Descartes’ (tiny) Skull

| August 21, 2010

descartes skullThis is Descartes’ skull. Or rather, one of them. There are other contenders. This one is covered in writing—an encomium, in Latin, to his genius—written, we can safely assume, after his death.

Some would find the story of this skull’s travels ironic, the religio-fetishistic uses of it clearly at odds with Descartes’ radical dualism. The skull is not the man. Or as Descartes had it, studiously mentioning nothing of containers: I think therefore I am.

But the Descartes I know was fascinated by skulls. It wasn’t that they were metaphors for interiority, for the “inward turn” that Susan Bordo argues for in The Flight of Objectivity. If Descartes turned inward it was because this is where he took the show to be happening. The skull he studied and which was illustrated in his writings was oddly empty, a theater, with the Pineal gland at it’s center, leaning with the mysteries of the world.

A place of subtlety. All the stranger then, the story of it’s crude uses. Russell Shorto, author of Descartes’ Bones, elaborates in an interview:

The skull then took part in a couple of different episodes involving the development of comparative anatomy and attempts by Georges Cuvier, who was at the head of the academy and an important figure in science, to advance the theory that skull size and shape were indicators of intelligence. Cuvier believed that the slope of the front of the skull and the face was correlated with intelligence. He argued that African skull shapes denoted less intelligence than Caucasian skull shapes. And there was also an idea that the larger the brain or the larger the skull, the more intelligent the person. A couple of decades later, anthropologists used the skulls of great thinkers to argue that a larger skull size indicates more intelligence. Cuvier himself was dead, and his skull now joined others in defense of this theory. Apparently, he had an enormous skull. But someone at this time discovered that they had Descartes’ skull sitting around. Well, Descartes was a small man with a very small skull. I’ve seen it. So the tiny skull of this great French thinker rebuked the notion.

No doubt Descartes cultivated a tiny skull just for this rebuke of phrenology. For that to work, the only trick is to make sure one’s status as a genius is well established, preferably written directly on the skull.