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Review: Descartes’ Bones, Russell Shorto

Russell Shorto argues that Descartes’ theories underpin everything that modern people think and do, despite the fact that we give him little credit for it.  To illustrate this, Shorto follows Descartes’ bones from the great man’s moment of death to the present day, illustrating how he and his mortal remains have powered and furthered thinking from the Enlightenment to 2008.

I didn’t really think this book was going to be any good.  I read several reviews from people who had abandoned the book or who finished it only because they were compelled to as reviewers and had received an ARC like me.  I have a bad track record when it comes to finishing non-fiction, even when I like it, so I opened this a bit warily.

Surprisingly, I didn’t have any trouble with it at all and really enjoyed it.  I found the charting of intellectual and scientific history from Descartes’ time to now to be very interesting and relevant to the way I think now and the way I know others think.  The use of Descartes’ bones and particularly skull to illustrate this mental journey was a clever device that unified the book from his death to the present.  It isn’t exactly a story, but more a philosophical exploration of just how we got where we are, using the bones and the mystery surrounding them as a frame for the author’s deeper thoughts.

I thought it was smart, thoughtful, and a worthy read.  I’d suggest this book if you’d like to delve into the issues behind our thought processes and theories, rather than looking for the mystery it’s sold as.  You can buy it on Amazon.

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