Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Descartes’ Bones (1)

Shorto, Russell. Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

There is a web site for this book: Descartes' Bones by Russell Shorto.

This has got some important material on it, including an excerpt, a gallery of images, and a reader's guide. Some of the questions asked of the reader are more fruitful than others, and deeper questions could be added.

There is also a link to Shorto's YouTube video, or you can access the video at YouTube itself.

See also the publisher's page at Random House.

Naturally reviews can be found in innumerable places, but here's one from The New York Times Book Review:

Body of Knowledge By GARY ROSEN (October 31, 2008).

And behold: "Gary Rosen is the chief external affairs officer of the John Templeton Foundation." This speaks volumes about the integrity of the newspaper of record. Naturally, the gambit here is to dampen the conflict between science and religion by adopting a middle-of-the-road position that purports to make friends with everyone.

And this position is not far from Shorto's own:

By Julie Phillips. Amsterdam Weekly,6-12 November 2008.
"After eight years of warring fundamentalisms, Russell Shorto says in his new book,
Descartes Bones, it’s time for something new."

The bankruptcy of contemporary thought is multiply worse than the end-of-ideology ideology of the 1950s, predicated on liberal premises, for this manifestation of "moderation" is fundamentally right-wing. Calling people extremists for vehemently opposing extremists ultimately pulls everything to the right, and moderation becomes timidly mitigating the right-wing extremism while capitulating to it. To defame the "new atheists" (a fake journalistic moniker) as extremists, and also to claim that both Obama and McCain represent a move away from fundamentalism: how shamelessly idiotic can you be? This is what today's right-wing liberal pundits posit as a transcendence of dichotomies. It's too disgusting for words.

We learn also that Shorto is a lapsed Catholic, and that his rebellion against his upbringing is related to his preoccupation with the chasm between faith and reason. This issue also contains an excerpt from the book.

The book itself does not seem to be so vacuous, though one must be alert to spin. It can be classified in what seems to be a growing genre of popular philosophical biography, much of it produced by serious scholars. Examples of this genre are Matthew Stewart's The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World (my favorite), Rebecca Goldstein's Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (another favorite) and Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, Steven Nadler's The Best of All Possible Worlds: A Story of Philosophers, God, and Evil, and Wittgenstein’s Poker: The Story of a Ten-Minute Argument Between Two Great Philosophers and Rousseau’s Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow. Such books take off from a relationship (often antagonistic) between two thinkers, or a specific incident or problem, or a particular thinker, perhaps with respect to a particular question.

This book begins with an account of Shorto's visit to the Musée de l‘homme, where he gets to see Descartes' skull. Then Shorto flash's back to the beginning of his quest. For him, as well as others, Descartes is the intellectual fount of modernity, which has recently come under attack from the right and the postmodern left. The conflict of faith and reason belongs to our time as well as Descartes'. The "new atheists" are cited here. (xviii) As the fate of Descartes' remains shows, Descartes has been appropriated by left and right. The basis for the right's interest is Cartesian mind-body dualism, the mind or soul being untouchable by materialistic science. Shorto follows Anglican cleric Colin Slee in positing a contemporary three-way split: fundamentalist religionists, fundamentalist secularists, and religious liberals. (xix)

Such is the preface and the shallow middle-of-the-road journalistic approach to ideas and politics. It's an unwitting piece of evidence for the contention that religious moderates pave the way for religious right-wing extremists, an argument that can be extended to politics in general, though today's atheist liberals would probably not understand this.

Chapter 1 gets down to the actual history. The story starts with Descartes on his deathbed. Descartes protests against proposed medical remedies for his soon-to-be-fatal condition. Here we find an interesting, underappreciated facet of the Enlightenment and scientific revolution: The new skeptical attitude was also applied to an inherited body of medical pseudoscience. Materialistic medicine, based on the soon-to-be-established mechanical world view, is something taken for granted (by its critics as well as by its other beneficiaries), but physical medicine was inseparable from religion in Descartes' day; prayer was an integral to treatment as medicaments. (8) Since this is by no means a relic of the past, Shorto wonders what makes the modern modern. He wonders whether the divide between the material and the spiritual is wrong. (9)

Again, the shallow editorializing. However, we shall see what we can learn from the historical account as the book proceeds.

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