Rene Descartes was one of my favorite philosophers in college, mainly because “I think, therefore I am” was (and is) such a powerful, simple concept that explains why we are who we are. At the time I was also fascinated by the existential playwright Samuel Beckett, so I got permission from a philosophy professor to write a paper like a play, where Descartes and Beckett met and debated the nature of existence. My professor liked what I wrote and gave me a good grade, but he thought the paper would make for a pretty boring play. I didn’t disagree nor did I care about his play review, I was just relieved about the grade. I have no clue where that paper is now.
A few months ago I was listening to Science Friday on NPR, and they talked about Russell Shorto’s book, Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. It had been a long time since I had thought about Descartes, so that night I downloaded the book and started reading. It began with a chapter on Descartes’ life and philosophy, but the book’s premise was focused on something pretty macabre– what happened to Descartes’ remains in the centuries after his death. His bones were dug up and re-buried a couple times, and his skull went missing only to appear again later in the nineteenth century. Most recently the skull was used to showcase computer facial imaging technology in Japan.
The book chronicles how his remains were used to promote different ideologies, and I found that aspect of the book compelling. For instance, Descartes had died in semi-exile in Sweden, basically banished from France. However sixteen years later he was considered an important French thinker, so off his bones sped to France (minus the skull) as a national symbol. After his skull turned up again in the nineteenth century, some scientists used it to advance the quasi-science of Phrenology – the belief that the size and bumps on a skull can determine a person’s intelligence. It turned out that Descartes had a small skull, which helped debunk that theory.
The only aspect of the book that didn’t hold up as well for me was when the text linked the arguments over Cartesian and Non-Cartesian philosophy to the current conflict between conservative and liberal thought. The struggle is similar, but Carl Sagan in Cosmos argues the conflict began when the Socratic Method championed by Plato (asking questions to achieve knowledge) trumped the Scientific Method championed by Ionian scientists (conducting experiments to achieve knowledge). So you could argue the struggle between faith and reason has been going on in various ways in various forms during various times. But that criticism is a little thing, I really enjoyed Descartes’ Bones. If you are in the mood to read a different, semi-odd history book, consider this one.