Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

K. E. Gover assesses the case for the continuing relevance of Platonic thinking to modern life

October 23, 2014

Philosophy has an image problem as old as philosophy itself. The ancient Greeks used to joke about the pre-Socratic thinker Thales of Miletus, who fell into a well while at work. He was so busy looking up at the stars that he was oblivious to what lay before his feet. (Legend has it that Thales’ stargazing enabled him to predict a solar eclipse, but never mind.) Before the Athenians put him to death, Socrates was a target for parody by the playwright Aristophanes. He depicts the philosopher as suspended above his “thinkery” in a basket, worshipping clouds as goddesses and engaged in nonsensical investigations such as measuring how many of its own feet a flea can jump.

Two and a half millennia later, philosophers still struggle to be taken seriously. While it may come as no surprise that scientists have dismissed the entire field as empty theorising, making no progress and yielding no knowledge, it has also come under attack by the other side of the “two cultures” divide. In his 2010 essay “The Crisis of Philosophy”, Jason Stanley describes philosophy’s alienation from the rest of the humanities: “Whereas humanists have transformed into actors, using their teaching and research as political tools, philosophers have withdrawn ever more to positions as removed spectators, and not of life, but of some abstracted and disconnected realm of Grand Concepts.” The complaint that echoes through the centuries is in essence the same: philosophy is hopelessly out of touch with the real world.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex offers an ambitious apologia for philosophy against its naysayers through a detailed engagement with the ideas of its founding father. It is, quite simply, a tour de force: erudite, intelligent, insightful and beautifully written. The book is organised as a series of expository chapters that cover not only the major themes of Plato’s philosophy but also the salient details of his life and times. These scholarly summaries set the stage for each of the alternating chapters, written as imaginary dialogues featuring Plato and a cast of contemporary characters. Goldstein’s fictional Plato addresses the moral and epistemic questions raised by internet technology; he weighs in on perennial debates about how best to raise our children; he doles out advice on love and sex; and he considers whether advances in neuroscience will supersede what have traditionally been philosophical investigations into free will and moral responsibility.

Goldstein’s achievement is remarkable, not least because she has dared to make the experience of learning about Plato’s philosophy highly pleasurable

The book’s subtitle promises to tell us “Why philosophy won’t go away”. The diction of this phrase is worth considering. Rather than asserting, in positive terms, that the discipline still matters, it instead casts philosophy as the annoying party guest who outstays his welcome. This is not unlike the figure of Socrates himself, who was both admired and hated for pestering people with unanswerable questions in the agora. Nevertheless, it is a curiously defensive formulation. The vaguely threatening claim that philosophy “won’t go away” invites the suggestion that we might reasonably wish it would. Is philosophy like a persistent skin rash for which there is no cure, only palliative ointments? Or is it a meaningful pursuit that suffers from being persistently misunderstood? Perhaps the phrase is aimed at the dismissive attitude of some scientists, such as the physicist Lawrence Krauss, who have denigrated academic philosophy as a useless endeavour.

This view is the subject of the excellent first chapter, in which Goldstein argues that philosophy, and Plato in particular, deserves credit for articulating many of the foundational concepts and principles that the empirical sciences employ as a matter of course. As she puts it, “Physicists have long been helping themselves to Plato’s metaphysics, without going through any of the steps he took to arrive at it, rather like people who consume hot dogs and would rather not know how they are made.”

Philosophy, in Goldstein’s view, is the mother of science: not only did it give birth to the empirical sciences, but its contributions are so essential that they have become taken for granted, and therefore easily dismissed. And yet, even if that is true, the question remains whether we still need philosophy now. Is the reason philosophy “won’t go away” because it offers the tools necessary to address questions that science cannot touch, or does its value lie in its historical significance?

This is the book’s main, unresolved tension. Against its critics, Goldstein asserts that philosophy does make progress. At the same time, she aims to show that Plato’s ideas and questions have enduring relevance. Despite the subtitle, her book is not really about philosophy, but about Plato as a philosopher, and Goldstein’s infectious enthusiasm for her subject is demonstrated on every page. His towering figure becomes a synecdoche for philosophy as a whole, enabling her to slip from a defence of one to the other. But he is also such a powerful subject because his literary gifts equal his philosophical talent. Among the great philosophers, only David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche are as much a pleasure to read as they are to think with.

This is not to downplay Goldstein’s achievement, which is truly remarkable, not least because she has dared to make the experience of learning about Plato’s philosophy highly pleasurable. As an author, she is disarmingly generous in her willingness to descend from her ivory tower to humanise herself and her subject. Goldstein is the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship, and yet she is also unafraid, in a memorable metaphor, to compare philosophers to “premature ejaculators”.

In this sense, her warm authorial presence stands in striking contrast to the cryptic approach of Plato, who keeps his philosophical convictions maddeningly hidden behind the characters in his dialogues for whom he ventriloquises. It is also at odds with the formal, impersonal pose required of “serious” philosophical scholarship. A typical passage in this book includes a reference to Pericles’ funeral oration, a few lines later a citation of the eminent Plato scholar Charles Kahn, and on the next page a reproduction of a chart comparing the Athenian politician Alcibiades to Justin Bieber and Genghis Khan that Goldstein found on the website Cracked.com.

Perhaps because it is not a work of academic philosophy but a book about philosophy, it is easier for Goldstein to stay down to earth. This is another irony of her approach: her very manner of making the case for the continuing contemporary relevance of Plato’s philosophy, not just as a historical curiosity or literary non-fiction but as a valuable means of obtaining clarity about life’s most important questions, puts it largely out of step with the technical, abstract language in which professional academic philosophy is usually conducted. And it invites the nagging question: is it philosophy that remains useful to us, or Plato’s work in particular?

Both the form and the content of Plato at the Googleplex underscore the fact that philosophical progress, if there is any, is not like scientific progress. We no longer dwell on discarded scientific theories such as phlogiston. And yet, as this book exemplifies, Plato’s texts endure as both objects of admiration and challenges to our most closely held values and assumptions. In this sense his work – especially his work – is more akin to art and literature than it is to science. This is the uneasy, epistemically vague space that Plato’s philosophy, and perhaps the discipline as a whole, occupies. It aims at knowledge and yet it ultimately succeeds as art.

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away

By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Atlantic, 480pp, £16.99 and £9.99
ISBN 9781782395577 and 5584 (e-book)
Published 14 October 2014

The author

Acclaimed novelist and philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein was born in White Plains, New York, and was “raised in a quite religious household – Orthodox Jewish. My father, who came from Poland, earned his meagre living by being a cantor and also through private tutoring.

“We were really the odd ducks, since we happened to live in a posh Protestant suburb of New York City, in a little pocket of poverty on the outskirts of affluence. I went to elementary school with kids who lived entirely different kinds of lives, and I could see the dismay, and even pity, on my friends’ faces when they visited my home.
“I suppose at some point in my childhood, I decided that I could either shrivel up with embarrassment, or else simply learn not to care about being thought weird in ways that didn’t seem to truly matter to me – that my dad had an unfashionable accent, that I wore hand-me-downs, that my family observed a plethora of peculiar religious practices.

Perhaps it’s because of this early experience that I’ve pretty much always gone my own way,” suggests Goldstein, who is professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities in London and research associate in Harvard University’s department of psychology.

“So, for example, having been trained at Princeton University as a hard-headed philosopher of science and gotten a plum of a first academic position, I went and published, when I was barely out of my twenties and not yet tenured, a novel, The Mind-Body Problem. I’d thought of it as a creative experiment in alternative ways of writing about philosophy, employing storytelling to show how even an abstract metaphysical problem is profoundly embedded in our lives. But that little experiment certainly brought a look of dismay, and perhaps even pity – this time to my academic colleagues’ faces,” she recalls.

Was she a studious child? “I’d loved school as a young child, but at 14 I was sent to a dogmatically religious all-girls high school in New York City. I suppose I was revealing dangerous tendencies of freethinking, and the change of schools was supposed to deposit me back within the fold. I hated that school, which seemed to me intolerably backwards – primarily because it was. My solution was to play truant on a regular basis.

“How did I get away with it? Well, I was well behaved and studious whenever I did attend classes, and I happened also to have been rather underweight and pale. The school concluded that I was a good girl but sickly. I confess there were some forged notes from a doctor to encourage the misinterpretation. My poor dad would get up at dawn to drive me to the train station, and I’d take the train into New York City and then go off on my own. Mostly, I took myself to libraries and museums.”

Goldstein, who over the course of her academic career has received awards from both the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the National Jewish Book Council, continues: “I was trying desperately to get myself an education – despite my school, which didn’t even encourage us to go on to college. We had a class in which we learned how to kosher a chicken! I knew how pathetically ignorant I was. I was hungry for knowledge. I wanted to know everything – except how to kosher a chicken.”

She would complete her first degree at Barnard College, an all-women liberal arts institution, before completing her doctorate at Princeton University as a student of Thomas Nagel. Of her undergraduate days, she recalls: “I was, first and foremost, a grateful student. Most students I’ve known, as both a student and then as a professor, take university for granted. I didn’t. I was so grateful to Barnard College for accepting me and for giving me a scholarship. Frankly, I don’t know why they had, since my high school record was hardly stellar.

“I entered Barnard already married; I’d become engaged while still in high school, so I never lived in dorms. I missed out on what many students would consider the most important aspect of college, the social life. For me, it was all about my classes — how touchingly naïve! - about trying to diminish the awful sense of my own ignorance. After all, I had essentially not gone to high school, and I was with fellow students who had done everything right in order to be sitting in the classroom with me.

“They overwhelmed me with their easy allusions to texts I’d never heard of. I tried so hard to catch up with my brilliant classmates that I ended up graduating first in my class. But I graduated still knowing I hadn’t caught up, that I’d never catch up, that the gaps in my knowledge are simply awful.

Goldstein adds: “It’s like this New Yorker cartoon I saw once by the wonderful Roz Chast. A woman’s sitting in a car, her husband driving, and she tells him that she’s feeling a chill and needs to go back home for a sweater. Then in the next few boxes, she’s sitting in the car in her sweater, neurotically calculating the minutes she lost in going back for the sweater and how those lost minutes would follow her till the end of her life.”

Plato at the Googleplex makes Plato seem much more charming than some might have expected. Did Goldstein find it a taller order to present him as a lovely chap than she did the philosopher in her 2006 biography Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity?

“Oh yes, you’re so right! It took far more work and reflection to make Plato appealing than it did Spinoza. Bertrand Russell, in The History of Western Philosophy, comments that Spinoza is the most lovable philosopher in the Western philosophical canon. But Plato can often appear censorious, puritanical, even fascistic, as Karl Popper emphasised in The Open Society and Its Enemies.

“But there are other characteristics of him that can be gleaned from his dialogues – indeed from the very fact that he chose to write in dialogue form. There’s his playfulness and slyness. It goes into his creation of the character of Socrates, but it must have been there in the author, too. There’s his susceptibility to beauty of all kinds, from the corporeal – the very urgency with which he advises us to resist such beauty speaks volumes – to beauty of the most abstract kind, not excluding literary beauty.

“Whenever Plato allows himself to succumb to his own lyricism the results are astonishing, as in Socrates’ second speech in the Phaedrus. There’s his openness to self-criticism. He tries out various views, subjects them to criticism, and sometimes appears to abandon them. There’s the way in which you can see his soul torn asunder by certain conflicts – erotic love, for example. For me, those moments when he reveals his own inner conflicts are the most poignant, since they also reveal how seriously he takes this whole business of philosophising. It’s not a 9-to-5 job for him. He philosophises with his whole being.

“The way in which he has Socrates reverse himself in the Phaedrus, offering two speeches, one denouncing the madness of love and the other praising it, is one of the most moving and self-revealing moments in the corpus. So I do think that there’s material to work with there in trying to make old Plato a bit more palatable.

“But then what I also tried to do with him as a character was to give him characteristics that I believe to be the best of the spirit of philosophy, that field that he was so pivotal in creating. And so my Plato is insatiably curious, eager for all the latest scientific knowledge. He gets himself a computer and is busily looking up everything. By the end he’s even taken a Mooc (a massive online open course) on neuroscience, so he can have his dialogue with two neuroscientists about free will and personal agency before having his own brain scanned.

“My Plato is always open to others’ points of views, which he treats respectfully but also with rigorous analysis. He takes the issues of philosophy terribly seriously without taking himself seriously. Now I’d be a naïve fool to claim that these characteristics are necessarily realised in actual living, breathing philosophers, who are often rather disappointing specimens of humanity. It was the spirit of philosophy itself I was trying to dramatize in my character of Plato, which is far more inspiring than any single philosopher (except maybe Spinoza).”

Her latest book is one of a number in recent years to make the case to the general reader that philosophy continues to be relevant, and is not merely a dusty relic from Ye Olden Times. But was there ever a Ye Olden Times when philosophers didn’t have to make this argument and tout for trade? And is there delight to be had in converting the heathen?

“I think there never was such a time, and the proof comes from Plato himself, who more or less created the field as we know it, and yet, in the very course of creating the field, is forever putting forth arguments against people who would try to argue it out of existence,” she says.

“So there were what I call philosophy-jeerers right there at the inception of the field. Now why is that? Why does philosophy forever have to justify its existence? Once again, I find the very best answer in Plato. There’s this passage in the Protagoras in which he writes that if someone fancies himself, say, a wonderful flute-player, even though he has absolutely no talent, his family members would try to prevent him from performing, telling him that he was embarrassing both them and himself.

“But when it comes to the kinds of questions that philosophers devote themselves to, questions such as how do we justify our beliefs and our actions, what is it to live a life worth living, then a great many people are like the amateur flute-player. In fact, to be human is to have a stake in these questions and to feel oneself adequate to answer them. And then here come these philosophers, declaring themselves experts on these questions, suggesting, if only by implication, that others don’t have the same right to opinions on these matters. How provoking!

“To lay claim to expertise regarding matters in which all humans, by reason of their humanity, are actively engaged seems to diminish their very humanity. So you see, it’s a tricky business, and there’s a reason why so many, from renowned contemporary scientists to the guy I always seem to be sitting next to at some random bar, react to philosophy with hostility and sarcasm. I give an awful lot of thought to this quandary, and it’s the reason why I’m always experimenting with ways of writing about philosophy,” she concludes.

Goldstein’s much-lauded novels, which include The Late Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind (1989) and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (2010) frequently deal with the academic world, the practice of scholarship, faith, reason and philosophy. So, can fiction go places that academic philosophy cannot?

“I think one can be very moved by philosophical insights,” she responds. “Spinoza stresses that intellectual advances are always simultaneously emotional advances. But there’s one thing that is quite important to me, at least, that fiction, particularly the kind I’m interested in, is able to demonstrate.

“It has more to do with the psychology of philosophy than with philosophy per se. It’s the role that character plays in our individually variable core intuitions. Questions about free will, about the limits of human knowledge, about whether we’re alone in an impersonal universe, about the hard problem of consciousness, about the objectivity of both mathematical intuitions and ethical intuitions, and a host of other issues: they call forth from us reactions that have to do with our entire orientation toward reality, which means they vary greatly from person to person.

“Neither pure a priori reason nor empirical data can take us all the way to knowledge on these issues, and yet most of us have some opinion on at least some of these questions. The gap between evidence and opinion is filled by deep aspects of our own personalities and intellectual temperaments. That’s why when two people disagree on say, the hard problem of consciousness or free will, it’s almost as if they’re inhabiting two different worlds. In fact, they are in a certain sense, inhabiting different worlds. I find there’s something poignant in this situation, and it’s something that fiction is able to explore in all its poignancy.”

What if a good fairy were to offer her the gift of any skill or talent? Goldstein replies: “When I was younger I would have asked for mathematical creativity. I love math, but I’m not myself capable of doing much in the way of creative mathematical work, which is, I think, one of the highest forms of beauty of which the human mind is capable. Imagine, exploring aspects of infinity!

“A few years back, I wrote a book about Gödel’s incompleteness theorems [The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, published in 2006 ]. The kind of mind that could reach such an astonishing conclusion by such elegant means – the proof is like an intellectual symphony – seems to me such a privilege. Even though, I might add, he was a rather tormented human being who ended up starving himself to death.

“But when I was younger I would have said that even such a tragic end would have been worth it if it meant being able to do mathematics at such a level. But now that I’m older the cognitive capacity I most wish for is a prodigious memory. I’d ask that magnanimous fairy for perfect recall of everything I’ve ever learned.”

Hear our full interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Karen Shook

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