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Blog: Humanist Voices

Plato as talk show guestI was first moved to pick up the book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, because of other reviews I had read in The Humanist, and Free Inquiry.  Each had emphasized the dialogues that author Rebecca Goldstein had created to put Plato into the modern world, a concept that intrigued me. What I was not prepared for was the sweeping panorama she created by covering the roots of philosophical thinking, the timeless questions raised and discussed in Plato's Dialogues, and the entire historical background of the era--the eighth through the fourth centuries B.C.  

Philosophy deals with the basic questions of existence, human meaningfulness (or in her words, “mattering”), and the bases for morality and ethics.  Though focusing on Plato, the theme of the book is that searching for the answers to these questions has continued over the ages, will continue into the future and that science, by itself, will never be able to answer them. She ably takes to task, the “philosopher-jeerers,” mostly scientists, characterized by cosmologist Lawrence Krauss, who in an interview in 2012 infamously stated: “Philosophy used to be a field that had content, but then natural philosophy became physics, and physics has only continued to make inroads … science progresses and philosophy doesn’t.”

To tackle this challenge, Goldstein has organized her book into alternating sections of commentary and dialogue.  In the commentary section she provides an overview of a particular aspect of philosophy during Plato’s time, the historical Athenian background information, and any more recent contributions to the topic. This is then followed by a dialogue related to the topic with Plato on a book tour interacting with modern players. The point is that though Plato during his lifetime didn’t have “all the right answers” (e.g. the training of a philosopher-king as the best suited ruler, or the concept of idealized forms to represent objective criteria), he was the first to frame the majority of fundamental philosophical questions.

Goldstein argues that Plato’s lasting contribution to philosophy was his adherence to the Socratic Method; that is, the use of questioning to undermine the biased beliefs and statements of others.  This questioning is at the heart of philosophic dialogue and hence so easily transferable to the modern world.  My favorite example is in her last dialogue wherein Plato and two neuroscientists discuss whether brain imaging can or ever will be able to answer the question of determinism vs. free will. Although Plato completely demolishes the scientist’s claim to have demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist, the final answer, as in all the dialogues, cannot be conclusively established and is left for the reader to contemplate.

Along this journey, Goldstein expertly covers the major themes that infused Greek intellectual thought during the Socratic/Platonic period. For example, to give a historical perspective on how the Athenian democracy (unusual for its time) impacted Plato’s thinking, Goldstein coins the term the Ethos of the Extraordinary, wherein arête (excellence, virtue) combined with kleos (fame, glory, renown) defined how much one’s life mattered. Furthermore, the exceptionalism that Athenian orators such as Pericles claimed for their city-state permitted its citizens to claim this ethos for themselves. (The parallelism with American Exceptionalism will not be lost on the reader.) It is the questioning of this Ethos of the Extraordinary that, in Goldstein’s opinion, eventually led to Socrates’ death and to Plato’s later determination to separate arête from kleos. The statement attributed to Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” leads to a discussion of what is meant by a virtuous life. For Plato this is the search for principles that embody the Sublime Braid of truth, beauty and goodness and have little to do with glory.  

Reference to and excerpts from Plato’s Dialogues are prominently featured throughout the book. As are his well-known use of metaphors, such as the Myth of the Cave or the Myth of Er which are discussed in great detail along with their various interpretations. Despite the depth of the topic, Goldstein is not difficult to read (though I found myself stopping every few pages to contemplate what I had just read). She makes excellent use of humor and satire to liven up the narration and I would definitely urge you to read the numerous footnotes that often give the deeper meaning and context to the concept being discussed.

In this limited space, I certainly cannot cover everything Goldstein has shared with us, but let me end with her final say on the value of philosophy and philosophical progress which is amply illustrated in her 430-page exceptional blend of non-fiction/fiction.  “If there is such a thing as philosophical progress, then why – unlike scientific progress – is it so invisible? Philosophical progress is invisible because it is incorporated into our point of view. 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.”

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