When I was in doctoral studies in philosophy, a Jesuit professor in another discipline asked me what my dissertation topic was. “Plato!” he chafed, “What could you possibly have to say about Plato that hasn’t already been said?” His remark provided me with ample motivation to finish my dissertation. From the standpoint of academic scholarship, Rebecca Goldstein doesn’t offer much that is new about Plato. Instead, in Plato at the Googleplex, she does something better: Goldstein brings Plato back to life.
By casting Plato as the main character in what she calls “dialogues out of time,” four conversations in settings familiar to us, she shows the enduring value of philosophical questioning. First, Plato goes to Google headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., (the Googleplex) where he learns about the Google algorithm and its technique of crowd sourcing from a software engineer. Plato concludes “Google is gathering information.... It’s not clear it’s gathering knowledge.” Next, Plato shares the stage with a famous psychotherapist and a tiger-mom celebrity author who debate the best way to raise children. Both invoke Plato’s Republic as support for their respective position. Then Plato appears on a cable news show called “The Real McCoy,” where a Jesuit-educated, “straight-talking” host bombastically declares his view of philosophy. It’s one of those we-don’t-have-anything-to-teach-so-we’ll-just-lecture-you-on-and-on-about-your-own-moral-superiority subjects. Finally, Plato visits a neuroscience lab on a university campus, where he and a philosophically trained lab assistant debate a famous neuroscientist whose findings about the brain take aim at free will. In a nice closing touch, the book ends as Plato is slid inside of the magnet in order to get a picture of his own brain (much as Socrates’ own life ended when he drank the cup of hemlock).
Along the way, Plato at the Googleplex offers many compelling insights about the field of philosophy. Progress in philosophy, for example, is not as apparent as it is in the sciences because philosophical progress is invisible: “…it is incorporated into our points of view.... We don’t see it, because we see with it.” Moreover, philosophy is a field that is assumed by everyone whether they admit it or not: “…all people have a stake in believing themselves masters of much of the domain of philosophy, most especially the questions of how life should be lived. To think oneself to be anything less than a master seems to diminish one’s very humanity.” The facile dichotomy between sciences and humanities must be challenged—without either of them you don’t have knowledge.
We also observe as Goldstein’s Plato displays his familiarity with massive open online courses, or MOOCs (this is how he learned neuroscience), but also critiques them since they do not honor the pedagogical paradox of the field of philosophy. Although it is the student (the putative receiver) who is transformed, the physical presence of the teacher is still essential precisely because “knowledge itself is non-transferable from teacher to student.” Plato also examines his own assumptions and willingly corrects his biases. In one dialogue a quick-witted book publicist named Cheryl teaches him to auto-correct his own sexist language. We see him serve as a guest columnist for a romantic advice column, discover his “type” on the Myers Briggs Personality Test (he’s an INTJ, the mastermind) and make his first Google query. In a very poignant scene, Plato’s search for “Socrates,” his friend and teacher whose death he still mourns, yields over 4,700,000 hits.
While Plato at the Googleplex offers four lively dialogues that engage contemporary debates and vividly illustrate the enduring relevance of philosophy, its shortcomings parallel those of academic philosophy in the undergraduate classroom. The four chapters of dialogues are interspersed with four additional lengthy chapters that are much too academic in tone.
Do you remember those moments in philosophy class when the discussion was just heating up and becoming relevant to your life and inexplicably the professor retreated behind the podium, picked up his yellowed lecture notes and droned on about arcane concepts and figures for the rest of the period? If you do, then this is how those four chapters may feel to you. The not-so-subtle message is this: philosophy can be fun; now eat your vegetables.
Second, Goldstein sometimes unnecessarily resorts to 50-cent words. She writes, for example, that Plato, as compared to Socrates, “was anything but epistemologically insouciant.” Finally, the interspersed chapters contain lengthy tangents that make them a tough grind. Here she draws on figures from the history of philosophy like Spinoza, Pascal, Nietzsche, Russell, Ryle and Harry Frankfurt. These sections contain Goldstein’s intellectual autobiography, and while these will be engaging to some readers (not least of all because she once won a MacArthur “genius” award), others will find them dull.
This reveals another problem that Plato at the Googleplex shares with some philosophical classrooms—professors who are genuises (and many who are not), sometimes teach as if this were all that mattered. Showy lectures allow them to avoid the nitty-gritty and vulnerability of actual philosophical dialogue.
In undergraduate Jesuit higher-education these days, we are watching as the prominence of philosophical classics and concepts gives way to more popular and user-friendly fields. At our universities, undergraduates, who used to take better than 15 hours of philosophy, now get by with a course or two. Goldstein’s book, then, is a welcome and refreshing reminder of the enduring importance of the art of philosophical questioning and of the discipline that practices it.