Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto

Reader's Guide


  1. Descartes' Bones opens with this quotation from Shakespeare's Richard II: "What can we bequeath save our deposed bodies to the ground?" In the context of what we learn in Descartes' Bones, what do you think this quote means? Why did the author choose it?
  2. What do you think of the author's conversational writing style, how he weaves his experiences and opinion into the narrative? Did it enhance your reading experience?
  3. Before reading Descartes' Bones, what meaning did Descartes' most famous saying, "I think, therefore I am," hold for you? Did it change now that you've read the book? How?
  4. What is your definition of philosophy? Is there a particular philosopher to whose theories you subscribe? What do you think of Descartes' disproved theory of dualism? Can you understand why it was accepted for so long?
  5. "Dr. Mennecier is what you would call a French intellectual….To many people…that would be considered a slur…but the term can also encompass a way of looking at the world that is becoming sadly rare—call it a serious commitment to idiosyncracy,". How does Descartes embody this description by the author? What about the author himself? How would you describe someone with a "commitment to idiosyncracy?" Is that a good or bad trait?
  6. "The prevailing wisdom in neuroscience and philosophy is that Descartes was dead wrong. Mind and body—mind and brain—aren't fundamentally different at all." What do you make of this statement from the Preface, that such a revered figure in science such as Descartes was ultimately wrong? Does the fact that dualism was debunked make you question the accuracy of Descartes' other teachings?
  7. The author poses many questions about what he terms the "perennial conflict between faith and reason." To you, what comprises this dispute? Why has it persisted through centuries?
  8. "[Descartes] wanted to reorient the way people thought,". How are people influenced? Do you think it's really possible to alter the way a person actually thinks? If so, how would one go about doing so?
  9. The author describes the great lengths to which opponents of Cartesianism went to prevent its ideas from being spread. Why was Cartesianism considered so dangerous?
  10. "In the prevailing modern view, faith has no business meddling in astronomy or biology." Do you agree with this statement from Chapter Two? Considering debates like those between believers of Darwin's theory of evolution and those of intelligent design, how does religion factor into these ideas?
  11. The author describes the saga of Descartes' bones as a metaphor for modernity. Do you agree with his characterization?
  12. In Chapter Six the author explains his obsession with the tale of Descrtes' bones by stating that we as human beings "are all detectives" and "we crave closure." Do you agree? Why is the story of Descartes' bones so interesting to Russell Shorto, and to others? To paraphrase the book's descriptive copy, why should anyone care about the remains of one long-dead philosopher?
Descartes' Bones

Descartes' Bones

A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

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