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Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

January 19, 2014

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.  Pantheon (2014), Hardcover, 480 pages.


A clever attempt to show that Plato and the issues he considered are relevant today.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is both an academic philosopher and a novelist. She has also been awarded a MacArthur Genius Award.  She reveres Plato, not because she thinks his answers are always right, but because the questions he raised are important ones.   Aware that controversy about what Plato meant is widespread, she focuses on what can be known about him and  the Athens of his time.  Her assumed audience seems to be college students or non-academic readers.

Goldstein would never say that Plato is only a product of his time, but she does think that we can understand him better if we understand the events and ideas swirling around him.  I found her discussion of Athens and the ideas being expressed there very well done and helpful.  Plato and Socrates made better sense to me when I read about those whom they were arguing against. For the first time, I could see how the rise of philosophy related to the plays being performed, the religions being revered, and the wars within and outside the city.  Although she avoids the fierce debates within philosophy about what Plato “really” meant, she does try to correct some common mistakes about him.  For example she explains that what we call “platonic love,” was not necessarily without a sexual element.

The cleverest and most innovative elements in the book are the contemporary scenarios which Goldstein creates in which Plato interacts with people from America today around issues of knowledge, education, relationships, and politics.   As Goldstein notes, Plato did not write treatises, as most philosophers have done over time.  Instead he created dialogues or conversations which probe the points that he sees as important.  These alternate with chapters in which she discusses Plato, often bringing together and quoting the actual words of Plato.  I found her imaginary scenes uneven, and sometimes misleading.

Goldstein’s first “dialogue” was the one I liked best.  She describes Plato on a book tour visiting the Googleplex and discussing theories of knowledge with the computer nerds.  They debate whether crowd sourcing is a better way to learn about morality.  Then Plato appears on a panel of education experts who are mostly ideologues shouting their own convictions.  As a consultant to an advice columnist, Plato comments on readers’ problems with relationships and sexuality.  Homosexuality is never the problem, but how we treat others is.  This section was smoothly written and helps clarify how Plato thinks about personal issues.  Plato also is interviewed by a Fox TV host.  Again we have an ideologue unable to engage a shared search for knowledge.  Metaphysics is the main topic of their interview.  In the last scenario, Plato debates with a neuroscientist  who believes that science has or will prove that human beings have no ability to deliberate and make choices.

While I share Goldstein’s desire to help students engage in philosophical thinking, I preferred her explanations to her scenarios.  Although never her intent, I felt she trivialized Plato in order to fit him into the tiny boxes of contemporary discourse.  I even got the sense that she chose her topics based on which fit into her format rather than based on which important questions Plato himself was most concerned with.  In doing so, too much was lost.  I doubt the wisdom of presenting Plato’s ideas as snippets in advice columns and TV interviews.  Plato is hard to read and understand because the issues he addresses are by their nature difficult.  To present him as otherwise is to diminish his power to challenge us to think in new ways about critical issues.

I recommend this book for its discussions of Athens and the context from which Plato wrote, and it may prompt some readers to pursue Plato further.  I see little to recommend about the author’s attempt to imagine Plato in today’s world.

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