On A Brutal Winter S Day In In Stockholm, Frenchman Ren Descartes, The Most Influential Controversial Thinker Of His Time, Was Buried After A Lonely Death Far From Home 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 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 Them, 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 Page Essay, Discourse On The Method, This Small, Vain, Vindictive, Peripatetic, Ambitious Frenchman Destroyed 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 Study Of Nature, But When His Beloved Daughter Died Aged , He Took His Ideas Deeper To Understand The Natural World One Needed To Question 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 Unquestioning 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

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

  1. says:

    T he 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, symbolic of worldly achievement and advance, but the Enlightenment still had its relics 107 Often the best nonfiction reads like a novel Dramatized events, larger than life characters, a blending of known facts and reconstruction all this makes for a great read, and is the type of presentation Descartes Bones delivers in spades It is, as the well worn book reviewer s clich has it, hard to put down Author Russell Shorto s grand and sweeping declarations that Descartes method of critical thinking was no less significant than the Industrial Revolution, the French and American Revolutions, the rise of the Internet make for a big, fierce hook.All told, this book serves as a great primer for Descartes basic arguments and influence on Western thought I knew the bare essentials from Philosophy 101 already Cogito ergo sum, dualism, the mind body problem, what else is there Plenty Shorto carves out a very substantial niche in history for Descartes to occupy, and does so with very lively writing, far above the norm for nonfiction For example Layers of tradition had built up around such categories for understanding reality Centuries of robed scholars and scribes had bent in tallow tapered light over parchment sheets and leather bound manuscripts, mouthing words, quill scratching, rubricating, memorizing, parsing and analyzing and adding levels to the hoary infrastructure that had these categories as elements and that was applied as an increasingly unwieldy tool to explain natural phenomena, human behavior, history, the universe 18 Descartes biography and historical role and essential philosophy are all made clear from the start Our author s Faith vs Reason conflict is murkier at first, but blossoms in the later chapters He takes a few early swipes at religious fundamentalism, weakly at first but much, much stronger towards the end I guess he assumes, probably rightly, that his readers already side with Reason over Faith But the term conflict is fitting and takes greater shape as he analyzes how Cartesian logic threatened the Catholic church s doctrine, especially the miracle of transubstantiation It is in his thorough and articulate explanations that this book really sets itself apart and demonstrates substantial, meaty philosophical and historical research Descartes skeleton, and especially its flagship skull, serves as a touchstone around which Shorto describes the various trends of developing European culture and new branches of science that rose and fell with the passing centuries And it all builds towards a beautiful finale, placing Cartesianism front and center as relevant still today We are all philosophers because our condition demands it We live every moment in a universe of seemingly eternal thoughts and ideas, yet simultaneously in the constantly churning and decaying world of our bodies and their humble situations 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 laughter 251 5 stars out of 5 Extremely well done.

  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 that.The basic premise is that Descartes pulled Europe away from an ecclesiastical paradigm Prior, religion was the primary knowledge source for everything Descartes liberated the search for knowledge Nature man included was something that could now be studied without the need of religion to intervene or bluntly, religion became superfluous for the accumulation and spreading of knowledge.Knowledge came to be viewed as rational and analytical Theology became relegated to a branch of the learning tree God was no longer a major player in the acquisition of learning.The author cleverly imparts this overview to us by giving the history of Descartes bones or skeletal remains through the ages It is a detective story where we learn the influence of Descartes on the history of learning since the publication of his Discourses.There is a brief discussion of the persistence of religion in our society both Christian and Muslim and its constant collision with the secular world that started with the writings of Descartes No real solutions are offered except to suggest that the worlds must co exist by moderates on both sides coming to an accommodation.All in all this is a most readable work on the European Enlightenment The author traces well the different thought patterns or philosophical off shoots of Descartes legacy.

  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 questioning 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 quotation 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 mind body 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 consequences of equating 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 equals brain requires 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 quo, 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 modernity. The 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 quotation 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 laughter. The 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 nod. The 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 read.The following is a short review of the book that was on my PageADay Booklover s Calendar for November 3, 2011 THE 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 skeleton.DESCARTES BONES A SKELETAL HISTORY OF THE CONFLICT BETWEEN FAITH AND REASON, by Russell Shorto Doubleday, 2008

  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 this theme I would have given the book five stars For anyone starting off on this subject, I would strongly recommend this book as an excellent introduction But I could not help entertain a niggling doubt or two how Cartesian about it I suspect it is because of the structure Shorto uses for his book There are two devices employed first, the rather obvious use of the amazing story relating to the history of the philosopher s remains it involves numerous exhumations and transferrals, and comes across as a kind of forensic detective story of its own, but one which in itself has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject of the sub title Shorto uses the bones as some kind of metaphor not always successfully, in my opinion for the subjects Shorto wants to present concerning the philosophical and religious ideas he wishes to talk about.The second device is the intellectual conceit that Descartes, or less considered in philosophical terms to be the Father of Modern Philosophy, is, by that very fact equally father to just about every modern idea that can be attributed to reason, both absolutely, and in relation to the subtle conflict this brings with simple matters of Faith I m not so sure about that For starters, one would think the rationalism of most of the Ancient Greek thinkers e.g Pythagoras, Lucretius, Euclid, Plato, Aristotle, etc would have to take a significant part in the story of Reason as it related to the Western world It didn t start with Descartes.Descartes main philosophical novelty was his Universal Doubt one had to doubt everything in order to find out what, if anything, one can actually know to be real and true i.e this is first and foremost an epistemological concern Descartes gives his reasons why we have to doubt everything and this is the basis of his Method , and after all his ratiocinating what he is left with is the knowledge that someone, or something, is ratiocinating , and that that someone or something is the only thing we can know as real and existing hence the famous infamous cogito, ergo sum I think, therefore I am.Similarly, the so called Mind Body problem Again, this is not a particularly new problem if one thinks the mind is the same as the spirit or the soul Duality has been with us forever Nor will it particularly go away , as it is part and parcel of reality itself particularly in its original sense of res a thing aliter other i.e something other.These are just brief excursions into some of the reasons I quibble about what Shorto is saying and this is particularly so when he tries at the end to suggest some middle way between the Mind Body problem with a rather wishy washy concept of love or heart occupying that slash between the two.Even as I write this, however, I feel I am being too harsh One thing I do feel sure about is that, provided one does not simply succumb to Shorto s arguments as true , this book will stimulate and provoke, and if it gets the reader to ponder on these important topics, then it will have achieved an end that can only be good so with that caveat, this book is recommended.

  5. says:

    THIS is the book I ve been searching for in my dreams.Exactly what happened and how it happenedthat the revival of philosophy and scientific thinking arose and grew into the 18th Century Enlightenment and laid the foundations of modern thinking which we take for granted.The Enlightenment was a mere plaque in the wall of 100 years plus of solid foundation building And the roots go back immediately into the 1500 s and 1600 s and further into Ancient Greece, although Shorto concentrates on the immediate causes.Copernicus and Galileo were already under a cloudfor their arguments that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of our universe However, their books were devoured by their contemporariesdespite or because of their suppression.Contrary to the Catholic Church s expectationsScience and Philosophy,which it had suppressed for over a thousand years took off,due largely to the revival of ancient knowledgewith the Renaissance and the printing press which allowed knowledge to be easily disseminated After a reign of over a thousand years, Theology,the stuff that dreams are made of, was going to come to griefat the hands of its thinking believers.Copernicus and Galileo had no doubts about God s existence,but they also had no doubts that their reasoning had overthrown the accepted teachings of tradition and authority.ENTER Descartes the dubious villian of the piece,also a good Catholic but a French philosopher, Rene Descartes, whose belief and promotion of rational doubtwould wreak unintentional havoc on theology, tradition and accepted authority Disillusioned with his Jesuit education,from which he salvaged only Mathematics, he found his answer in rational scepticism expressed in his question What can I know for certain This further strengthened the novel notion that one need not rely on authority or tradition,but on one s own thought processes, observation and experimentation ie.finding truth in facts that could be proved, and the proof replicated.Descartes book sold like hot cakes.Social Clubs were formed where experiments and discussion could indulge this new way of seeing the world.Passionate application of his thought was applied and had already been applied to medicine,eg.William Harvey and the circulation of the blood, astronomy eg.Copernicus and Galileo, politics eg.Machiavelli, physics and optics eg Isaac Newton.The genie was out of the bottle.Shorto reveals how Descartes was adopted by both radicals and conservatives to back up their beliefs.And how the journey of his bones was influenced by persons and events whom he had helped to influence and create through his thought.This book is a marvellous blend of a passionate man and philosopherwho made thinking a passion in itself, made thinking the Fad of the Times and influenced bloody revolutions.I will never look on Descartes again as a mere thinking machine A vastly entertaining read.

  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 quite 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 human.And, 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 day.Shorto 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 dominion.Descartes, 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 queen 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 God The 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 questioned 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 ensues.What 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 question 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 alternative.I 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 boring.One 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 opinion.Shorto, 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 quite synthesize everything into a single thesis.My 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 here.Although 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 science history 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 perspectives.In 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 3 3 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.

  7. says:

    At points where it appears Shorto has really focused this book is a 5 It uses the journey of the bones of the philosopher polymath Rene Descartes from his 17th century death into the 20th century to reflect upon the relationship between faith, reason and the movements of history.The 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.

  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 summary of Descartes life Then a circuitous narrative showing the impact of the philosopher s ideas on the split between faith and reason flowing through the following centuries The narrative meandered considerably but the loops were interesting The story is part forensic mystery, part history of philosophy and part discussion of the ideals of modernity I recommend it to readers interested in Rene Descartes influence on modern worldviews and the apparent battle between traditional faith and science.

  9. says:

    Excellent delve into the wrestling of understanding of where Cartesian thought and methods have brought us The scientific and religious forces that shape our views are embedded in so many parts of our daily modern lives Individual self awareness is linked to the struggle of mathematicians and scientists to bring light enlightenment to the world, and how the religious institutions responded The section on transsubstantiation in the Catholic and protestant faiths was fascinating I enjoyed this book so much, I went back and reread several parts twice.

  10. says:

    The tale of philosopher scientist Rene Descartes bones form the skeleton of Shorto s sketch of Descartes key ideas that shaped our modern world.Descartes, French by birth but exiled by force his ideas were anathema to the Catholic Church and choice one senses that despite his complaints about the cold he enjoyed his place in the Swedish Queen Christina s court , died and was buried in Sweden in 1650 His remains were exhumed and moved to Paris in 1666, this time in procession as semi holy relics as his ideas had gained in prominence and acceptance But it was during the French revolution that Descartes was fully rehabilitated to the level of secular sainthood, and his remains were moved again to the Pantheon, a secular chapel museum of French heroes in Paris Or were they Somewhere along the way, the provenance and possession of Descartes bones got tangled.Shorto attempts to make a mystery out of a tale of bureaucratic bumbling, mild nationalist fervor, and honest mistakes over insignificant events in the midst of the epoch changing French Revolution, while at the same time weaving in historical and philosophical background about Descartes and his philosophical progeny The result is an average mystery story the mystery mostly consisting of the untangling of sources and positing of some ideas to resolve relatively minor undocumented gaps over the centuries Descartes bones were being bandied about , and a disjointed skimming of the history of philosophy that is not deep or systematic enough to serve as a textbook or even very organized introduction to the topic.We do learn that it was Descartes who famously said I think, therefore I am Cogito, ergo sum , and that his ideas about doubt and faith opened the door to the questioning of dogmatic statements of truth and value hence his banishment by the Church and King of Francs While his writings, primarily the Discourse on the Method , were the opening wedge in separating faith from reason, to use an overworked oversimplification, his reliance on philosophical investigation reasoning over observation, to risk another oversimplification is sometimes used to frame his ideas in opposition to the scientific method of experimentation and observation which would flourish and drive the Enlightenment he helped to spark These ideas are in Shorto s chapters, just not highlighted or organized as well as I might like, as Shorto sacrifices the philosophical background for the sake of his mystery of the bones.