Review: Descartes’ Bones by Russell Shorto

In 1666, sixteen years after his death, the bones of Rene Descartes were dug up in the middle of the night and transported from Sweden to France under the watchful eye of the French ambassador. This was only the beginning of the journey for Descartes’ bones, which, over the next 350 years, were fought over, stolen, sold, revered as relics, studied by scientists, used in seances, and passed surreptitiously from hand to hand.

Don’t let the blurb on the back cover fool you: this is not a mystery, not a pageturner. More than anything, this is a book on the history of philosophy, starting with the influence of Rene Descartes and continuing through today.

That is not what I expected, to be honest, when I requested the book. I enjoy both non-fiction and mysteries, and a good real-life detective story involving a missing skull and a famous philosopher sounded like an episode of the tv show Bones come to life. Unfortunately, while there is some mystery surrounding the authenticity of the skull that most believe to be the genuine article (at one point there were at least 4 skulls or skull fragments held up as the real thing), that is not the main thrust of this tale. Most of this book discusses the impact of Descartes’ theories on the philosophers, scientists, theologians, rulers and politicians who followed him, as well as the ordinary people who lived under their influence. For students of philosophy, it would be a very interesting tale; sadly, I did not find it a compelling story.

My book was an Advanced Reader Copy; you can purchase yours at

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