Russell Shorto

Descartes’ Bones

A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason

On a winter’s day in 1650 in Stockholm, René Descartes, the most influential and controversial thinker of his time, was buried after a cold and lonely death far from home. Sixteen years later, the French Ambassador Hugues de Terlon secretly unearthed Descartes’ bones and transported them to France.

Why would this devoutly Catholic official care so much about the remains of a philosopher who was hounded from country to country on charges of atheism? Why would Descartes’ bones take such a strange, serpentine path over the next 350 years—a path intersecting some of the grandest events imaginable: the birth of science, the rise of democracy, the mind-body problem, the conflict between faith and reason? Their story involves people from all walks of life—Louis XIV, a Swedish casino operator, poets and playwrights, philosophers and physicists, as these people used the bones in scientific studies, stole them, sold them, revered them as relics, fought over them, passed them surreptitiously from hand to hand.

The answer lies in Descartes’ famous phrase: Cogito ergo sum—”I think, therefore I am.” In his deceptively simple seventy-eight-page essay, Discourse on the Method, this small, vain, vindictive, peripatetic, ambitious Frenchman destroyed 2,000 years of received wisdom and laid the foundations of the modern world.

Descartes’ Bones is a historical detective story about the creation of the modern mind.

Descartes’ Bones was a New York Times Notable Book for 2008.

My conversation with Moira Gunn on Public Radio’s Tech Nation.

A video talk about the book in the Authors@Google series.

My essay on “Descartes’ Bones” lurking beneath the U.S. presidential election, in the Huffington Post.

Review in Nature.

Review in the New York Times Book Review.

Review in the Los Angeles Times.

Interview with Tom Ashbrook on NPR’s “On Point.”

Interview on the Leonard Lopate Show.

Interview on

Descartes’ Bones video.

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About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar