Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away
(Knopf Doubleday, 2014)
In Plato, there is but one historical figure. But the man’s philosophy, so elegant and elemental, marked a major leap in the Western history of human thought. Plato gave first shape to the same questions of value and meaning that baffle us today, more than 2,000 years later.
In Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein offers a joyful rejoinder to “philosophy-jeerers” who describe science as the only useful instrument for meaningful human progress:
Philosophy’s interrogatory irrepressibility means that philosophers regularly pose questions that eventually get appropriated by disciplines of science as they emerge: physics and cosmology and chemistry and biology, and (emerging somewhat later) psychology and logic and linguistics, and (emerging even later) computer science and cognitive science and neuroscience.
To make her case for the timelessness of Plato’s philosophy, Goldstein plucks the man from the fog of ancient history and plunks him directly into modern day affairs. Here is Plato at the 92nd Street Y, in a panel discussion on how best to raise children of high moral character. There is Plato on The Real McCoy, a cable news-opinion program hosted by a partisan demagogue, in a debate on the definition of “truth.” There goes Plato into the Googleplex, where an examination of epistemology amongst Google’s engineers morphs into colorful banter on the nature of ethical knowledge. In constructing these and other scenarios, Goldstein crafts genuine Socratic dialogues, wherein the pursuit of philosophical understanding is driven by personal exchange. This is just as Plato intended, and Goldstein, whose admiration for the Greek is splashed through every chapter, clearly relishes the exercise. We eavesdrop as Plato patiently guides skeptics and zealots alike through dense thickets of philosophy, which, in the hands of the master, are to be found everywhere.
Well-researched histories precede each modern scene, histories that give the reader a sense of the culture in which Plato’s arguments were originally developed. This framework prompts similar consideration for the context in which Goldstein’s modern Plato puts forth his ideas. In the prologue, Goldstein insists, “The book should be read in order.” This is recommended not just because each expository chapter is followed with relevant dialogue, but also because the lessons from each will inform subsequent scenarios.
Peppered with humor and bursting with footnotes, each history does well to instruct the reader on Plato’s methods, which were shaped and inspired by no less an instructor than Socrates. But it is in Goldstein’s fictional contemporary scenes that Plato’s teachings pop. Charming and stoic, curious and fascinated, this imagined Plato delves into modern dilemmas without one whit of artifice. Furthermore, by placing the man in a modern context, we are encouraged to scrutinize the great philosopher himself. Goldstein gives us cause to examine the implications, assumptions, and flaws of Plato’s arguments—and to recognize, in turn, the assumptions and flaws inherent to our own.
At the 92nd Street Y, for instance, Plato goes toe-to-toe with a “Warrior Mother” and a pugnacious Freudian psychoanalyst on the subject of “How to Raise an Exceptional Child.” It’s an electric and combative discussion in which the attending audience becomes a meaningful participant through gasps and jeers and ovations. (This scene is recorded in the fashion of a transcript.) As the bubbly “Warrior Mother” and dour psychoanalyst vie for control of the deliberation, our mild-mannered Plato maintains the simple efficacy of his typical approach: by probing every assertion for its inherent assumptions, he reveals the boundaries of human knowledge to be slippery and ill-defined.
MUNITZ [the psychoanalyst, to Plato]
You do believe, don’t you, that your method of child-rearing produces the best possible person, the—to use the odious phrase of tonight’s event—most exceptional person?
I do. I don’t deny it.
And what is the measure of this person? On what scale is it decided that his exceptionality is the exceptionality that matters?
Reality is the measure.
And exactly whose reality would that be?
Nobody’s. Everybody’s. That which simply is, is the same for all of us, out there to be discovered.
That which simply is because the ruling class says that it is.
That is to get it exactly backward.
Philosophy won’t go away because, for all of our science, we can get no closer than ancient Plato to the root of human knowledge. Against all of the data in Google’s cloud, it is illuminating to rediscover how little we actually know. Answers are not the aim of philosophy anyhow; the best that we can hope for, according to Goldstein’s Plato, is that a love for learning, which mirrors the meaning of philosophy itself, “can leap over and be kindled in the student in a self-generating blaze of understanding.”
Plato at the Googleplex is more than just a playful romp through Plato 101. Goldstein pulls us out of Plato’s famous cave along a chain that she has faithfully assembled from the ancient philosopher’s own words. In turn, she is able to offer unflinching assessments of contemporary human values and the assumptions they are built upon. We discover that philosophy is so basic to our thinking that it goes forgotten: “What was tortuously secured by complex argument becomes widely shared intuition, so obvious that we forget its provenance. We don’t see it, because we see with it.” Through Plato, philosophical inquiry was expanded and refracted, refocused and beautified. To great effect and with terrific humor, Goldstein trains the full spectrum of Plato’s light on the questions that bedevil us today.
JACK FINNEGAN is a writer and storyteller currently residing in Ketchikan, Alaska.