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Descartes’ Bones

January 30th, 2009 by jimm wetherbee in Reading EKScursions

Descartes' BonesDescartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason, by Russell Shorto (Doubleday 2008) [B&T Books] B1875.S495 2008.

The modern world has been with us longer than many of us would suppose. It did not arrive with Darwin or World War One or even the dawn of the Nuclear Age. My undergraduate class in Modern Philosophy started not with Bertrand Russell but René Descartes, and–judging from current textbooks–I rather doubt my case is unusual. Descartes’ breath of interests, his depth of thought and–something almost unheard of from a philosopher–the clarity of his writing marked such a pervasive break with the past that we now see and approach the world in such a way that any other perspective looks obscure and nonsensical.

Descartes was a master of doubt, method, and clarity. Shorto’s writing displays the sort of breezy clarity that entertains, but exchanges doubt and method for irony and whimsy. Then again, how could it be helped given the outline Shorto decides to work with?

Descartes died in Stockholm, Sweden and was buried in an obscure churchyard outside the city proper in 1650. Some sixteen years later the bones were translated to St. Geneviève in Paris. Well almost everything. One index finger bone and the skull went elsewhere. That the index finger was missing was well known, but not the skull. As it turned out, the index finger was never seen again and decapitated skeleton quickly decayed to dust, but the skull is still with us. Shorto’s outline is the path the skull traveled, the luminaries who had contact with it, and the events that were more than a little coincident with this relic. In doing so, Shorto comes up with an intellectual history of modernism and its detractors.

So Shorto’s method is a bit idiosyncratic, but for all that it enlightens in a way that a more abstract and categorical method would not. Descartes’ remains gain an almost religious attraction. That they should, is ironic; that an accidental method of telling a story can highlight this better than a systematic one compounds the mirth. Shorto has a whole stock of these twists as he takes us through the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, the eve of the the First World War on the one hand and the advances in physics, biology, anthropology, economics, and political science on the other. Unfortunately, while Descartes’ bones did travel to Japan, they never made it to England or America. Shorto is consequently compelled to shoehorn the American Revolution, Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin into what would be a mere footnote.

This constriction leads to another. Shorto does not deliver on his subtitle. The conflict between faith and reason in Shorto’s hands reads more like the rise and hegemony of modern thought. In part, this is because Shorto divides Descartes’ heirs into three camps, those who reject the materialistic implications of Descartes’ method, those who embrace it, and those who attempt to find a middle way. For the most part, Anglo-American thought has tended toward this middle way. As such, in Anglo-American thought, the conflict between faith and reason as been both more internal and by in large more tolerant. On the continent the lines were more clearly drawn and the approaches more radical, with faith seeming to have taken a back seat into irrelevance. In short, Descartes’ remains never made the pilgrimage to the real conflict zones. This failing is compounded by taking the central difficulty—the Mind/Body problem—of Descartes’ project and casting it as the conflict of Faith and Reason.

Very briefly, Descartes held that there were two substances material and mental. Material substance had the property of extension and mental substance that of thought. At first this makes sense, tables, trees, arms and legs take up space, thoughts do not. Minds think, perceive, emote, deduce, but tables, trees, arms and legs do not. The problem is, that if mind and matter have nothing in common, how can one affect the other? In Shorto telling, those on the side of Faith accept the mind/body duality and leave the problem of interaction unresolved while those who side with Reason reject the mind/body duality—forced by Descartes’ method to embrace only matter—and leave for themselves the problem of thought which seems to lack material properties. At the very least this leaves out that an institutional faith is a story that has been passed down from generation to generation. It may be reasonable, but it gains its authority not because it can be rationally deduced or methodically verified or tested, but in its provenance.

Even with these failings, Descartes’ Bones is a worthy book. Those who take it that people of faith left their minds in some Medieval Labyrinth, may see that these springs are a bit fresher. More particularly, those who are convinced that the the Enlightenment was just one big mistake that should just be forgotten may discover that it is they who’s preconceptions have been bought with borrowed capital.

jimm wetherbee

If Descartes’ Bones looks good, here are some other interesting Baker and Taylor Books. . .

  • Me of Little Faith, by Lewis Black.
    Call Number: BL73.B525 A3 2008
  • 13 Things that Don’t Make Sense, by Michael Brooks.
    Call Number: Q173.B893 2008
  • The Prodigal God by Alistair Reynolds.
    Call Number: BT378.P8 K45 2008