I don’t usually do book reviews except in passing. I found when I used to do album reviews for Relix magazine that I couldn’t do a standard objective review, try as I might. I bought into Gonzo journalism where writers admitted a personal story or narrative woven with the facts was more real or at least more readable. If I could relate facts with personal import outlier readers might join the conversation. John McPhee’s book “Encounters with the Archdruid” on David Brower was an early paradigm of how narrative and science could be braided into a taut rope. If too sparse to bear skip to the end where I list more conventional reviews.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s book “Plato at the Googleplex, Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away” is arguably the best book I have read in a decade. Part of what makes a book great is not that you agree with all of it but that it affects you deeply, makes you think, and changes your view of the world. I have to concur with AC Grayling.
“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.”
The great atheist books of the early 2000’s were indeed wonderful but for me mostly philosophically repetitive though highly enjoyable. They also helped me gain strength to become an activist again, at least on my own small scale. I had given up environmental activism because it was so damned depressing (environmental battles are never won) and I wanted to raise a family and not be on the road, the pulpit, or on a tree branch waiting for the police. These early books didn’t change my view they made me feel more acceptable, more responsible, with my view.
“Letters to a Young Contrarian” was outstanding in this regard and I had no greater pleasure than being able to tell that to Hitchens himself. I didn’t know whether to crap my pants or orgasm when he made a sweeping bow to me and “you’re very welcome.” And I don’t do hero worship.
Rebecca’s book. And I am going to call her Rebecca, both out of respect and it seems right as she does not claim to blind deference–more as a friend, though I hardly know her, than an author. Rebecca’s book changed my mind about Plato. Late one night after a conference I was conversing with her and saying how philosophy was as important now as ever.
“Music and stories of today are the philosophy of today. Philosophy hasn’t disappeared, it has morphed. Critical thinking is doing philosophy.”
Tired then I can’t fully remember the conversation and I obsessively and blindly delayed her leaving to help some students deal with outing themselves. Sometimes I am desperate for insight.
I rarely get to talk to another philosopher and even more rarely one who weaves philosophy and literature as tightly as Plato’s Sublime Braid of Truth-Beauty-Goodness. At one point, wandering through philosophy small talk I remarked that Whitehead had said we hadn’t progressed much beyond Plato but that nevertheless philosophy was still necessary today. But that I found the dialogs to be tedious, Plato’s theory of forms to be incomprehensible, and his theory of a soul to be the cause of much trouble in the world.
I then said I preferred the Ionian enlightenment, Leucippus, Democritus etc, (to Periclean Athens) that had occurred more early outside Athens in Ionia–which she borrows from Jaspers as the start of the axial age. Not the so-called Greek dark ages or the archaic period but really the heart of Greek philosophy bastardized by Plato and Aristotle from which we are still recovering.
Rebecca flashed a mildly pained look and said that Plato really had contributed hugely by employing the Socratic method. I had to agree on this an distantly did so. The importance of dialogs, open discussion, and the market place of ideas has held true, useful, and beautiful all of this time. It is in conversation that we truly are able to braid rope. We are others and hell is others–without community we are nothing. Call me on my bullshit, please! By the way…
She spoke of Godel and meeting him briefly and I said I thought he had been trying to find god. Maybe so. Indeed, to say no formal system is complete says little about the system itself which is the point–formal, artificial, self-contained, regardless of whether it is embedded or extracted. Cantor’s theory of different-sized infinities uses counting as proof, calibration, which is like using stops to wrestle through Zeno’s paradox of motion.
Flashback to my first year in the university. I went to an agricultural university thinking I would be a vet and got caught in philosophy. I bought Plato’s dialogs and attempted to read them on my own when I should have been studying Calculus, Animal Physiology, and Chemistry. I could have used better counseling and probably learning disability drugs as I also decided to learn how to rope, cowboy rope that is, and shoe horses. In the dialogs, Socrates always won, was always an ass and his opponents as stupid and useless as bent nails.
Laster at another university I would take Ancient Greek/Latin, Plato, Logic, and so forth as I finally changed from philosophy autodidact to unassigned, formal student. I loved Bertrand Russell’s History one-volume history of philosophy and read it on my own over the summer as I was living in a tent and completing the construction of the Faculty Club Lodge. Later, I used Russell’s discussion (with Vlastos) on Plato to answer an essay question of his theory of forms, on which my professor beat me up–I would find analytical philosophers (most of my department) liked Russell but not this book. Twice more he let me rewrite it and twice more he beat me up. My prof was Yukio Kachi and I did get an A in the class, a rare A, but my conclusion was Forms my ass, Plato how sad, and tear down the cave (we don’t need teachers, we need mentored, self-education, free for everyone.)
But I loved the Apology. Best book ever. Wow, I could even read some of it in Greek now. All of this baggage as I moved on to Early Modern Philosophy and found my spiritual home, happy to jump over the terrifying dark and medieval ages (yes, I still had to take the classes).
When Rebecca’s book was announced I realized how close we really had been in that conversation late that night and how Platonic she really was in the best sense. In her other books the hero often doesn’t do what seems practical but what is right for its own sake. A Hassidic genius doesn’t become a famous and perhaps groundbreaking mathematician but tends his small community as a leader that values him–and that was the moral thing to do.
This spoke to me as I too have run from trying for fame and fortune to raise a family and contemplate in peace–and am now in the awkward position of seeking notoriety to make money as I have no secular community here but for nature and family, and we cannot live but for ourselves alone–a hard lesson I have learned. Her books are rich with the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of those who think they know and those who don’t. Her concept of mattering is a wonderfully lucid and female way of looking at power and meaning. Her novels weave philosophy as stories of love, concern, and social commentary. Her characters create philosophy as if the author is not present in the creation. As if the characters are nonfictional and alive in the text where Rebecca reveals the truth already present in them waiting to come out. Philoosphers are the midwives of knowledge rather than combatants of truth. And yet like all natural births there is violence, exposure, and tenderness.
Most of you will have read some sort of review of the book, see below, and know that it is divided in chapters of discussion and chapters of the fictive narrative of Plato arriving now to promote his book. Various reviews are divided between which type of chapter they prefer. Some dislike or like the many footnotes. Some think it is too much philosophy. Some think is it not conclusive. Frankly, I adored it all and consumed the book with a passion I rarely feel towards literature anymore.
It is a sad thing that we no longer respect philosophy or philosophers. I don’t mean in the postmodern sense like where Richard Rorty quit the philosophy department because all philosophy is literature. I mean religions have won so far and wide that philosophy’s repression seems normative even to scientists and rationalists. It’s just division of labor and philosophy bred children that ate the parents? I don’t think so. Anti-intellectualism is thoroughly Christian, then Catholic, and finally the many protestants that demanded to read the bible themselves but to seek no further, stuck in a self aggrandizing appreciation of the subjective as the only means of meaning–and the theologically subjective at that.
Incredibly popular now on Christian, especially Catholic, web sites is to insist the Dark ages weren’t dark and the medieval ages were really rife with innovation, science, and intellectual gymnastics. Odd that they all have to say not as great as the Classic or Greco-Roman period, or not as innovative as the enlightenment, and hedge their great love of learning as being biblically centered. Yes, the Great Library of Alexandria might have been burned over politics but they were religious politics. Hypatia might have been killed for politics but those politics were concerned over the primacy of authority, religion over philosophy, revelation over science, truth towards god or truth. The many other libraries may not have been burned but they were neglected to rot and ruin. Disinterest is as catastrophic as wanton violence.
That the medievalists knew the world was not flat, nor the Greeks, nor the Muslims, and that Galileo’s debate with the pope was over personality and not the true canon of Catholicism where there is not a heresy of science versus religio clouds the real issue of whether one had actually traveled the world to know its circumference and shape. It is as if hundreds of years from now Religious people will say the church actually knew climate change was human caused ignoring the many religious people who did not believe it, who made it impossible to rectify in a timely manner, and who claim god wouldn’t do such a thing. They will dismiss them as cafeteria catholics or some such. The point is church canon got in the way of clear thinking for many, belief in deus ex machina for others, fear of economic change for more, and fear of verisimiltude in political opposition for others. To look back and find some that said it was true does not negate the many who said it wasn’t and the difficult debate between the two views where either man could have changed it or not.
It is as if they see a motor that ran at 60 MPH on 8 cylinders but for awhile ran 30 on 4 and demand credit for the slow speed as some speed at all as if it were close enough to 60 to be counted as almost 60.
The many great religions of the last several thousand years claim a hubris or pride of philosophy as they demand a humility towards a phantasmic wisdom. We philosophers must examine theology but it is enough for theology to examine itself, and not as a debate but as part of the field of inquiry.
Most people do not trust that one can be an expert in thinking. While there are mechanical experts, medical experts, and even painting experts, experts in thinking are not allowed. If I were to tell people at a party that I am an expert in thinking they would all be insulted, secular or not. This is the millennia long trajectory of antipathy towards thinking unless bounded within the humility of subjective phantasms. Even the New England love of self-reliance must be transcendental to be valued; it’s not true unless godly. The misplaced demand of an uninformed democracy rules over the deep work required to make a decent choice. I see why Plato preferred a republic where an expert in thinking helps make these hard and difficult choices, nevertheless fraught with great potential for error. It is really the charlatans of expertise we should be critical of and not the inquiry.
We collapse the utility of Republicanism into a vote of polity of democratic choice where barking dogs signal political alliance without thought. The experts retreat to building robots that assemble pre made devices. The robots, the people, service staff, know little of what they are manufacturing–expertise becomes a dog whistle and the people become dogs (apologies to the canines). When the experts become replaced with the uneducated the manufacture of the manufacturing robots becomes clumsy, ineffectual, and soon abandoned as the products no longer work. What’s left is blind hatred of experts. I have been there and it wasn’t until I saw that it was the corruption of philosophy that was the problem that I was willing to return.
To valorize the uneducated is to miss the point of education. It is not a matter of self-taught or not, public schools or not, regulated or not, but the need to know more to do more. If expertise is needed to create what is required to survive and do well, that expertise cannot be lost without losing ground. It can seem top heavy like Yurtle the Turtle demanding ever taller structures that eventually collapse. That’s why Yurtle should have listened to the experts and the others that could see through what he was doing. Materialism corrupts. Power corrupts. Status corrupts. Gender corrupts. Class corrupts. Authority corrupts. Crowd sourcing corrupts.
The push to make things super simple ultimately disables the ability to adapt beyond narrow boundaries. As the boundaries inevitably change the potential catastrophe becomes even greater. The goal is not to to make everyone stupid but to make everyone informed. That is the only way we can have interchangeable expertise in a society ruled by division of labor. We could of course return to hunter-gather societies but it would be such a loss now unless we could do it without violence and even then experts in underwater-basket weaving would be prized.
Rebecca ends the last part of her exposition.
My Plato is an impassioned mathematician, a wary poet, an exacting ethicist, a reluctant political theorist. He is, above all, a man keenly aware that assumptions and biases slip into our viewpoints and go unnoticed, and he devised 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. Because he created this field, we can look back at Plato and see where his own assumptions and biases sometimes did him wrong. If we couldn’t, the field that he created would have proved a colossal disappointment to him, the faith he had put in self-critical reason unfounded.
Above all, my Plato is the philosopher who teaches us that we should never rest assured that our view, no matter ow well argued and reasoned, amounts to the final word on any matter. And that includes our view of Plato.
She ends the modern Plato with a question as is only right.
PLATO: I cannot say why one’s own brain should matter so much to one just because it happens to be one’s own brain, but it does. It undeniably does.
SHOCKET: You might as well ask why your own self should matter so much to yourself just because it’s your self.
PLATO: That’s right. One might just as well ask.
SHOCKET: Which means you think that the question about why your own self should matter is also a question worth asking.
PLATO: Oh, it is a question well worth asking. I myself have never stopped asking it from the beginning until this moment.
The following are various reviews, not in any particular order, that may shed better light to the book itself.
Washington Post, New York Times, NPR, The Atlantic, Boston Globe, CS Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Slate, SF Gate, Interview with Ophelia Benson, Youtube Reading and Discussion at Harvard, and Interview with Josh Zepps.
Jim Newman, bright and well www.frontiersofreason.com