- Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. New York: Vintage Books. 2008. ISBN 9780307275660.
- All quotes from this trade paperback edition
- If the West is heading toward some kind of crisis, it’s worth asking ourselves a few basic questions. Modern society as we normally define it—a secular culture built around tolerance, reason, and democratic values—occupies a rather small portion of the world, and there are signs that it is shrinking. Is modernity the inexorable force of progress that we tend to assume? Is it a mere moment of human history that is fast fading? If it is something to value, how can we rediscover it, separate the good and the bad in it, make it relevant and vital?
- Preface (p. xix)
- The irony is that in shifting the focus onto the individual human mind, which everyone agrees can be a pretty flimsy and wayward organ, Descartes had arrived at the closest thing to a certain basis for knowledge. If my own thoughts are the only indubitable ground I can stand on, apparently they aren’t so flimsy after all, at least not all the time. As an earlier follower of Descartes put it, “doubt is the beginning of an undoubtable philosophy.” Therefore the mind and its “good sense”—that is to say, human reason—are the only basis for judging whether a thing is true. With the “cogito,” as philosophers abbreviate it, and with the theory of knowledge that arises from it, which Descartes outlined in the Discourse on the Method and later works, human reason supplanted received wisdom. Once Descartes had established the base, he and others could rebuild the edifice of knowledge. But it would be different from what it had been. Everything would be different.
- Chapter 1 “The Man Who Died” (pp. 20-21)
- “Death,” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote, “is not an event in life.” He meant, maybe (for it’s hard to be sure—Wittgenstein was rather titanically cryptic), that being dead is not something we actually experience and that since we aren’t conscious of a nonliving state it is literally meaningless, so instead of spending our lives worrying about the future we should look at each instant as an eternity. We should live in the moment.
Perhaps this is true, and wise, but in an ordinary sense Wittgenstein was completely wrong. Death is the event in life. It is our chief organizing principle. It’s why we rush and why we dawdle, why we better up our bosses and fawn over our children, why we like both fast cars and fading flowers, why we write poetry, why sex thrills us. It’s why we wonder why we are here.
- Chapter 2 “Banquet of Bones” (p. 43)
- The situation in biology was particularly complex. Biologists craved the sort of base principles that Newton had developed for physics. Trying to classify life-forms begged the question of what overall purpose you had in mind. The system that was still largely in effect in the early nineteenth century was the “teleological taxonomy” created by Aristotle and refined by the Scholastic philosophers: the “scale of beings” system, which the French called the série, or series, and which is popularly known as the “great chain of being.” As with the medieval system of bodily humors, it was far more complex and useful than its popular stereotype suggests, but it had a serious limitation, which was its teleological basis.
- Chapter 4 “The Misplaced Head” (p. 140)