "lighten it up" lest it intimidate the general reader. Personally, if I used my normal heuristic of "do I like the first page enough to go on?" I would probably have stopped reading, and that would have been a mistake. The "bones" theme and the modern tangents are only a small part of the book, and the rest is worth the investment of your time.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I really hate to disagree with most of the previous reviewers, but I found this book to be interesting and enlightening. I admit it is not a page-turner, but it is, after all, an "intellectual" detective story and not a thriller or novel of suspense.

I was first introduced seriously to Descartes as the subject of a graduate seminar in philosophy during my first year as a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Washington way back in the ancient year of 1961. I did not then -- nor do I do now -- consider Descartes to be a "great" philosopher, even though he is considered to be the so-called father of modern philosophy. That aside, there is no question that he raised philosophical issues of great import which still haunt us today.

This book does give the reader, in my opinion, an interesting detective story, despite the fact that he roams around a lot of intellectual history; and European geography, for that matter. For those readers, however, who have never been introduced to Descartes or the real problem he created -- the so-called body-mind problem -- this could be an adventure for them much needed.

So, I have to respectfully disagree with the other reviewers of this book who are negative toward it. I found it a good, if not excellent, read and would, without hesitation, recommend it to all general readers. Granted it is not great philosophy, maybe not even great history; but it is a fascinating tale. And I think told well.

Unfortunately, I was stuck with reading an uncorrected proof of this book. There were a number of quotes I would have cited to discuss. But such is not to be done, according to the warning clearly imprinted on the back cover of the book. So what I have said above is all to be said from my standpoint.
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Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
On occasion there comes a book which examines some piece of history, a thing thought of as a footnote, and successfully demonstrates its importance. Shorto's last book, "The Island at the Center of the World" examined such a footnote, examining the fascinating, brief, and often neglected, history of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. With that work he offered a story that was not just entertaining, but gave considerable food for thought as one reconsiders American history. Shorto doubtless hoped to achieve the same illumination with Descartes' Bones, following the mystery of the disappearance of the Philosopher's remains as a vehicle for considering his central place in the development of modernity. Where "Island" sought to explore the under appreciated early history of a city which played a generally agreed upon crucial role in world history, in "Descartes' Bones" Shorto wants to take a person to whom most people have likely given little thought and make him the intellectual fulcrum of the Enlightenment.

If that sounds like a big task to you, you would be right. Worse still, Shorto not only does not succeed in accomplishing his goal, but cuts several intellectual corners to make a round peg of an idea fit into a square hole of a book.

In the first place, even used as a metaphor as Shorto wishes to, Descartes' remains and their whereabouts is just not that interesting a topic. A long essay in the Atlantic perhaps, but a better than 200 page book? In the second place, Shorto's claims regarding Descartes do not stand up to scrutiny to anyone familiar with his topic. One senses that even the author knows this as he often gives only the briefest attention to those important aspects of Cartesian philosophy which under cut his thesis.
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