Russell Shorto Descartes' Bones:
A Skeletal History of the Conflict
Between Faith and Reason.
Doubleday, 386 pages, $26

In 1619, René Descartes wrote to his friend Isaac Beekman, “What I want to produce is … a completely new science, which would provide a general solution of all possible equations involving any sort of quantity, whether continuous or discrete.”

Perhaps emboldened by the bracing confidence of the great philosopher, his most recent chronicler has taken on a project very nearly as ambitious. Writing a history of the conflict between faith and reason, even a “skeletal” one, as Russell Shorto attempts to do in Descartes’ Bones, is a daunting undertaking. While it can be argued that Descartes actually succeeded in his project, the same cannot be said for Shorto.

Shorto’s conceit, to be sure, is...

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