Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (Pantheon), $26.95
It’s understandable that many people think philosophy is an intellectual pig in a poke. It’s hard even to communicate to someone what it is; the best way is to have them actually grapple with a philosophical problem. But if they don’t see the value in it, it’s hard to see why they would bother. All the more exciting, then, when philosophy gets an articulate defence that makes an entertaining and compelling case for its continued relevance. Plato at the Googleplex, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, is one of the best such defences I’ve seen. It’s witty, accessible, and smart. It’s the sort of book you want to give to your family and friends who wonder why you spent years pursuing a degree in…psychopathy, or theosophy or something like that, instead of law or medicine. It’s also the sort of book professional philosophers themselves ought to read when they feel the nagging despair that what they do might be irrelevant.
Plato at the Googleplex makes the case for the importance of philosophy by introducing the reader to Plato and Socrates, the pair that introduced it to the world. Every other chapter is a dialogue in the Platonic style, with Plato himself on a book tour through twenty-first-century America. The people he talks to typically know who he is – having slogged through Republic in college – but some don’t and find themselves puzzled that he’s wearing a toga (“I think it’s a pretty clever piece of marketing. It was probably his publisher’s idea …”) and hasn’t heard of the internet (“It’s not as though they don’t have Google in Greece, or at least I assume they do”). The touch of comedy keeps the ball rolling, but Plato being who he is, discussions get pretty deep pretty quickly.
The first, and most penetrating, dialogue takes place at Google’s headquarters. There Plato introduces his famous idea of “The Philosopher King” who rules because he is the one who best understands the tricky ins and outs of morality. Quickly the debate becomes one about the very existence of moral expertise – who are philosophers to tell us what we ought to do anyway? Why don’t we instead “crowdsource” morality so that we can ultimately “Google” morals? The discussion is philosophically rich and Goldstein gives Plato a good defence. The upshot, of course, is that if Plato is right and there can be moral experts, philosophy is indispensable since it really is the discipline where that expertise can be developed.
Later, at the 92nd Street Y, Plato is on a panel about child-rearing alongside a “Warrior Mother” who trains her child for excellence, and an acerbic analyst who argues that “training” your children for some parentally chosen goal is a form of child abuse. Plato, meanwhile, tries to defend his picture of education, including the complementary roles of sports and music and the importance of play. As one might expect, the conversation is inconclusive, but no one who has considered the ethical issues surrounding parenthood will fail to be provoked.
The next three dialogues involve Plato offering romantic advice in a newspaper column, defending philosophy on a cable news show with a very Bill O’Reilly-ish host, and discussing free will with a neuroscientist who is about to give him an MRI. (Plato really wants to see his own brain.) Though these dialogues are not quite as successful as the first two, and the comedy is a little in front of the philosophy, they continue to introduce serious philosophical problems in an insightful way.
Interspersed among the dialogues are rather more lengthy chapters that are at times historical, presenting Plato and Socrates in their Athenian context, and at times philosophical, offering sketches of some of Plato’s positions and arguments. Here things can get a tad dry and wandering. There is a hefty discussion of Alcibiades, for example, that seems only tangentially related to the philosophical issues raised by the book, and there are several places where the author and the editor should have noted almost verbatim repetition. (This repetition does have the benefit that the book need not be read straight through. The reader could easily dip into the parts that most interest her.) The book would have been more effective were the prose interludes a little shorter and more clearly connected to the dialogues they introduce.
Overall, Plato at the Googleplex is an excellent book. It takes real talent to combine history, comedy and good philosophy in a package that will probably change some minds about our Socratic discipline. Goldstein clearly has the talent, and I for one am awfully glad to have her on the side of philosophy.