Saturday, 17 October 2015

book review: Plato at the Googleplex

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.
Plato at the Googleplex: why philosophy won’t go away.
Vintage. 2014

Why do research in philosophy? Wasn’t everything that needed to be said, already said by Plato? Hasn’t the time since then been spent by science filling in the gaps, and firming up the arguments?

This is the critique of philosophy that Goldstein is arguing against in this readable book. She brings Plato back to life and introduces him to the modern day: discussing the need for Philosopher-Kings and whether they could be replaced by computer AI, debating how to raise excellent children, giving relationship advice as an agony aunt in a magazine, being interviewed on cable news about science and philosophy, and finally, in conversation with a neuroscientist about mind v brain while waiting for a brain scan. Interspersed with these lively dialogues (an ancient idea, borrowed from Plato himself), Goldstein writes more traditionally-styled chapters, discussing the historical Plato and Socrates, and the cultural context in which their ideas were developed.

This is a fascinating read. I actually found the traditional chapters more informative, as the others are played for culture-clash laughs as much as for exploring the philosophical issues. What I found most interesting was the discussions of that cultural context: the explanation of precisely why those Greeks, insecurely looking back at their own Golden Age, found Socrates to be such an annoying little gadfly, and were so worried about the way he was corrupting their youth, that they were willing to democratically vote to put him to death.

The writing is lovely throughout, and I learned a lot, about Plato, Socrates and ancient Greece, about philosophy, and about the reason for doing philosophy (that is, for arguing a subject into the ground). There is a lovely passage near the end explaing why it is so important that we argue out all points, and that no ideas should get a free pass:
p377. There are strong—oh, so strong—reasons to affirm that yes, we ought to exclude privileged points of view as we seek to know the world. No claim to knowledge should be allowed a free pass, getting by without giving an account of itself, a justification, that can appeal to all who sign on to the project of reason, no matter the special features of their subjective points of view. It is not just a matter of the objectivity of reality that motivates the demand for objectivity of knowledge. Far more persuasive reasons arise from the obvious hazards of subjectivity, which is a breeding ground for prejudice, superstition, and egotistical self-aggrandizement. We are too prone to favoring our own particularity and, if we are talented enough, can raise up a cunningly convincing ideology that will shape all the world to fit our particular dimensions. It is a dangerous mistake to allow subjectivity to strut its stuff with such smug thuggishness. Exposing our most cherished beliefs to the rough treatment of multiple points of view—each of which is prone to see the world from the vantage of its own advantage—is our only hope for defeating the hazards of self-serving subjectivity—complacent at best, murderously certain at worst. And so philosophy … has typically been saying yes to the exclusion of privileged points of view ever since Plato himself set up perhaps the most powerful image in the history of thought, the Myth of the Cave…
Yet despite all this, I felt there was something lacking. In the very first paragraph of the Prologue, Goldstein says:
p3. A book devoted to a particular thinker often presumes that thinker got everything right. I don’t think this is true of Plato. Plato got about as much wrong as we would expect from a philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago. Were this not the case, then philosophy, advancing our knowledge not at all, would be useless. I don’t think it’s useless, so I’m quite happy to acknowledge how mistaken or confused Plato can often strike us.
And yet, the majority of the book seems to be about what Plato did get right. The points Plato concedes in the dialogues seem minor compared to the overall point; the majority of the standard chapters are about Plato’s philosophical achievements, and relatively small improvements since.

I take it that the argument is that we still need new philosophy (so still need philosophy researchers), not just that we need to apply existing philosophical principles and approaches (that we only need philosophy teachers). So I don’t think this book achieves what it sets out to do: to demonstrate that philosophy research is relevant today (although I agree that it is). However, that doesn’t matter; what the book does deliver is very good: Plato in his historical context, and Plato coping with the modern world, at the Googleplex, and beyond.


  1. I've read some of her earlier works -- admittedly quite a few years ago. The sense I developed was that she was clever but just too full of herself. And I haven't been able to bring myself to read her again. The passage you quoted from the end of the book strengthens that anti-impulse. It's cleverly written, but what does it say other than that we should not automatically agree with any given position. Is that really an insight? Who would argue that there are positions that should always go unchallenged? Why did she need so many words to say that?

    When read carefully it's not even clear what she is saying. Subjectivity doesn't mean one's own beliefs. As far as I'm concerned subjectivity means one's own experience. Those are very different. And subjectivity -- at least as I understand it -- is not at all about ideology. How can she mix those two things?

    But the writing is clever. Yes, let's not let "subjectivity ... strut its stuff with such smug thuggishness" -- whatever that means. What is she thinking of? What are some examples of this strutting she is warding off? She doesn't say. It's almost as if having written a pretty sentence, that's enough. It doesn't matter if it has any real meaning.

    1. That's the problem with quoting: you lose the context! In this case, the example was in the previous paragraph: religion, and more concretely, those philosophers of religion such as Plantinga who are trying to claim a free pass.

    2. I certainly agree that Plantinga doesn't deserve a free pass. He was recommended to me as an intelligent theist. I was very disappointed with the quality of his thinking.

    3. P.S. I don't recall getting a notice of your comment. That's why mine is so late. I looked back at this when reading your current review.

    4. I "replied" to your comment, but maybe replies don't get propagated? I don't see anything in the comments settings to change this, though.