In Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, a MacArthur “genius grant” winning philosopher and novelist, sets herself an ambitious goal: to defend philosophy, by demonstrating its importance and proving that it has made progress in addressing questions of universal concern. The book’s framing conceit is that Plato, the great philosopher of fifth-century Athens, has somehow appeared in the present-day United States. Ostensibly on a book tour, he participates in philosophical discussions with a software engineer at Google headquarters, a panel of parenting experts, an advice columnist, a right-wing cable news host, and a neuroscientist. These chapters serve to demonstrate the continuing relevance, indeed necessity, of the philosophical enterprise — at least as conceived by Plato — in all realms of human life. The fictional contemporary dialogues are interspersed with expository chapters on fifth century Athenian culture, Socrates’s life, and Plato’s philosophy.
Goldstein’s subtitle may seem defensive, but philosophy has been under attack from a range of critics, many of them scientists who decry philosophy’s apparent stagnation. Most recently, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of FOX’s reboot of Cosmos, chided philosophers for being waylaid by questions that cause pointless delays in understanding the natural world: “You can’t even cross the street because you are distracted by what you are sure are deep questions you’ve asked yourself. I don’t have the time for that.” Judging from the number of times Monty Python’s (admittedly hilarious) Philosophers’ Football Match (in which Greek and German teams wander the field, thinking) was trotted out during last month’s FIFA World Cup, deGrasse Tyson’s impression of philosophers has some grip on the popular imagination. The “uselessness” of a philosophy degree is a near truism, a punch line in commencement addresses from the likes of Stephen Colbert and Conan O’Brien. Even Goldstein herself admits that some of her best friends are “predisposed to dismiss philosophy.”
In this context, it’s no surprise that Plato at the Googleplex allows Plato to speak with a host of characters who seriously doubt that philosophy has any value. It’s a pretty bold move, attempting not only to humanize such a mythic figure, but to recreate Platonic dialogues for today’s reader, and Goldstein knows it. Recalling her “addiction” to science fiction as a child, she notes that accepting just one “preposterous premise” in a novel opened a world of sense, and so she asks her own readers to do the same. It helps that Goldstein, an accomplished novelist (Thirty-Six Arguments for the Existence of God, Properties of Light) who can certainly write finely detailed characters, strikes a light tone with humorous near-parodies of prominent cultural types: the nerdy software engineer in jeans and a Grateful Dead t-shirt; the Viennese parenting expert, a former psychoanalyst whose demeanor is as scathing as her bestseller Esteeming Your Child: How Even the Best-Intentioned Parents Violate, Mutilate, and Desecrate Their Children; the jovial Jewish neuroscientist who quotes Mel Brooks and is famous for his article, “My Amygdala Made Me Do It: How Neuroscience Eliminates Right and Wrong.” With Sophie Zee, a child-rearing expert and Roy McCoy, a conservative cable news pundit, she pokes thinly veiled fun at “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly.
Although the image of Plato in his chiton clutching a Chromebook and taking MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) is amusing, Goldstein takes more care with him, portraying him as she sees him: exacting, passionate, humble, wise, insatiably curious, and deeply affected by his relationship with his ill-fated teacher, Socrates. Challenged, and even mocked, throughout (McCoy suggests Knowledge You Can’t Use and Goodness You Don’t Want for the title of Plato’s next book), Plato is never less than patient and kind:
PLATO: I meant only that the person of great influence lacks access to views that challenge his own.
MCCOY: Oh, there isn’t any shortage of views clamoring to challenge my own. That’s what we call the viewpoints of the pinheads, and fortunately nothing forces me to pay any attention to them.
PLATO: Except your own self-interest.
MCCOY, laughing: This just keeps getting better. I’m supposed to pay attention to the pinheads out of my own self-interest?
PLATO: Otherwise you must do all the hard work of challenging your own positions all by yourself. Isn’t it better to get some help with so difficult a task? And wouldn’t you call those who help you out your friends?
MCCOY: Why should I challenge my own positions? That’s the job of my enemies, who it’s my job to vilify.
PLATO: I would have thought it the job of your most valued friends.
MCCOY: I can’t tell whether you’re putting me on or not. Is this some kind of Ali G or Borat scam you’re trying to pull here? Just answer me that. Are you putting me on? Have my stupid staff screwed up again and let in some Sacha Baron Cohen operative?
PLATO: I am sincere.
Goldstein’s Plato doesn’t change many minds but it’s clear he affects everyone he engages. In the Googleplex chapter, for instance, Marcus, a software engineer, rejects Plato’s idea that ethical knowledge is something philosophers have the best access to, and suggests instead that ethics should be crowd-sourced:
There’s knowledge without a knower. The idea is that sometimes the crowd, each individual registering its own response, can come up with an answer that’s better than any single individual in the crowd, no matter how smart or expert, could come up with. Sometimes the aggregate is superior to any single member and the only way to get at the right answer is by letting each member have a vote. Think of it as a rolling plebiscite. That’s the general idea behind democracy, after all. Who should be the ruler? Whoever the voters end up voting for is the answer, and you can’t ask them whether they got it right or wrong. Given the rules of democracy, the answer is the one delivered by the crowd, end of story.
Marcus comes up with EASE, the Ethical Answers Search Engine. To combat individual bias, the designer would be sure to include opinions from a wide variety of people, not just from certain social groups, or the highly educated. An engineer could design an algorithm that sorts the different opinions, according greater weight to those of people who have lived lives they consider admirable. Plato points out that EASE depends on two ethical claims which have no independent justification: (1) that everyone’s opinion should be included, and (2) that the lives most worth living are those that give a sense of worth to those who are living them. EASE, Plato notes, does not truly crowd-source ethical knowledge, since it is the programmer who sets up the ethical playing field. Marcus has inadvertently introduced moral experts, a concept which he found distasteful, but instead of philosophers whose job it is to ponder morality, his are engineers. This is like asking a carpenter how to make baked Alaska. Search engines can offer information, Plato concludes, but not wisdom, and “If we don’t understand our tools, then there is a danger that we will become the tool of our tools.”
Goldstein is not afraid to raise thorny questions that challenge Plato’s views (for example, whether there is such thing as moral knowledge at all) but she doesn’t address them all, and that’s okay. Plato’s media escort reflects, “I’m not sure giving answers is in his bag of tricks. He seems to be more about messing with your mind so that you can’t stop thinking about his questions.” She’s left unsettled and invigorated, a little less certain of her unreflective beliefs. Here Goldstein is asserting, pace deGrasse Tyson, that questions about the nature of reality, goodness, and beauty are indeed deep and that asking them is an important human activity. For Goldstein, and for Plato and Socrates, the purpose of philosophy isn’t to answer every question once and for all, but “to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world.” Barriers from ideology to economic pressures to technology can stymie the activity of philosophizing, but Goldstein contends that this is the only kind of activity that can truly make us coherent to ourselves and to each other. The critics promote instrumentalism, reductionism, scientism, taking one view of the world for the whole. Doing so lends itself to epistemic hierarchy and dogmatism, something philosophy attempts to prevent, whether that hierarchy is based on science or some other kind of authority: “It’s an epistemic democracy that rules out the appeal to special privilege” (privilege based on gender or economic status, for example). Philosophical questions about what there is, why it exists, and the significance, if any, of human beings, matter to everyone. And because it forces us to acknowledge the limitations of our own self-serving subjectivity, philosophizing itself — questioning assumptions, offering reasons, developing arguments, critiquing those arguments — is morally improving. Goldstein concludes, “if we don’t take that step, then we will leave this life no closer to truth than when we entered it. And that is exactly what it is to live a life not worth living, even if it proves to be the most pleasant sort of existence.”
It might seem as though bringing Plato to the twenty-first century is Goldstein’s way of obliterating history, but she devotes a considerable number of pages to describing the context in which philosophy as it is known in the West arose. Referring to Karl Jaspers’ theory of an Axial age, from about 800 to 200 B.C.E., Goldstein contends civilizations from China to India to Greece began grappling for the first time with the question of the meaning of human existence. The Greek Homeric Ethos, the “Ethos of the Extraordinary,” asserts that a life matters only when it is exceptional and praised as such. The accomplishments of the extraordinary individual serve the extraordinary polis. Socrates and especially Plato moved away from the social aspect of this ethos, contending that a worthy life might be viewed as worthless by a society that failed to understand, and model itself according to, the true, beautiful, and good (what Goldstein calls “the Sublime Braid”). Socrates’ trial for “normative heresy” is portrayed as a painfully formative and galvanizing experience for Plato. Socrates critiqued the Athenian tendency to bask in the glow of the achievements of extraordinary heroes like Achilles, and exhorted each individual Athenian to take responsibility for his own life and his own relationship to morality and truth:
[I]f you kill me you will not easily find another like me. I was attached to this city by the god – though it seems a ridiculous thing to say – as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred by a kind of gadfly. … I never cease to arouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.
Goldstein wants us to do the same.
What philosophy is ultimately about, says Goldstein, is making our human points of view more coherent. Philosophy is doing something different from science but also from literature. It is a field “devoted to trying to expose these assumptions and biases and to do away with any that conflict with commitments we must make in order to render the world and our lives maximally coherent.” For example, when the subjective experience of human action, complete with reasons and free will, conflicts with the story science tells us about billions of neurons and synapses, philosophy must reconcile them. Philosophy has made progress, even in the moral sphere on topics like slavery and misogyny, but, because it occurs at the level of deep commitments, it is invisible: “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.”
I found Goldstein’s defense of philosophy inspiring. I was reminded, viscerally, of discovering Plato as an undergraduate, the exhilarating confusion, the liberation of detachment from my own egoistic concerns, the sense of honor in doing my tiny part to keep the enterprise afloat. I have always considered philosophy one of the great goods in my life, but not the totality of my identity, and that is, I suppose, a key difference between being a Philosopher in Plato’s and Goldstein’s sense and a mere philosophy professor. What it means, for them, to be a philosopher becomes clearest when contrasted with ordinary folk on a topic of interest to both: love.
In Plato’s Symposium, guests at a party give speeches on the God of love, Eros. Socrates has just described eros as a kind of longing that draws us out of ourselves. What begins with a beautiful person transcends itself, to more abstract kinds of beauty (like the beauty of Athenian laws), leading eventually to an impersonal contemplation of Beauty itself. Alcibiades — a charismatic, brilliant, gorgeous, excessive, and ultimately tragic figure — shows up late, drunk, and shares something rather more personal: what it’s like to love one extraordinary individual, Socrates. Alcibiades exalts Socrates in his individuality, describing how the philosopher, using reason alone, has brought him to a state of disorienting ecstasy. But
Alcibiades’ account of what it has been like to love Socrates is thoroughly human, filled with both the transformative sense of wonder that we feel when we are deeply in love, but also the absurdity of that state, the indignities we are made to suffer when it is an embodied person we love, rather than a god or a mathematical theorem or an abstraction of Beauty itself.
Ideally, Alcibiades, and all of us who can, will educate erotic love into a passionate longing for abstract truth, carnal pleasures replaced by “the rapture of gaining knowledge together.” Rejecting this vision, Alcibiades finally tells Socrates, “there is no reconciling you and me,” and I can’t say I blame him.
Just as Platonic love is one kind of love, Platonic philosophy is one kind of philosophy. Plato at the Googleplex defends a very specific conception and style of philosophy, and I wish Goldstein had so much as hinted at the existence of alternatives. For example, French thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida, and Irigaray are skeptical that rigorous argument can do more than draw out what is implicit in our starting presuppositions. To those thinkers, the canon of philosophy is a series of motivated repressions, and narrow conceptions of logic and reason neither access these nor begin to do justice to the full realm of human experience. And many contemporary philosophers (not to mention Nietzsche) might find Goldstein’s minor concession to the importance of emotions like empathy inadequate to capture the ways in which the Platonic privileging of reason over emotion (indeed, even their conceptual separation) have been, to put it mildly, challenged. Sometimes it’s not clear whether Goldstein is referring to the progress of philosophers or of society, but either way, her model of progress downplays the importance of social and political movements to moral change, focusing instead on the arguments of individuals who can make their way “through the headiest of intellectual terrain” at the top. And about that moral progress: when there are thirty million slaves in the world today, in what sense can it be claimed that “slavery is wrong” is a moral truth “we” now accept? Who are “we” anyway?
Goldstein’s vision of philosophy is idealized, and that’s appropriate to her goals. But in terms of gender, race, and ethnicity, philosophy is one of the least diverse disciplines in academia. The climate in philosophy departments for underrepresented groups is often not just unpleasant but perilous, as websites like What Is It Like to Be a Woman In Philosophy illustrate. I have to wonder at the disconnect when Goldstein holds out philosophy as a bulwark against the “hazards of subjectivity, which is a breeding ground for prejudice, superstition, and egotistical self-aggrandizement.” Goldstein maintains that philosophy exposes biases and assumptions, and it can, but philosophers working in feminist theory, queer theory, and disability studies try to uncover philosophy’s own biases, the ways the very practices that Goldstein lauds, and not just their perversions, can shore up privilege and injustice. In many cases these theorists identify moral injustice not, as Plato had it, by moving through mathematics and metaphysics, to see moral truths “as they really are,” decontextualized from personality and society, but by starting from their own lived experience.
For example, Goldstein refers to thought experiments as a method some philosophers employ to argue about topics like abortion, and this is absolutely correct. But given the complex and overlapping set of meaningful social practices which pregnant women must negotiate, comparing pregnancy to being hooked up to a renowned male violinist (in the most famous thought experiment) erases important features of embodied pregnant women’s experience. In short, Goldstein might have asked what conditions can actually support the kind of inquiry in which philosophers specialize. Plato at the Googleplex illustrates entertainingly how philosophical dialogue facilitates intellectual progress, but when the discussion is limited to equals with significant power and influence, it merely gestures at a true epistemic democracy. It doesn’t engage with a political reality that renders an equal playing field at best an ideal.
But of course, Plato didn’t advocate an equal playing field, and here is where Plato at the Googleplex might be a tough sell for lay readers. Not everyone can be a philosopher, and thus not everyone can have a life worth living. Very few have the intellectual power, not to mention the leisure or opportunity, to “grasp and internalize the goodness that makes the cosmos worth the existing.” To her credit, Goldstein doesn’t sugar coat Plato’s viewpoint, but neither does she acknowledge how far this deflating conclusion might undermine her aim of making philosophy meaningful and important to her readers. Plato at the Googleplex reveals a vision of reality so true, beautiful, and good that human beings can at best long for illuminating contact with a knowledge that “makes us over in its light.” So what is meant, finally, by the claim that philosophy matters because it addresses questions of significance to all human beings? The dialogical chapters imply that some exposure to philosophy can benefit anyone. But Goldstein’s exposition of Plato’s work sometimes suggests that it’s better to allow the experts (the “super-arguers”) to do the heavy intellectual lifting. That kind of jarring claim is a strength in Plato at the Googleplex. Like its main character Plato with his fictional interlocutors, this book confronts readers with uncomfortable ideas. If it is the job of the philosopher to make our claims coherent, then readers who try to braid together these seemingly incongruous strands are doing the very thing Goldstein hopes to inspire. Plato at the Googleplex challenges, it rouses, and it finally requires thinking participation in some of the most important and enduring questions human beings can ask.
Jessica Miller teaches philosophy at the University of Maine and blogs at Read React Review.