Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Awayby Rebecca Goldstein
Is philosophy obsolete? Are the ancient questions still relevant in the age of cosmology and neuroscience, not to mention crowd-sourcing and cable news? The acclaimed philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein provides a dazzlingly original plunge into the drama of philosophy, revealing its hidden role in today’s debates on religion, morality,
Is philosophy obsolete? Are the ancient questions still relevant in the age of cosmology and neuroscience, not to mention crowd-sourcing and cable news? The acclaimed philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein provides a dazzlingly original plunge into the drama of philosophy, revealing its hidden role in today’s debates on religion, morality, politics, and science.
At the origin of Western philosophy stands Plato, who got about as much wrong as one would expect from a thinker who lived 2,400 years ago. But Plato’s role in shaping philosophy was pivotal. On her way to considering the place of philosophy in our ongoing intellectual life, Goldstein tells a new story of its origin, re-envisioning the extraordinary culture that produced the man who produced philosophy.
But it is primarily the fate of philosophy that concerns her. Is the discipline no more than a way of biding our time until the scientists arrive on the scene? Have they already arrived? Does philosophy itself ever make progress? And if it does, why is so ancient a figure as Plato of any continuing relevance? Plato at the Googleplex is Goldstein’s startling investigation of these conundra. She interweaves her narrative with Plato’s own choice for bringing ideas to life—the dialogue.
Imagine that Plato came to life in the twenty-first century and embarked on a multicity speaking tour. How would he handle the host of a cable news program who denies there can be morality without religion? How would he mediate a debate between a Freudian psychoanalyst and a tiger mom on how to raise the perfect child? How would he answer a neuroscientist who, about to scan Plato’s brain, argues that science has definitively answered the questions of free will and moral agency? What would Plato make of Google, and of the idea that knowledge can be crowd-sourced rather than reasoned out by experts? With a philosopher’s depth and a novelist’s imagination and wit, Goldstein probes the deepest issues confronting us by allowing us to eavesdrop on Plato as he takes on the modern world.
(With black-and-white photographs throughout.)
Novelist and philosopher Goldstein (The Mind-Body Problem) has an imaginative conceit: to bring Plato into the 21st century by having him go on an American book tour. Here, Plato hauls around a Google Chrome computer, generally finds modern technology “wondrous,” and takes the Meyer-Briggs personality inventory. In lieu of Socratic dialogues, he engages in contemporary American ones, appearing in a panel at the 92nd Street Y to discuss education and child-rearing with a psychologist who sounds like Alice Miller and a writer who sounds like “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua. These witty contemporary sections constitute about a quarter of the book, while the remainder consists of an in-depth study of Plato’s views and the historical and intellectual context of his times. Goldstein explores such concepts as the Athenian ideals of areté and of achieving kleos, and topics such as the challenge to philosophy posed by contemporary science. She proves a clear and engaging writer, and though the more academic parts of this book take precedence over the entertaining and accessible contemporary passages, overall, this is both an enjoyable and a serious way to (re)learn Plato’s ideas. (Mar.)
Plato returns to 21st-century America in this witty, inventive, genre-bending work by MacArthur Fellow Goldstein (36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, 2010, etc.). As the author imagines him, Plato is an intense, curious visitor from ancient Greece who is touring the country to promote his famous tract, The Republic. He lands first in Mountain View, Calif., where he is scheduled to speak to the staff of Google but gets waylaid by an employee who engages him in a conversation about truth, beauty, goodness and justice. That encounter inspires his interest in computers and the intellectual potential of Googling. He comes to love his Google Chromebook, but he cautions Google enthusiasts that information is not the same as knowledge. So what is knowledge? Why is philosophy relevant in contemporary life? What does it mean to live a good life? Those questions and more inform his conversations. Plato joins a panel at the 92nd Street Y to discuss child-rearing, countering the positions of a dour Freudian psychoanalyst and a self-proclaimed Tiger Mom. He takes a gig as a consultant to an advice columnist, offering responses to queries about love and sex; he has a stint on a cable news talk show with an interviewer (think Bill O'Reilly) who questions the whole enterprise of philosophy; and he submits to having his brain scanned in an MRI, even though he's skeptical about what neurological maps can reveal about the essence of self. Throughout, he never loses his cool, bemused demeanor. Goldstein's philosophical background serves her impressively in this reconsideration of Plato's work, and her talent as a fiction writer animates her lively cast of characters: the arrogant, leering scientist in charge of a neurological research lab; the psycho-babbling advice columnist; the egotistical cable news interviewer. Goldstein's bright, ingenious philosophical romp makes Plato not only relevant to our times, but palpably alive.
“Highly original. . . . In Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein set out to showcase, in sometimes startling ways, the continuing relevance of a classic philosopher. But what’s remarkable is that she actually brings off this tour de force with both madcap brilliance and commanding authority.” —Michael Dirda, Washington Post
“I have not done justice to the richness and detail of this invigorating book. The combination of historical scholarship, lively presentation, vernacular dialogue, and intellectual passion make it a unique achievement. Plato may have died over two thousand years ago, but he lives on, vibrantly, in these piquant pages.” —Colin McGinn, Wall Street Journal
“Books like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex are of the rare type that contribute to the popularization of knowledge and create appetite for more. After reading this book you will . . . question your views and knowledge about politics, psychology, science, history, and ethics.” —Liana Giorgi, New York Journal of Books
“Rebecca Newberger Goldstein manages to be so funny and right.” —Stephen Fry
“Consequently Plato at the Googleplex merits comparison to two of the best books of its kind in recent years, Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but Goldstein’s is, in my opinion, the best of the lot, not because it necessarily has more facts or science, but because it hits more deeply and broadly at the faults of our societal discourse and makes us (well, me at least) feel embarrassed over it.” —David Auerbach, Slate
“Into a weighty discussion of the Platonic world view Goldstein inserts fictional interludes that see Plato, Cromebook in hand, touring the Googleplex, a neuroscience lab and beyond. . . . This thought experiment usefully casts an eye on our turbocharged century. And it shows what survives of this classical titan: an ability to plumb the deep questions we still grapple with, from the nature of knowledge to morality.” —Nature
“A witty, inventive, genre-bending work . . . Goldstein’s philosophical background serves her impressively in this reconsideration of Plato’s work, and her talent as a fiction writer animates her lively cast of characters. . . . [Her] bright, ingenious philosophical romp makes Plato not only relevant to our times, but palpably alive.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Plato lives! Brilliantly re-creating Plato’s philosophic dialogues, Goldstein transports the ancient Greek philosopher to the twenty-first-century headquarters of Google, where his probing voice engages three modern hosts in exploring what knowledge means in an age of computerized crowd sourcing. . . . Though Goldstein’s gifts as a novelist animate these dialogues, her scholarly erudition gives them substance, evident in the many citations from Plato’s writings seamlessly embedded in the conversational give-and-take. Goldstein’s scholarship also informs the expository essay that prefaces each dialogue.” —Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)
“Plato at the Googleplex is an important and amazing book. It is important for two reasons: because philosophy is important, and Rebecca Goldstein does a wonderful job of explaining why, and because Plato’s genius remains inspiring, and she also does a wonderful job of explaining why, without losing sight of the fact that Plato lived and thought in a very different time, or losing sight of the fact that he was the beginning, not the end, of philosophy. It is amazing because the book takes great risks—including the risk of including 21st century dialogues about Plato’s philosophy, and thereby risking comparison with the greatest writer of philosophical dialogues that ever lived—and succeeds, in part because she keeps the dialogues as light hearted in tone as they are serious in intent. As she did in Betraying Spinoza, Goldstein beautifully combines the skills of a distinguished novelist with breathtaking philosophical scholarship. I repeat, this book is important and amazing.” —Hilary Putnam, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities Emeritus, Harvard University
“Plato at the Googleplex is a wonderful book—enjoyably readable, full of stimulating insights and refreshing observations, unintimidatingly erudite, and salted with a gentle wit. It will reward both readers who are professional philosophers as well as amateurs who are interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of what serious philosophy is all about and why it continues to flourish.” —Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit
“This could be one of the best ever demonstrations of the value and utility of philosophy. Richly insightful, beautifully written, it is at once introduction, exploration and application, revealing the fascination and significance of philosophical ideas and their relevance to life. Like the Plato who figures largely here, Goldstein has both literary and philosophical gifts of the highest order: the combination is superb.” —A.C. Grayling, author of The God Argument
“It would have been easy for a lesser author to drop Plato in a number of modern-day situations, cook up some clever dialog, and land on the conclusion that the philosopher is as comfortable at Google headquarters as he was at the acropolis. Instead, MacArthur Fellow Goldstein imagines Plato and his interlocutors as complex characters. She shows that we’ve brought Plato forward with us into the boardroom and the classroom because of our dependence on the Socratic method for arriving at new knowledge and refining old wisdom. Alongside a few more serious essays, we find Plato debating the distinction between information and knowledge with a Google employee, taking a personality test at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, and debating a ‘hardline’ host on cable news. Verdict: Goldstein is a serious scholar, and her careful citations, footnotes, and background research betray this fact. However, anyone with an interest in philosophy, Plato, or his legacy on Western culture will find this book to be an accessible and enjoyable read.” —Robert C. Robinson, Library Journal
“Novelist and philosopher Goldstein has an imaginative conceit: to bring Plato into the 21st century by having him go on an American book tour. Here, Plato hauls around a Google Chrome computer, generally finds modern technology “wondrous,” and takes the Meyer-Briggs personality inventory. In lieu of Socratic dialogues, he engages in contemporary American ones. . . . These witty contemporary sections constitute about a quarter of the book, while the remainder consists of an in-depth study of Plato’s views and the historical and intellectual context of his times. . . . [Goldstein] proves a clear and engaging writer, and though the academic parts of this book take precedence over the entertaining and accessible contemporary passages, overall, this is both an enjoyable and a serious way to (re)learn Plato’s ideas.” —Publishers Weekly
“A MacArthur Fellow and award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, Goldstein always delivers something exciting for inquiring minds. Here, she imagines Plato brought to life, hashing out challenges from Fox News on religion and morality, keeping Freudians and tiger moms from coming to blows, and wondering why crowd sourcing trumps experts. C'mon, philosophy is fun, and it sells. Think Daniel Dennett, Alain de, Botton, Jim Holt.” —Barbara Hoffert’s MY PICK, Library Journal
“‘Every generation could use a Plato,’ said Clancy Martin in The Atlantic. If you doubt it, pick up Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s ‘ingenious, entertaining, and challenging new book.” In an attempt to challenge the widespread contemporary assumption that science is leading us ever closer to resolving all mysteries, the ever-inventive philosopher-novelist has imagined Plato on tour in America engaging members of today’s chattering class in friendly dialogues that expose the inadequacies of various accepted paths to wisdom. . . . In the end, Plato can be a maddening figure because he never did get around to defining what living the good life would be. Much as he believed that careful thought might help us conduct ourselves more wisely, he remained skeptical even of his own capacity to discern the answer.” —The Week, Book of the Week
It would have been easy for a lesser author to drop Plato in a number of modern-day situations, cook up some clever dialog, and land on the conclusion that the philosopher is as comfortable at Google headquarters as he was at the acropolis. Instead, MacArthur Fellow Goldstein (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) imagines Plato and his interlocutors as complex characters. She shows that we've brought Plato forward with us into the boardroom and the classroom because of our dependence on the Socratic method for arriving at new knowledge and refining old wisdom. Alongside a few more serious essays, we find Plato debating the distinction between information and knowledge with a Google employee, taking a personality test at New York City's 92nd Street Y, and debating a "hardline" host on cable news. VERDICT Goldstein is a serious scholar, and her careful citations, footnotes, and background research betray this fact. However, anyone with an interest in philosophy, Plato, or his legacy on Western culture will find this book to be an accessible and enjoyable read. [See Prepub Alert, 9/30/13.]—Robert C. Robinson, CUNY
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Read an Excerpt
Plato at the Googleplex
Cheryl, media escort
Marcus, software engineer
Rhonda, narrator and Cheryl’s friend
The other day, I came into the city to meet my friend Cheryl for a drink and—her expression—a little tête-à-tête-ing. Cheryl and I are both New Yorkers transplanted to the West Coast. That’s one of the ties between us. It might be the only tie between us, but somehow we’ve fallen into the habit of being friends. We met at a pricey hotel bar on Nob Hill that’s decorated like an Italian bordello, with heavy red velvet drapery and gilded statuary. But it is—again Cheryl’s expression—quiet as a vault, which means you can hear yourself talk, even though, as usual, Cheryl did most of the talking. You can’t altogether blame her, given the interesting people she’s constantly meeting. She’s my own personal version of Gawker, a way of my getting a glimpse into the lives of the famous, the near-famous, and the willing-to-do-anything-short-of-landing-themselves-on-death-row-in-the-hopes-of-someday-being-famous. She was late, which was my first tip-off that something was up with her. Cheryl is super-organized, which is something you have to be in her line of work. Here’s how organized she is: while she was parking her Lexus, she called me and told me to order her a Long Island Iced Tea, which is a far stronger mixed drink than our usual Chardonnay.* The drinks were just being brought to the table when Cheryl arrived, amid all the jangling of the large silver bangles she was wearing. Cheryl is always in full Tiffany armor.
After she’d made her little joke about the waiters, who all act as if there were stiff entrance requirements enforced to get in here, including letters of recommendation from your high school math and English teachers, she settled down to tell me about her latest adventures escorting authors from one media event to another. Since everybody’s writing books these days, Cheryl gets to meet politicians, movie stars, all sorts of has-beens, alcoholics, and junkies, and even some authors who do nothing but write books. She’s got the knack, she says, so that people open up to her, and if she ever retires and writes a tell-all memoir she’ll need her own media escort as well as a good lawyer.
Boy, did I have an experience today, she launched in with little preamble. My author was a philosopher, which I just figured was going to be awkward and tedious. And he uses just the one name Plato, which struck me as not a little off-putting, as if he were on a par with a Cher or a Madonna. From the start I figured it was going to be one very long day, but I had no idea.
She took a long sip of her drink.
No idea at all, she continued. Plus his event was one of those Authors@Google things and that place always puts me on edge. It’s hard to breathe in the congested self-congratulation up there at the Googleplex. When somebody tells me that they work hard and play just as hard, which I hear every frigging time I go there, then I make it a point to roll my eyes . . . hard.
Cheryl rolled her eyes as she said this. Her coming down so hard on the Googlers for their high self-esteem is funny, in its way. If I had to escort the high-and-mighty the way Cheryl does, I’d be so intimidated I wouldn’t open my mouth unless absolutely necessary. I’m intimidated at one remove, just hearing about Cheryl’s authors. But no matter who Cheryl is escorting, she doesn’t know from awe. On the contrary, if you know what I mean. So it’s funny how irked she is by other people’s little gestures of self-importance.
Of course, there is the food there, she was saying. I always make it a point to take my authors to lunch there first. I’ve told you about the food there, right? I mean it’s gorgeous. Yoscha’s Café is my favorite. It’s huge and airy, and they’ve got dozens of food stations with different gourmet food so lovingly prepared you can just imagine the doting caretakers who sent their darlings out into the world. And of course it’s all free, as I explained to Plato. That’s the first thing to know about the food here, I said to him. They get breakfast, lunch, dinner, whatever, absolutely free. It’s feeding on demand.
I’d hate that, I told Cheryl. I’d gain ten pounds in a week.
Yeah, well, apparently that’s a “problem”—she air-quoted—which they complain about in their bragging sort of way. We work hard, play hard, and eat hard, which makes us exercise hard. Oh, my goodness, can you possibly grasp what a bunch of superior people we are? Cheryl was rolling her eyes again. Anyway, she went on, Plato was listening to me very intently—it’s almost disconcerting how intently he listens—even though I was just rambling on, kind of free-associating, just trying to make conversation because I could tell this guy’s skills at small talk were not the highest. You know, very ivory tower, though with extremely good manners, almost something aristocratic about him. Also he makes eye contact, unlike a lot of these types. In fact, he makes serious eye contact. His stare is penetrating to the point of aggravating. Anyway, when I finally stopped to take a breath, he asked me: And what is the second thing to know about the food here? You see, he’s got this very logical mind. If you say to him, here’s the first thing to know about something, then you’ve also got to give him a second thing to know about it. So I said, well, I guess the second thing is that it’s yummy. And of course it’s local and organic and all those other kinds of things that people around here are into.
And he asked me, have you ever heard of the Prytaneum?
No, I answered, what’s that, some hot new restaurant?
He sort of smiled, which he tends to do more with his eyes than his mouth, and said, in a manner of speaking, yes, it is hot. The sacred fire of the city is kept going there at all times, its flame carried to any new colony established by the metropolis.
Well, of course, I had no idea what he was talking about, though I vaguely sensed he was making some kind of a joke. He comes from Athens, I forgot to tell you that, and even though I’d been to Greece on that cruise with Michael before the kids were born, the more Plato spoke, the more I realized that Michael and I hadn’t seen the real Greece. I mean, you have no idea of how different they do things over there, at least to listen to Plato describe it. Anyway, he told me, the Prytaneum also serves free meals.
So I said to him, no kidding! That’s quite a deal. How can they afford to stay in business?
It is run by the city, he answered, and the meals are mainly for those who have rendered extraordinary service to the city.* I had a friend who got into some very unfortunate legal trouble. Socrates was charged on two counts, impiety and corruption of the youth.
Corruption of the youth? That sounds pretty dark. Was he some sort of pedophile? I asked him.
Not in the sense that you are most likely thinking, he said, though he loved youth.
Well, I hope not in the sense that I’m thinking! I said right back at him, which made him kind of wince.
The charge was more a matter of his not accepting the moral values of his society and his encouraging the young to question them as well. And he was right to question them and to get us younger men to question them. As proof of how corrupt the society was, the jury ended up convicting him.
And you should have seen his face when he said that, Rhonda. This was the first inkling I got that there was a lot going on behind his façade. He’s a restrained kind of person—very, I don’t know, formal.
And it’s true that every time Cheryl spoke Plato’s words she took on a formality, speaking slowly and precisely, as if every word had been carefully considered. She’s a natural-born actress who just automatically slips into impersonations.
In fact, the longer the conversation went on, she continued, the more I could see glimmers of genuine human feeling going on behind his marble façade. I could tell from the tightening of his jaw and from the way his voice, which is very soft to begin with,‡ went even softer, how traumatic this whole business with his friend Socrates must have been for him.
So I asked him: How long ago did this happen to your friend?
Oh, it’s ancient history, he said. I was a young man, not yet out of my twenties.
That’s interesting, I said, breaking into Cheryl’s narrative, which she doesn’t exactly encourage. It’s rare for a man to care so much for a friend, I said. Are you sure that Socrates was just a friend and not something, you know, more?
Well, of course the thought occurred to me, too, Cheryl said. But you don’t just come out and ask someone about that, especially not someone like Plato. You know, my trick to getting my authors to tell me so much? It’s asking the question just to the side of the one that I really want to ask. So I just said, what a terrible story. Didn’t he have a good lawyer?
Lawyers, said Plato and smiled. I have heard of such people.
Well, of course you have, I said to him, again wondering if this was an example of some kind of humor, you know a lawyer joke, especially since he said it with a slight smile. He has a pretty stiff face, with very strong bone structure, kind of broad around the forehead, and he doesn’t make any sudden motions, facial or otherwise. You can see what a powerful physique he must have had when he was younger, and he still holds himself ramrod straight.
We have no such people in Athens, Plato said. Accusers accuse and defendants defend. Everybody acts as his own lawyer. Those who can afford to usually hire a logographer to write their speeches.
No lawyers, I interrupted Cheryl. He’s got to be putting you on. Whoever heard of Greece having no lawyers?
No, that’s what I meant about Greece being so unbelievably different, Rhonda. It’s kind of mind-boggling.
Are you sure this Plato isn’t one of your fiction writers? I asked her.
Well, if he is, he’s more convincing than any of them. I’ll never hear the word “gravitas” again without thinking of him. This guy is like hewn from gravitas. The procedure in our city, he said, is that if you are found guilty you get to propose the penalty that you think would be fair. Then the accusers pose another penalty, harsher of course, and then the jury votes on the penalty, often aiming for the mean. This procedure worked to Socrates’ detriment. My friend was famous for his irony, and he was not inclined to abandon it, not even with his life hanging in the balance. I should say especially when his life hung in the balance, since to cower before death, showing a readiness to do anything, throw overboard any principle, in order to stave off death just a few moments longer—for it is only a few moments from the standpoint of eternity—is unmanly.
That’s an interesting perspective you’ve got there on death, I told him, but just one helpful hint. I’d avoid the use of adjectives like “unmanly.” They can come off sounding sexist, as if you think maybe men are superior to women.
How’d he take that? I asked Cheryl.
Surprisingly well, Cheryl said, especially for someone so old-school. He thanked me for my advice, promising that he’d try to remember to avoid sexist words in the future. I have not failed to notice, he said, how differently women are regarded in your society compared to mine. It had always struck me as an unreasonable waste of human resources to keep talented women secluded in their homes, which is what our practice is.* Yours is a much more rational way of utilizing human potential. So let me amend my last statement and say rather that Socrates held it to be ignoble for a person to undertake an action with the only aim of postponing death, especially since the proposition that death is an evil turns out to be non-trivial to justify.† During his sentencing, Socrates made a point of mentioning Achilles, who is considered throughout Greece to have been the greatest legendary hero. Achilles had been given the choice of either a brief but glorious life or a prolonged but less exceptional life. Of course, Achilles made the heroic choice, and so did Socrates, though I should mention that my friend had already reached his seventieth year, so the option of a short life was foreclosed.* Nevertheless, he would not succumb to the indignity of acting only to eschew imminent death, especially when doing so required violation of the principles on which he had lived out his life. So when asked to propose a penalty that would accurately reflect his culpability Socrates responded that since he had performed an invaluable service to his city, trying to wake its citizenry from its sleep of complacency, and had never asked for any recompense for his services, the city, if it truly wished to show justice toward him, should vote him free meals for life at the Prytaneum. That was the penalty he proposed after he’d already been voted guilty of a capital offense (Apology 36c– d).
That’s some chutzpah your friend had there, I said to him.
Chutzpah? he asked me. This word I do not know.
Meet the Author
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein received her doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. Her award-winning books include the novels The Mind-Body Problem, Properties of Light, and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction and nonfiction studies of Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza. She has received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, has been designated a Humanist of the Year and a Freethought Heroine, and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2015. She lives in Massachusetts.
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A book was as much about the value of the Socratic dialog as about Plato's notions. If you can allow a suspension of disbelief regarding Plato's winking into existence in the present, this literary contrivance offers an appreciation of the value of the elenctic method to address current science and social notions, as opposed to a one-sided soliloquy.