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"The pluralistic form takes for me a stronger hold on reality than any other philosophy I know of, being essentially a social philosophy, a philosophy of 'co'"-William James
Plato has begun to appear in some unexpected places. On the first track of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s hip-hop album, “Watch the Throne” (2011), you can pick out the line, “Is Pious pious cause God loves pious?” This, as classicists will instantly recognize, is an allusion to a dilemma posed in Plato’s dialogue “Euthyphro,” in which Socrates asks, “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” In Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new book, “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away,” Plato turns up not only at the search engine’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., but also with the obstreperous host of a cable news talk show, as a consultant to an advice columnist, and in several other places a long way from ancient Athens. In Goldstein’s neat finale, the pupil of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle eagerly disappears into the magnetic bowels of an fM.R.I. scanner to have his brain probed.
Goldstein is a novelist and a teacher of philosophy whose previous nonfiction book, “Betraying Spinoza,” was in effect a love letter to the 17th-century Dutch thinker described as “the renegade Jew who gave us modernity.” Now she has written a love letter to Plato, whom she regards as having given us philosophy. He is, in her view, as relevant today as he ever was — which is to say, very. To demonstrate his continuing hipness, her expository chapters on his writings and milieu alternate with Platonic-style dialogues set in present-day America, where Plato is on a book tour. The old chap adapts wonderfully to his unfamiliar surroundings. Presented with a Chromebook computer, he becomes addicted to Googling, and enrolls in online courses to brush up on neuroscience.
It’s diverting to speculate on which aspects of the Internet would be embraced by time-traveling ancient thinkers. The epigrammatic Heraclitus would surely have appreciated the enforced brevity of Twitter. Diogenes the Cynic, who made a spectacle of himself in order to heap scorn on conventional values (to which end he allegedly masturbated in public), would presumably have relished Facebook — until his selfie-strewn account was deleted. Diogenes Laertius, an infamously undiscerning historian, would have gleefully reposted every hoax and rumor to be found in cyberspace. It’s harder to swallow the idea that Plato would be such a Googler, given his insistence on the chasm between mere information and genuine wisdom. Aristotle, a keen collector of biological oddities, is the more plausible hoarder of facts.
But this is not a criticism. Quite the reverse: Goldstein’s resurrection of Plato actually works, which is no mean achievement. His avid Googling is slightly puzzling precisely because her character is recognizably the real thing — or rather, a plausible reconstruction of his mouthpiece, Socrates. When the rejuvenated Plato gently probes the loud certainties of Roy McCoy, Goldstein’s invented cable-news pundit, on the subjects of happiness, virtue, success and religion, we hear authentic Platonic arguments brought nicely up to date.
Plato never speaks under his own name in the old dialogues. We are told in them that he was present at the trial of Socrates and absent at his death, but otherwise we hear nothing about him. Giving Plato his own voice has been tried a few times before, notably in “The Mask of Apollo” (1966), a historical novel by Mary Renault, and in “Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues” (1986), by the British novelist-philosopher Iris Murdoch. Murdoch’s Plato was dogmatic and impatient in one dialogue (“Oh what nonsense you all talk!”), and an emotional and tiresome youth in another. Goldstein’s Plato seems to have been modeled on the character of Socrates, because he is unfailingly modest and polite — and is thus quite unlike the “philosophy-jeerers” among scientists with whom she wrestles at various points in the book.
One of the most raucous jeers against philosophy in general, and Socrates in particular, was delivered in Plato’s own time, by the comic playwright Aristophanes. Nowadays, it is most often scientists who lead the taunting: Some physicists seem especially to have gotten under Goldstein’s skin. I’m not sure the ones she cites are worthy opponents. They are tone-deaf to philosophical reasoning and mistakenly suppose that the defect lies in the music rather than in themselves. Such uncomprehending hostility is an intriguing phenomenon, which perhaps in part reflects the narrowness of scientific specialization these days. Einstein and several of the founders of quantum mechanics were enthusiasts for philosophy, possibly because they benefited from a broader education than today’s laboratory pundits.
In the 1920s, the wife of an Oxford don once assured a dinner companion that a student with a first-class degree in classics “could get up science in a fortnight.” Today, the situation is reversed: It is some scientists who think they can grasp the fundamentals of another discipline by thumbing a few pages and having a quick ponder. Hence, for instance, the burgeoning literature by some neuroscientists and their fans in which the problem of free will, or some other venerable source of fascination, is breezily dispatched in a trice. (In some of the liveliest argument in this book, one such overconfident neuro-sage is masterfully needled by Goldstein’s Plato.)
Yet there is a problem, or at least a puzzle, about the nature of progress in philosophy, which the continuing relevance of Plato underlines rather than resolves. As Goldstein puts it: “If philosophy makes progress, then why doesn’t Plato at long last just go away?” Science makes cumulative advances, but philosophy can seem stuck in a loop — a situation made all the more embarrassing by the fact that many of its most famous practitioners, from the 17th century onward, keep announcing that now, at last, they have found the way forward (yet again). Goldstein’s response is somewhat gnomic. She claims progress in philosophy is real but “invisible because it is incorporated into our points of view. . . . We don’t see it, because we see with it.” Yet if that were so, shouldn’t Plato now be old hat to us? He would only be telling us things that, thanks partly to him, we have come to already know.
A more apt approach to the enigma of philosophical progress may be to question the question. Should we really regard philosophy as a dog-eared crossword puzzle, first published some 2,500 years ago and still pored over by enthusiasts who, after 100,000 rainy Sundays, have managed to fill in only a handful of clues? Another way to see it is as a fountain of eternally youthful questions, with which we shall always be grappling because they expose unresolvable tensions in our beliefs and concepts, and stimulate our intellectual appetites. Wouldn’t it in fact be rather disappointing to stop asking fundamental questions? If philosophy is not something we’d like to see all sorted out and put away, there will always be a place for Plato, because he was so remarkably good at it. ANTHONY GOTTLIEB
Philosophers eager to write for popular audiences are finding readers who want answers science can’t offer.
When i was 21, I was trying to decide whether to become a doctor or a philosophy professor. My older brother, whose advice I usually followed, asked me why I wanted to study philosophy. I was evasive. Finally I admitted that a lot of the books I loved had been written by philosophers and philosophy professors. Plus, one of my favorite books at the time, a book I’d read and reread since I was a teenager, was Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, which unabashedly romanticized the life of the professor.
“Be practical. Books are dangerous things,” my brother warned me. “Just because it’s on paper, you think it’s true. Moneylove was one of the most damaging books I ever read. Not to mention How to Win Friends & Influence People.” (I should probably mention that my brother is a very successful luxury jeweler, who continues to love money and, as Dale Carnegie instructs, to “make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.”) This wasn’t what I wanted to hear, so I called my dad, at that time a broke New Age guru and sex therapist living in Jupiter, Florida—not exactly the oracle of Delphi, and not someone whose advice I usually followed. “Every doctor I know is miserable, son,” he told me. “They work all the time and complain about insurance companies.” (Not much has changed since 1988.) “Be a professor. You’ll never be rich, but you’ll be doing what you love: reading and writing. You get summers off. It’s a good life.”
Note that my father didn’t say the good life, which is how a philosophically minded adviser might have put it to me—except that philosophy in America in the 1980s and ’90s seemed to be losing its way in dry, scholastic debates about the most lifeless of topics (what is the meaning of and?). But he told me what I wanted to hear, and a quarter century later, philosophy is making the kind of comeback that leaves a Hermann Hesse groupie glad to have headed for graduate school and ended up with tenure. Amid hand-wringing about the decline of the humanities, the philosopher (and novelist) Rebecca Newberger Goldstein can write a book like Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, confident that she’ll find readers eager to turn to philosophers for help in thinking about the meaning of life and how best to live it. Books like Sarah Bakewell’s wildly popular study of Montaigne, How to Live, and the successful New York Times blog The Stone, back her up, as does the Harper’s column Ars Philosopha (full disclosure: I am a frequent contributor to the last).
We are deluged with information; the scientific method produces new discoveries every day. But what does all that mean for us?
But Goldstein wisely doesn’t take philosophy’s revival for granted in a culture committed to an increasingly materialistic worldview—materialistic in the philosophical sense, meaning convinced that the scientific study of matter in motion holds the answers to all our questions. The impetus for Goldstein’s ingenious, entertaining, and challenging new book is the theoretical version of the very practical problem I confronted when I graduated from college: Now that we have science, do we really need philosophy? Doesn’t science “bake bread” (not to mention make money) in a way that philosophy never has? Science is responsible for the grand upward march of civilization—so we are often told—but what accomplishments can philosophy claim?
In praise of Plato, the 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” But this, as Goldstein points out, is precisely what might make us worry about philosophy as a discipline:
Those predisposed to dismiss philosophy—some of my best friends—might hear in Whitehead’s kudos to Plato a well-aimed jeer at philosophy’s expense. That an ancient Greek could still command contemporary relevance, much less the supremacy Whitehead claimed for him, does not speak well for the field’s rate of progress.
Or does it? The question that Goldstein’s book sets out to consider is what we mean by progress, and also what we mean by meaning. Her goal is to do more than prove how relevant philosophy still is. She aims to reveal how many of our most pressing questions simply aren’t better answered elsewhere. Much of what we take for progress delivers answers that miss the point, distort issues, ignore complications, and may be generated by badly formulated questions in the first place. Goldstein also wants to show us that figuring out how to live a meaningful life is something very different from understanding the meaning of special relativity or evolution. We are deluged with information; we know how to track down facts in seconds; the scientific method produces new discoveries every day. But what does all that mean for us? As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed:
Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing … Thus, no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation.
Another way to put it might be that every generation could use a Plato to tackle those genuinely human lessons. That is the creative, verging on wacky, premise that has inspired Goldstein’s approach to demonstrating why philosophy won’t (and had better not) go away. She transports Plato into the 21st century and, adopting his own preferred literary form, puts him into fictional dialogue with a variety of contemporary characters. As Socrates was for Plato—the great philosophical interlocutor, living in literary form—so Plato becomes for Goldstein. She ratchets up the entertainment value (this isn’t ancient Athens!), eager for drama and topical issues. Plato is put through his paces with an array of in-your-face conversation partners, from a smart if smarmy young employee at Google, to several experts on child-rearing, to a “no-bull” cable-TV talking head, to a neuroscientist. This sounds dangerously facile and cute, but Goldstein mostly pulls it off, cleverly weaving passages directly from Plato’s dialogues into her own.
Goldstein’s Plato, like Socrates before him, is less interested in teaching those with whom he converses than he is in helping them see that they don’t know what they think they know. In sending Plato to Google, Goldstein deftly exposes the conceptual presumption at the heart of what looks like the latest high-tech methodology. On his visit with the new masters of gathering human knowledge, Plato considers a (fictional) algorithm they have developed called the Ethical Answers Search Engine, or ease, which does just what its name suggests: it crowdsources answers to ethical problems, the same way businesses now employ crowdsourcing to predict political outcomes and stock-market fluctuations, or to select marketing strategies.
But ethical solutions are not as, well, easy as the search engine might have its users believe. Plato points out that ease uses a preferential ordering system, so its designers have already begged the philosophical question: they have built into their design their own ideas about what the good life looks like. Furthermore, ease assumes that the crowd will collectively possess greater knowledge about moral matters than an expert will—but when it comes to the hardest questions, is that the case? After all, most of us would admit we don’t know what the good life is—that’s why we turn to philosophers—so why would we trust a crowd of strangers who are likely just as confused about morality as we are?
Philosophy, at its best, probably doesn’t have to progress that much, because the most-difficult and most-important human problems don’t change that much.
Plato certainly did not think the crowd was a reliable source of ethical insight. It was the crowd, after all, who put Socrates to death. And one of Socrates’s favorite moves in Plato’s dialogues is to expose moral amateurism for the confused amalgam it is. Plato never managed to say exactly what counted as ethical expertise, but in Theaetetus and elsewhere, he has Socrates successfully undermine the moral relativism that was as popular and incoherent in fourth-century-b.c. Athens as it is today. In a similar spirit, Goldstein has Plato reduce his Google interlocutor to a sweaty, defensive mess after 30 or so pages. The whiz kid realizes that behind his clear-cut, ease-derived answers lie dilemmas that demand a kind of pondering his sorting program can’t begin to manage. At one point, for example, Plato’s media escort remarks, “We don’t do slavery,” a view that any crowdsourcing approach would endorse. ease might get it right sometimes: the moral prohibition against slavery that emerged in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries is surely an example of philosophical progress. But ease can’t explain why it gets it right. And we expect more from truth than just collective agreement—because we often collectively agree in morally mistaken ways.
Like Socrates in the dialogues, Plato emerges from the Googleplex unflustered, looking “more than ever like he was carved in marble, sitting so still and staring so intently,” eager to investigate further. At first it struck me as odd that Goldstein’s Plato didn’t experience more culture shock in his American travels, but his aplomb is crucial to the point she’s trying to make—which echoes Kierkegaard’s. Philosophy, at its best, probably doesn’t have to progress that much, because the most-difficult and most-important human problems don’t change that much. The quest for answers bumps up against obstacles that don’t seem to diminish. And now as ever, the quest benefits from—as Goldstein’s Plato says, cribbing from Meno when he joins a panel discussion on the topic of “How to Raise an Exceptional Child”—“the teacher who [knows] how to ask the right questions and awakens in his mind a love for the beauty of logical connections.”
Goldstein, like Plato, is at her strongest when showing us that some questions just won’t go away. But she’s not about to deny philosophy plenty of credit for coming up with its share of answers, too—and for setting scientists on their way in searching for theirs. The list of philosophical leaps is impressive: most notable, perhaps, is the 17th-century idea of individual rights. Goldstein reminds us that virtually every scientific area of inquiry began with a question or an insight from a philosopher. Democritus proposed the atom; Ionian philosophers invented what we now think of as the scientific method; Aristotle founded biology. In mathematics and physics, she observes, the metaphysical problems considered by Plato are still being debated.
My brother was wrong, of course. Books often do tell the truth, as I learned long ago when I read Magister Ludi and was seduced by sentences like this one: “This same eternal idea, which for us has been embodied in the Glass Bead Game, has underlain every movement of Mind toward the ideal goal of a universitas litterarum, every Platonic academy … every effort toward reconciliation between science and art or science and religion.” The eternal idea here is philosophy. Goldstein is with Hermann Hesse. Philosophy doesn’t merely tell us about the subjective, leaving the objective world to science. For Goldstein, who has also written splendidly on such highly abstract thinkers as Spinoza and Gödel, the finest scientific thinking will always be driven and informed by the philosophical spirit. The grand forward push of human knowledge requires each of us to begin by trying to think independently, to recognize that knowledge is more than information, to see that we are moral beings who must closely interrogate both ourselves and the world we inhabit—to live, as Socrates recommended, an examined life. Clancy Martin
RNG: "I had four interrelated goals [in Plato at the Googleplex]. The first was to put forward an original theory as to why the ancient Greeks were responsible for inventing the field of philosophy. Their society was saturated with religious rituals, but when it came to the question of how to live our lives, they didn’t look to their gods but rather to a secular grounding. This doesn’t mean that they were a culture of philosophers. There never has been a society of philosophers! And, of course, Athens sentenced Socrates to die. But the pre-conditions for philosophy were created in their secular approach to the big questions, and I was interested in exploring this aspect. The second goal was to explain Plato in the context of the wider Greek culture. The third goal was to demonstrate that progress has been made in philosophy, and to demonstrate this by going back to the inception of Western philosophy and uncovering presuppositions that had been instrumental in getting the whole process of critical reasoning going but which critical reasoning had, in its progress, invalidated. I was concerned to demonstrate in the book that progress in philosophy tends to be invisible because it penetrates so deeply down into our conceptual frameworks—both epistemological and ethical. We don’t see it, because we see with it. And the fourth goal was to demonstrate that the kinds of questions Plato introduced, philosophical questions, are still vitally important to us, and to demonstrate this, I interspersed the expository chapters with new Platonic dialogues, injecting Plato into contemporary settings. The first place I bring him to is the Googleplex in Mountainview CA, the headquarters of Google International, where he gets into a discussion with a software engineer on whether philosophy makes progress. I also have him on a panel of child-rearing experts, including a tiger mum. Then I bring him to a cable news set, where he’s interviewed by a rabble-rousing blowhard; they discuss the role of reason in the public square. The last dialogue has him getting a brain scan and engaging the neuroscientists on the question of whether neuroscience dissolves the notions of personal identity and moral responsibility. I’d produced these dialogues as a bit of fun to enliven my points, but it was this aspect of the book that got all of the attention from reviewers."