Most Americans probably have only a vague notion of Rene Descartes, the 17th-century French philosopher and mathematician, as the guy who declared, “Cogito ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”). It’s a statement that, in our ironic age, is probably more notable for spawning such comic takeoffs as “I stink, therefore I am” or George Carlin’s “I think I am; therefore, I am. I think.”
With “Descartes’ Bones” (Doubleday, $26), Russell Shorto hits on a clever gambit to pull Descartes out of the shadow of late Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers such as da Vinci, Newton, Galileo and Spinoza, to name only a few with higher Q ratings. Shorto uses the weird and convoluted story of what happened to the great philosopher’s remains as a route to exploring Descartes’ philosophy and influence.
Vain, combative, sure of his intellectual superiority, Descartes had the goal of nothing less than the replacement of a “bad” way of understanding the world with a “good” one. The bad was the Aristotelian approach, adopted by the Scholastic philosophers and much in favor with royal and church authorities. By locating the ground of truth in the human mind — “I think, therefore I am” is more than a slogan — Descartes paved the way for the development of the modern scientific method and unleashed controversies that still rage today.
Although Descartes was a devout Catholic who believed his philosophy could prove the existence of God, clerical and secular authorities immediately saw the threat it posed to belief in the supernatural. Damned as an atheist, he was hounded first out of France, then Holland, and had just taken refuge in Stockholm when he fell sick and died in 1650.
Shorto traces the path by which admirers and French patriots returned Descartes’ remains to Paris. Somewhere along the way, the skull was removed, only to turn up in the early 19th century, when it became an object of intense interest for the emerging scientific establishment.
In full command of the complexities of his story, Shorto brings into sharp relief such important if forgotten historical players as Henricus Regius, Descartes’ first disciple; Alexander Lenoir, deputized by the French revolutionary authorities to salvage religious art works and Pierre Paul Broca, who made a lasting discovery about the brain and invented anthropology.
If Shorto doesn’t quite prove his thesis that Descartes is the founder of the modern world, he does illuminate much about how it came to be. He makes a cogent argument for detente between faith and science, finding atheists such as Christopher Hitchens as intolerant as Islamic or Christian fundamentalists.