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Philosophy’s Re-emerging Relevance: Plato at the Googleplex

“The best thinking is always playful.”

“Philosophy in America in the 1980s and ’90s seemed to be losing its way in dry, scholastic debates,” writes Clancy Martin in a review on Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s startling showcase about the enduring relevance of a classic philosopher.

“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.”  

Can philosophy claim the same accomplishments as science? Goldstein reveals how our most pressing questions aren’t better answered elsewhere. Today, the good-problem is our information deluge. We can track down facts in seconds. What do we do with all this accessible information? Someone like Steven Johnson advises that “chance favors the connected mind.” 

Channeling Plato, Goldstein asks us what it all means

The major claim is that human concerns remain essentially the same. Her application of Plato’s voice–often a fairly literal transcription–comes off startlingly well. The book is an amazing accomplishment.

She pays homage to that ancient Greek dramatic tradition by introducing Plato into several modern-day dialogues. Plato, on book tour, visits the Google headquarters, then later participates in a debate about child-rearing at New York’s 92nd Street Y. He also assists a modern-day advice columnist as she answers questions about fraught relationships and is interviewed on a cable news program. Cutesy they may sound, but compelling and authoritative is what they are.

In other sections she (1) analyzes love and retells the complicated relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades, (2) discusses the opposing claims of reason and intuition in our understanding of the world, and (3) provides various interpretations of Plato’s cave parable.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein at TED2012: Full Spectrum. February 27 - March 2, 2012. Long Beach, CA. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein at TED2012: Full Spectrum. February 27 – March 2, 2012. Long Beach, CA. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

But maybe what I like most about it is the way that it’s a serious approach to philosophy, while still technically being written as, well, as a novel. That’s right. A novel. Why not? It’s something that blurs genres, much like the oulipeans have been considering since 1960. If one wants a larger readership, it makes more sense to write a philosophy book today, so long as it’s super current, relevant, and engaging. Plato at the Googleplex delivers “now,” and timeless human wisdom through the Socratic method.

I’m not saying that this was Goldstein’s aim, nor that I even want it to be considered a “novel”–which could also be seen as tautological anyway–we crave categories, they can’t be escaped. I like the idea that it could because it seems like a door opening possibilities of what any piece of collected writing is something worth paying a little for and consuming. And besides isn’t the aim of philosophy very much related to the aim of serious literature (even when it does everything it possibly can to be considered non-serious)? What would be the point of opening up categories? Why, to understand how our pre-conceived notions keep us from understanding even fuller expressions of truth and self-understanding, of course.

As Plato says, “The best thinking is always playful.”

Plato would approve, even if he took a dim view on human nature. The more playful and tolerant Socrates was probably the reason he became a philosopher in the first place. He remains, as Goldstein points out, an elusive genius, whom we know surprisingly little about.

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