Magazine article The Humanist

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

Magazine article The Humanist

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

Article excerpt


Why Philosophy Won't Go Away

by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Pantheon Books, 2014

459 pp.; $29.95


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's ode to philosophy, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, imagines a collision of worlds: What would happen if Plato, the famous philosopher, suddenly appeared in the twenty-first century? In the ensuing dramas, staged in the dialogue form that Plato himself created, Goldstein has Plato discussing the possibility of crowdsourcing ethics with a Google employee, debating a psychoanalyst and a self-proclaimed "warrior mother" on how to raise children, helping an advice columnist sort out her readers' romantic conundrums, and much more. These anachronistic set-ups, which freely explore Plato's thought, alternate with more straightforward expository chapters on Plato and the society he lived in. The end result is a book that simultaneously gives a fair exposition of a formidable ancient thinker whilst exploring his relevance to modern life.

Goldstein, a novelist and philosopher, pulls off what could have easily veered into the corny or preachy with tact, humor, and, most importantly, a fairness that delves into Plato's ideas without specifically condoning any conclusions, a skill that Plato himself perfected in his dialogues. These dialogues make Plato's ideas accessible to a general audience while also keeping him fresh and exciting for those who study or have a background in philosophy.

Take, for example, the eponymous chapter of Plato at the Googleplex, which finds Plato about to give a talk at the famous search company's headquarters. Accompanying him is his snarky media escort Cheryl and a software engineer named Marcus. One can see Goldstein's talents as a novelist shine through; these characters are not merely empty mouthpieces for ideas, but fully realized people who imbue the ensuing philosophical conversation with their vivid personalities.

This dialogue explores the nature of moral expertise, with Plato arguing his classical position that only experts who have devoted their lives to the study of morality should be trusted on the matter. Other people, Plato argues, have no chance of living a good life. Goldstein supplements Plato's playful but accurately imagined dialogue with direct quotes from his writings, making sure his positions never stray from the ones he took 2,400 years ago. Cheryl, voicing the outrage at his insistence on a moral aristocracy that I'm sure many contemporary readers share, stresses a more egalitarian vision. Marcus, inspired by his work at Google and by Cheryl's well-meaning but philosophically unsophisticated relativism, advocates for a hypothetical crowd-sourced morality, in which everyone's opinions would go into a weighted algorithm that would spit out the correct answer. Goldstein models her dialogues in Platonic fashion, not arguing for any one view, but simply exploring, refining, refuting, and putting forward ideas freely.

The expository chapters placed before each dialogue attempt to flesh out and provide context for the themes that will be explored in the subsequent dialogue. These are much needed, as the dialogues by themselves are not enough to fully grasp Plato as a philosopher. As someone who studies philosophy, not history, I have always read Plato without giving much thought to the context of his writing, so Goldstein's exploration of the culture and history of Classical Athens was much appreciated.

However, these expository chapters often feel a bit disorganized and overlong. One of Goldstein's main theses is that Plato's Socrates (Socrates is the main character in Plato's dialogues) undermined Athenian exceptionalism (she coins the term "Ethos of the Extraordinary") by arguing that virtue exists independently both of what other people think of you and of the polis (the Greek city-state). …

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