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)