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

By Toohey, Elizabeth | The Christian Science Monitor, March 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

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


Toohey, Elizabeth, The Christian Science Monitor


The recent economic downturn has engendered countless debates on the value of a liberal arts education. Some say students show "foresight and responsibility" by pursuing practical fields, as was argued by the Harvard Crimson editorial, "Let Them Eat Code." Liberal arts advocates in turn argue for the ineffable benefits of the humanities - that which makes us human.

As an English professor, I tend to keep my mouth shut when those arguments fall short, or on days when I envy friends who took the road to the techie/corporate world where it's easier to make ends meet.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away makes a compelling case, not just for why undergraduates should take humanities courses, but for the value of a life of genuine introspection over one devoted to the pursuit of material gain. Neither point is her stated goal but the book is full of all sorts of sneaky arguments and implications, much in the spirit of Plato (or, arguably, his inspiration and mentor, Socrates) that resonate with his most provocative statement, "The unexamined life is not worth living."

Let me back up.

What would Plato do? Or rather - since what Plato mostly did was teach and write dialogues - what would Plato say?

This question lies at the heart of this oddly appealing book, in which Goldstein, a philosophy scholar and MacArthur "genius" fellow, combats the derision of "philosophy-jeerers" (mostly those well- funded STEM folks) by imagining Plato's transmigration to the 21st- century US to learn about our culture and give a book-tour.

It's kind of a preposterous premise, but it works.

By putting Plato on a panel at the 92nd Street Y, adding his two cents to an advice column full of romantic quandaries, giving him a guest appearance on a cable news program, and, yes, depositing him at Google's storied corporate center, Goldstein works Plato into the contemporary conversation about subjects ranging from childrearing to politics to love (platonic and otherwise) to biological determinism.

These chapters are interspersed with more traditional ones explaining aspects of Plato's philosophy and historical context, which, while informative, are far less fun than the dialogues Goldstein creates, which serve as both homages to Plato's own dialogues and parodies of our current culture. (By contrast, I entered the non-dialogic chapters reluctantly, bracing myself for a barrage of footnotes.)

It's genuinely amusing and intellectually engaging to watch Plato spar, in his own gentle way, with Sophie Zee, a thinly-veiled parody of Tiger Mom Amy Chua, or to push his wonderfully shallow media escort Cheryl beyond the range of her usual superficiality, such that she loses track of time and in Plato's words, "walk[s] like a free person and not a slave . …

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