Plato at the Googleplex
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Plato at the Googleplex

Why Philosophy Won't Go Away

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

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eBook - ePub

Plato at the Googleplex

Why Philosophy Won't Go Away

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

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About This Book

Imagine that Plato came to life in the twenty-first century and embarked on a multi-city speaking tour. How would he mediate a debate between a Freudian psychoanalyst and a 'tiger mum' on how to raise the perfect child? How would he handle the host of a right-wing news program who denies there can be morality without religion? What would Plato make of Google, and of the idea that knowledge can be crowdsourced rather than reasoned out by experts?

Plato at the Googleplex is acclaimed thinker Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's dazzling investigation of these conundra. With a philosopher's depth and erudition 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; it is a stunningly original plunge into the drama of philosophy, revealing its hidden role in today's debates on religion, morality, politics and science.

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Information

Year
2014
ISBN
9781782395584
CONTENTS
Prologue
α
Man Walks into a Seminar Room
β
Plato at the Googleplex
γ
In the Shadow of the Acropolis
δ
Plato at the 92nd Street Y
ε
I Don’t Know How to Love Him
ς
xxxPlato
ζ
Socrates Must Die
η
Plato on Cable News
θ
Let the Sunshine In
ι
Plato in the Magnet
Appendix A: Socratic Sources
Appendix B: The Two Speeches of Pericles from Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War
Glossary
Acknowledgments
Bibliographical Note
Index
PROLOGUE
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.
Plato is surprisingly relevant to many of our contemporary discussions, but this isn’t because he knew as much as we do. Obviously, he didn’t know the science that we know. But, less obviously, he didn’t know the philosophy that we know, including philosophy that has filtered outward beyond the seminar table. Conclusions that philosophers first establish by way of tortuous reasoning have a way, over time, of leaking into shared knowledge. Such leakage is perhaps more common as regards the questions of morality than other branches of philosophy, since those are questions that constantly test us. We can hardly get through our lives—in fact, it’s hard to get through a week—without considering what makes specific actions right and others wrong and debating with ourselves whether that is a difference that must compel the actions we choose. (Okay, it’s wrong! I get it! But why should I care?)
Plato’s ruminations, as profound as they are, hardly give us the last word on such matters. European thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, coming two millennia after Plato, had much to add to our shared conceptions of morality, particularly as regards individual rights, and we have learned from them and gone on.* This is why it is impossible for us to read Plato now without occasional disapproval. It’s precisely because he initiated a process that has taken us beyond him.
So Plato hardly did all the philosophical work. And yet he did do something so extraordinary as to mark his thinking as one of the pivotal stages in humankind’s development. What Plato did was to carve out the field of philosophy itself. It was Plato who first framed the majority of fundamental philosophical questions. He grasped the essence of a peculiar kind of question, the philosophical question, some specimens of which were already afloat in the Athens of his day, and he extended its application. He applied the philosophical question not only to norms of human behavior, as Socrates had done, but to language, to politics, to art, to mathematics, to religion, to love and friendship, to the mind, to personal identity, to the meaning of life and the meaning of death, to the natures of explanation, of rationality, and of knowledge itself. Philosophical questions could be framed in all these far-flung areas of human concern and inquiry, and Plato framed them, often in their definitive form. How did he do it? Why was it he who did it? This is a mystery I’ve always wanted to unravel. But how do you get close enough to Plato to even attempt to figure him out? Drawing conclusions about which doctrines he meant to assert—or even whether he meant to assert any doctrines at all—is difficult enough, much less hoping to get a glimpse into the soul of the man.
Though Plato is (at least for many of us) an easy philosopher to love, he is also a deucedly difficult philosopher to get close to. Despite his enormous influence, he is one of the most remote figures in the history of thought. His remoteness is not only a matter of his antiquity, but also of the manner in which he gave himself to us by way of his writings. He didn’t create treatises, essays, or inquiries that propound positions. Instead, he wrote dialogues, which are not only great works of philosophy but also great works of literature.
His language is that of a consummate artist. Classical scholars affirm that his Greek is the purest and finest of any of the ancient writings that have come down to us. “The lyrical prose of Plato had no peer in the ancient world,” writes one scholar in his introduction to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s extraordinary translation of Plato’s Symposium, the great Romantic pouring his own lyrical gifts into the text.* But, more to the point, Plato’s vivid characters discuss philosophical problems in so lively and natural a manner that it is difficult to catch the author’s point of view through the engagement of the many voices with one another. His dialogues allow us to draw a little bit closer to many of his contemporaries—including Socrates—while Plato holds himself aloof. Some readers of the dialogues interpret the character of Socrates, who is often the character who gets the most lines, as a stand-in for Plato, much as Salviati speaks for Galileo in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems and as Philo speaks for David Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; but this pastes too simple a face over an interpretive chimera. It is almost as naive to reduce the dialogic Socrates to a mere sock puppet for the philosopher Plato as it is to reduce Plato to a mere notetaker for the philosopher Socrates. Plato floats fugitive between these two reductions.
His elusiveness is comparable to that of another protean writer of whom it is difficult to catch a glimpse through the genius of the work, William Shakespeare. In both, it’s the capaciousness and vivacity of points of view animating the text that drives the author into the shadows. In the case of Shakespeare, the remoteness of the author has provoked some otherwise sober people to contend that the actor born on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon, who left school at fourteen and never went to university and married an already pregnant Anne Hathaway, to whom he willed his “second-best” bed, was merely a front man for the real author—even a whole committee of authors. In the case of Plato, the remoteness makes itself felt not only in the difficulties of disentangling Plato from Socrates, but, even more dramatically, in the mutually incompatible characterizations that have been foisted upon him.
It has been claimed that Plato was an egalitarian; it has been claimed that he was a totalitarian. It has been claimed that he was a utopian, proposing a universal blueprint for the ideal state; it has been claimed he was an anti-utopian, demonstrating that all political idealism is folly. It has been claimed he was a populist, concerned with the best interests of all citizens; it has been claimed he was an elitist with disturbing eugenicist tendencies. It has been claimed he was other-worldly; it has been claimed he was this-worldly. It has been claimed he was a romantic; it has been claimed he was a prig. It has been claimed that he was a theorizer, with sweeping metaphysical doctrines; it has been claimed he was an anti-theorizing skeptic, always intent on unsettling convictions. It has been claimed he was full of humor and play; it has been claimed he was as solemn as a sermon limning the torments of the damned. It has been claimed he loved his fellow man; it has been claimed he loathed his fellow man. It has been claimed he was a philosopher who used his artistic gifts in the service of philosophy; it has been claimed he was an artist who used philosophy in the service of his art.
Isn’t it curious that a figure can exert so much influence throughout the course of Western civilization and escape consensus as to what he was all about? And how in the world can one hope to draw closer to so elusive a figure?
He was an ancient Greek, a citizen of the city-state of Athens during its classical age. How much of Plato’s achievement in almost singlehandedly creating philosophy is explained by his having been a Greek? The Greeks have fascinated us for a good long while now. Even the Romans, who vanquished them militarily, were vanquished from within by the fascinating Greeks. After the millennia of obsession, is there anything new to say about them? I think so, and it is this: the preconditions for philosophy were created there in ancient Greece, and most especially in Athens. These preconditions lay not only in a preoccupation with the question of what it is that makes life worth living but in a distinctive approach to this question.
The Greeks were not alone in being preoccupied with the question of human worth and human mattering. Across the Mediterranean was the still-obscure tribe called the Ivrim, the Hebrews, from the word for “over,” since they were over on the other side of the Jordan. There they worked out their notion of a covenantal relationship with a tribal god whom they eventually elevated to the position of the one and only God, The Master of the Universe who provides the foundation for both the physical world without and the moral world within. To live according to his commandments was to live a life worth living. Our Western culture is still an uneasy mix of the approaches to the question of human worth worked out by these two Mediterranean peoples, the Greeks and the Hebrews. But even they weren’t alone in their existential preoccupations. In Persia, Zoroastrianism presented a dualistic version of the forces of good and evil; in China, there was Confucius and Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu; and in India, there was the Buddha. Each of these approaches adds to the range of choices we have for conceiving the life worth living.
The philosopher Karl Jaspers baptized this normatively* fertile period in human history—which was roughly 800 to 200 B.C.E.—the “Axial Age,” because visions forged during that period extend out into our own day, like the axials of a wheel. These ways of normatively framing our lives still resonate with millions of people, including secularists, who are the inheritors of the Greek...

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