The following review appeared first in New York Journal of Books, March 4, 2014
The idea behind this book is both elegant and knowing. Imagine the old Greek philosopher Plato being in possession of a time machine and using it to travel to the twenty-first century to check out what has become of his Academy and human endeavor more generally. Imagine further the first place he lands on is Googleplex, the corporate headquarters of Google Inc. and home to some of the most inquisitive minds engaged in the construction of complex algorithms in search of information.
What would Plato think? And would that what he thinks be relevant?
These are the two questions that Rebecca Newberger Goldstein sets out to answer thus hoping to elucidate the relevance of philosophy for contemporary life, both individual and collective. At the same time, and parallel to Plato’s journey through our world, she takes us on a trip to Antiquity in order to familiarize us with the context of emergence of ancient Greek philosophy and how that influenced its contents.
True to Plato’s method, his journey is told in the form of dialogues, mostly open-ended, as there never can be a definite yes or no when it comes to truth. By contrast, the chapters on the Antiquity are told in scientific prose with extensive excursions in Plato’s famous dialogues such as The Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus, Timaeus, Meno, Sophist, and Statesman, and other works like Letters and Laws.
Each historical chapter is followed by a fictional dialogue, the interchange serving to exemplify the commonalities between our times and those of Plato despite the many and varied differences with respect to technology, politics and social relations. In the background, always there, both past and present: the figure of Socrates and his relationship to Plato.
Ms. Goldstein thus draws attention to that what is essential about philosophy, namely exchange, which, by definition, requires a counterpart. Doing philosophy, even more so living philosophy, requires relating to another (person, thought, argument, point of view, perspective etc.), and ultimately this is why philosophy should not or will not go away.
Plato first visits Googleplex in California, where he engages in discussion with a female media escort and a male computer scientist, about the relationship between knowledge and information and the question whether it will ever be possible, and/or desirable, to rely on an algorithm for reaching ethical decisions. He then travels to New York, 92nd street, to debate with two women scientists and mothers about child rearing and the question what is an ideal form of education and how far a parent is justified in steering his or her children’s ambitions.
There follow a series of consultations with a woman columnist advising other women on matters of the heart; an appearance on cable news to discuss the good life; and finally, a visit at a neuroscience lab to have a brain picture taken whilst contemplating the mind-brain question with a female cognitive scientist and a male neuroscientist.
The historical chapters provide likewise opportunity to reflect about subjects that were relevant in the past and remain so today: the links between science and humanities; the construction and implications of virtue in public and private life; the role and limitations of (democratic) politics; the variations and significance of love; and the meaning of life and death.
To write a book that is scholarly and accessible, and at the same time entertaining, is a tremendous achievement. As demonstrated by this book, there is indeed a role for philosophy today, therefore it is all the more unfortunate that fewer lay persons, but also students, go back to the original texts – an issue not only for philosophy. Books like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex are of the rare type that contributes to the popularization of knowledge and makes appetite for more. After reading this book you will want to read Plato’s Dialogues – but might also question your views and knowledge about politics, psychology, science, history and ethics. Socrates would be amused, Plato content – mission accomplished.