Descartes’ Bones by Russell Shorto

Descartes’ Bones is an effort to take one story, the convoluted history of the remains of René Descartes, and wrap it up in a larger one—basically the story of the Enlightenment and its legacy. The second thread there is, obviously, sweeping, but tethering it to the history of Descartes’s skeleton means that Russell Shorto is left telling the story of the bones and going off on tangents wherever possible to discuss the various scientists and thinkers who followed him.

In the end I’m left feeling that the book was rather thin. The story of the bones is fun and interesting if inconsequential (Shorto himself says the mystery is monumentally insignificant) and would have made a nice essay or long article, but at pop nonfiction length felt padded. Which is even stranger in light of the fact that Shorto spends virtually no time discussing Descartes’s philosophy itself. He wants to talk a lot about people the philosophy influenced or scared, but not so much about what Descartes proposed and how he proposed it worked. Shorto is explicit about the fact that Descartes was a Catholic and believed in God, but completely glosses over the fact that the existence of a benevolent God was utterly foundational to Descartes’s whole project of rationalism. He’s also extremely nonspecific about the differences between, say, Descartes and David Hume. We end up getting more information on the history of phrenology and the creation of the meter.

All this makes it seem like the point isn’t so much to talk about Descartes’s actual philosophy and how it influenced the history of ideas, but to give a vague, general history of the Enlightenment and the subsequent development of scientific thought in Paris, with colorful flourishes provided by the mystery of the bones. And the point of that enterprise, for Shorto, is to tell us that there are three camps among the inheritors of Descartes: extremists on the theological and secular sides, and a nice, friendly, mushy middle that the author finds to be obviously the best group, without much reason other than, “People make mistakes, so we’d better not pick either side of an issue.”

The read itself was an easy one, as the book is short on ideas, empty of challenging ones, and has a good share of cute historical vignettes. But at the same time it was somewhat confusing. Shorto’s discussions of dualism are too simplified to be helpful. He grafts dualism/physicalism for a moment onto contemporary conservative/liberal politics; does he really think Democrats are even mostly physicalists (not in my experience)? But that confusion is probably the result of my own overinterpretation. This is just supposed to be a nice story representing the problems and pitfalls of science and human fallibility. I still think that story could have worked in shorter form, but the holes are too big when the idea is stretched to book length.

1 comment to Descartes’ Bones by Russell Shorto

  • Too bad this one didn’t do it for you, I was looking forward to this book but I think I will wait now. I wanted something a bit more meatier than it sounds.