Goldstein, Rebecca. “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away”, Pantheon, 2014.
Is Philosophy Relevant Today?
As a former philosophy undergrad major, I faced the question of the obsolescence of the discipline on a daily basis. Now almost 50 years later, I still have not resolved the issue. Are those ancient questions still relevant in the age of cosmology and neuroscience and crowd-sourcing and cable news? The acclaimed philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein takes us into the drama of philosophy and shows us its hidden role in today’s debates on religion, morality, politics, and science.
Standing at the origin of Western philosophy is Plato, who got about as much wrong as one would expect from a thinker who lived 2,400 years ago yet his role in shaping philosophy was pivotal. Goldstein is concerned primarily with the fate of philosophy. To understand this there are questions to be asked—Is the discipline no more than a way of biding our time until the scientists arrive on the scene? Have they already arrived? Does philosophy itself ever make progress? And if it does, why is so ancient a figure as Plato of any continuing relevance?
Plato brought ideas to life by using dialogue. Can we imagine Plato in the 21st century on a speaking tour? What would be his reaction to news programs that deny there can be morality without religion? How would he mediate a debate between a Freudian psychoanalyst and a tiger mom on how to raise the perfect child? How would he answer a neuroscientist who argues that science has definitively answered the questions of free will and moral agency? What would Plato make of Google, and of the idea that knowledge can be crowd-sourced rather than reasoned out by experts? These are also the issues that plague us today.
Goldstein examines the continuous nature of philosophical questioning through a partly expository and partly fictional presentation of the thought of Plato. Many feel that all Western philosophy basically constitutes a series of “footnotes to Plato”.
Goldstein uses philosophy, fiction, and much else in this book and we find here one of those rare thinkers that writes with knowledge and insight on diverse, difficult subjects such as ancient philosophy and history, popular culture, Spinoza, and the mathematical philosopher Kurt Godel. Goldstein has a handle on it all and se does so with great ease. She starts by saying that science fiction novels required that you accept one absurd premise and then the rest of the novel had to obey common logic. She has done basically the same with this book.
She has moved Plato from around 400 B.C.E. and placed him in think tank discussions, Google headquarters, and cable TV talking heads debates and thereby she shows not only did Plato set the groundwork for rigorous debate, but that he is as relevant today as he ever was. However, she makes it clear that Plato was imperfect, partly for living in a time that was in the dark ages .
Goldstein explains in the first chapter Plato’s place in history and why Plato’s argument for making the abstract as relevant as the concrete. Then she moves on in the next chapter where Plato argues with a technophile at a chic bar in San Francisco about how arguments are made. The techie believes in the democracy of the Internet and crowd sourcing, using Google as a “rolling plebiscite” but he soon finds his arguments refuted by Plato. The great philosopher shows the difference between “Google information” and real knowledge.
We constantly encounter some concept that began with Plato—politics, art, science—Plato was there first. ? Plato wrote entire books on public service and leadership. He pioneered ideas in physical cosmology yet the modern world resists Plato and this book is an attempt to find out why this is so. We have been led to believe that philosophy begins with one question—Why?
Philosophy, as we understand the word, begins with one fundamental question: “Why?” This is the word that leads to dialogue and conversation. While Plato may be the foundation of philosophy, he did not invent it. It actually began with Greek scholars discussing what we now call science. They developed speculative cosmology. Plato shifted philosophy’s focus off physical science and onto human spirits. He initiated questions about education, politics, and morals are seen daily in modern schools, elections, and daily life.
Goldstein concedes that not everything Plato records remains relevant today and that can only be understood by performing legitimate Platonic philosophy. Plato had remarkably progressive ideas about, say, women’s rights and governance. But he didn’t believe we existed individually; “rights” may have scandalized him thoroughly.
Goldstein pictures Plato wandering in modern American settings, encountering public thinkers and social pathfinders, he tests contemporary ideas against pure reason. Platonic philosophy allows us wide latitude and that unlike Enlightenment thinkers, Plato brings few presuppositions to his thought. He has principles but few demands. To test ideas like Plato, we need only ask one important question: can this idea withstand its opposite?
Plato is not easy reading and so we are lucky that we have Rebecca Goldstein to read him and interpret him for us. Plato’s questioning voice engages three modern hosts in exploring what knowledge means in an age of computerized crowd sourcing. Then there are other dialogues that put Plato into conversation with an advice columnist fielding questions about love and sex, with a child psychologist arguing with an obsessive mother, with a television broadcaster trying to score political points, and with a neuroscientist certain he can resolve all intellectual questions with brain scans. The fact that Goldstein is also a novelist brings these to life and her scholarship gives them substance.
I would not say that this is an easy read but it is a fascinating read. Unlike other books, sentences flow together only after careful thought and I love that a book can do that to me. We can only hope for more from Rebecca Goldstein.