Books April 2014

Playing With Plato

Philosophers eager to write for popular audiences are finding readers who want answers science can’t offer.
Associated Press; Wikimedia Commons; nserrano

When I was 21, I was trying to decide whether to become a doctor or a philosophy professor. My older brother, whose advice I usually followed, asked me why I wanted to study philosophy. I was evasive. Finally I admitted that a lot of the books I loved had been written by philosophers and philosophy professors. Plus, one of my favorite books at the time, a book I’d read and reread since I was a teenager, was Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game, which unabashedly romanticized the life of the professor.

“Be practical. Books are dangerous things,” my brother warned me. “Just because it’s on paper, you think it’s true. Moneylove was one of the most damaging books I ever read. Not to mention How to Win Friends & Influence People.” (I should probably mention that my brother is a very successful luxury jeweler, who continues to love money and, as Dale Carnegie instructs, to “make the other person feel important—and do it sincerely.”) This wasn’t what I wanted to hear, so I called my dad, at that time a broke New Age guru and sex therapist living in Jupiter, Florida—not exactly the oracle of Delphi, and not someone whose advice I usually followed. “Every doctor I know is miserable, son,” he told me. “They work all the time and complain about insurance companies.” (Not much has changed since 1988.) “Be a professor. You’ll never be rich, but you’ll be doing what you love: reading and writing. You get summers off. It’s a good life.”

Note that my father didn’t say the good life, which is how a philosophically minded adviser might have put it to me—except that philosophy in America in the 1980s and ’90s seemed to be losing its way in dry, scholastic debates about the most lifeless of topics (what is the meaning of and?). But he told me what I wanted to hear, and a quarter century later, philosophy is making the kind of comeback that leaves a Hermann Hesse groupie glad to have headed for graduate school and ended up with tenure. Amid hand-wringing about the decline of the humanities, the philosopher (and novelist) Rebecca Newberger Goldstein can write a book like Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, confident that she’ll find readers eager to turn to philosophers for help in thinking about the meaning of life and how best to live it. Books like Sarah Bakewell’s wildly popular study of Montaigne, How to Live, and the successful New York Times blog The Stone, back her up, as does the Harper’s column Ars Philosopha (full disclosure: I am a frequent contributor to the last).

We are deluged with information; the scientific method produces new discoveries every day. But what does all that mean for us?

But Goldstein wisely doesn’t take philosophy’s revival for granted in a culture committed to an increasingly materialistic worldview—materialistic in the philosophical sense, meaning convinced that the scientific study of matter in motion holds the answers to all our questions. The impetus for Goldstein’s ingenious, entertaining, and challenging new book is the theoretical version of the very practical problem I confronted when I graduated from college: Now that we have science, do we really need philosophy? Doesn’t science “bake bread” (not to mention make money) in a way that philosophy never has? Science is responsible for the grand upward march of civilization—so we are often told—but what accomplishments can philosophy claim?

In praise of Plato, the 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once wrote, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” But this, as Goldstein points out, is precisely what might make us worry about philosophy as a discipline:

Those predisposed to dismiss philosophy—some of my best friends—might hear in Whitehead’s kudos to Plato a well-aimed jeer at philosophy’s expense. That an ancient Greek could still command contemporary relevance, much less the supremacy Whitehead claimed for him, does not speak well for the field’s rate of progress.

Or does it? The question that Goldstein’s book sets out to consider is what we mean by progress, and also what we mean by meaning. Her goal is to do more than prove how relevant philosophy still is. She aims to reveal how many of our most pressing questions simply aren’t better answered elsewhere. Much of what we take for progress delivers answers that miss the point, distort issues, ignore complications, and may be generated by badly formulated questions in the first place. Goldstein also wants to show us that figuring out how to live a meaningful life is something very different from understanding the meaning of special relativity or evolution. We are deluged with information; we know how to track down facts in seconds; the scientific method produces new discoveries every day. But what does all that mean for us? As the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard observed:

Whatever the one generation may learn from the other, that which is genuinely human no generation learns from the foregoing … Thus, no generation has learned from another to love, no generation begins at any other point than at the beginning, no generation has a shorter task assigned to it than had the previous generation.

Another way to put it might be that every generation could use a Plato to tackle those genuinely human lessons. That is the creative, verging on wacky, premise that has inspired Goldstein’s approach to demonstrating why philosophy won’t (and had better not) go away. She transports Plato into the 21st century and, adopting his own preferred literary form, puts him into fictional dialogue with a variety of contemporary characters. As Socrates was for Plato—the great philosophical interlocutor, living in literary form—so Plato becomes for Goldstein. She ratchets up the entertainment value (this isn’t ancient Athens!), eager for drama and topical issues. Plato is put through his paces with an array of in-your-face conversation partners, from a smart if smarmy young employee at Google, to several experts on child-rearing, to a “no-bull” cable-TV talking head, to a neuroscientist. This sounds dangerously facile and cute, but Goldstein mostly pulls it off, cleverly weaving passages directly from Plato’s dialogues into her own.

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