Interview with Rebecca Goldstein on Plato at the Googleplex, philosophy for the public, and everything

OB: As a fan of philosophy I’ve been delighted to see the rave reviews for Plato at the Googleplex in major media – the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Slate, NPR, The Atlantic. This has to be a good thing: a sign that philosophy can be made interesting to the reading public, and itself a step to getting more people interested in philosophy. It’s all the more gratifying because part of your point, as I understand it, is to show readers that philosophy has value and has not been rendered superfluous by science. Can you tell us a little about why philosophy does indeed have value?

RG: I’ve been delighted to see the rave reviews, too.

Okay, why is philosophy of value?  The short answer is that it addresses, in a systematic and progress-making way, questions of deep concern to everyone.  There are of course, technical, narrow philosophical questions of concern to only professional philosophers, and I don’t mean to disparage them, since I’ve spent a good part of my life on them. But what I’m speaking about here are problems that just about all of us confront in virtue of our being thinking humans: What—if anything— are our lives about?  Even if they’re not really about anything—goodbye to the old monotheistic usurpation of this question—can we find answers that will allow us to maximize our own flourishing and—of equal if not greater importance—reasons to care about the flourishing of others?  (Caring about ourselves comes kind of naturally to us.) Philosophy has been addressing such questions and making significant, if invisible, progress with them almost ever since there’s been philosophy.

Elaboration on short answer: Philosophy emerged in the ancient Greek world contemporaneously (800-200 BCE) with the emergence of the major religious and spiritual traditions that have survived into our day: Confucianism, Daoism, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, and the Abrahamic religion.  Confucius, the Buddha, Ezekiel, and Pythagoras were all contemporaries of each other. Obviously there was some profound existential self-questioning going on during this period, in all the parts of the world that had attained a certain degree of political organization and stability (all the areas involved in this normative ferment minted coins, as the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber points out in his Debt: The First 5,000 Years) and thus met basic survival needs (all the areas involved had a high energy-consumption).  So it seems that once basic survival wasn’t continuously occupying the mind, questions about putting our survival to some kind of meaningful purpose began to emerge. I like to put these questions in terms of “mattering.”  Do we matter? Is there something we have to do or be in order to achieve mattering, or is mattering something that we’re born into?

Greek philosophy didn’t address these questions in religious/spiritual terms, but rather in human, secular terms, applying reason to problems of mattering.  And systematically applying reason as opposed to appealing to dogma, so-called revelation, and authority, it’s the only one of the normative systems that emerged during that ancient age to have actually made progress.  I have, in the imaginary dialogues I scatter throughout the book,, Plato being amazed by how far he’s been left behind—not just scientifically and technologically, but philosophically, ethically and politically—by the field that he helped create.

Because of the failure of religion to offer satisfying answers to an increasing number of people, it’s time for philosophy to address forcefully these questions that everybody is wondering about.  Our society is falling back increasingly on rampant consumerism and self-promoting social media as a way for people to feel that their lives matter—self-centered means of numbing the questions of mattering. And given the self-centeredness of the kind of conclusions we’re gravitating toward, it’s no wonder that issues of social justice are not at the center of our attention. Our culture has relapsed back into the kind of self-aggrandizing, self-glorifying answers that the Athenians had presumed, which had Socrates railing against them until he got so annoying that they killed him.

OB: It’s a truism of sorts that people do philosophy all the time, it’s just that they do it badly. Would you say that’s one of the themes of Plato at the Googleplex? Are Roy McCoy and Dr. David Shoket and the rest doing philosophy but doing it badly? Or are they doing something entirely different, which they would do better if they had some education in philosophy?

RG: If forced to choose, I’d say they’re not even doing philosophy badly, but rather seeking to foreclose the very possibility of doing philosophy.  Of course, they put forth arguments—bad arguments—for this foreclosing, and one might want to count these bad arguments against the very possibility of philosophy as engaging in philosophy—really bad philosophy, because internally incoherent: using philosophical arguments to argue for the futility of all philosophical arguments.  My character Roy McCoy would foreclose philosophy by appealing to religion as answering all the questions, while my character Dr. Shoket, would foreclose philosophy by appealing to science as answering all the questions. Both are tone-deaf to the (bad) philosophy they’re putting forth.

OB: It’s a good moment for public education via mass media, with Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s remake of Cosmos airing. I think it’s quite apt that your book is making a stir at the same time. But Carl Sagan was frowned on and even sneered at for doing so much public outreach. It’s well known that academics tend to think popularization is infra dig. Is that still true? Do you ever get the hairy eyeball for writing novels and accessible books about philosophy?

RG: How do I even begin to tell that sad story? I think it’s particularly egregious when it’s philosophers who are doing the sneering.  Almost everybody thinks about philosophy, even if they don’t realize it’s philosophy and even if they have no sense of the difficulty of the problems, the array of possible answers.  If philosophers have special expertise here, if through their natural talents and their training, they can shed some light on the questions that perplex people not trained as they are, then they damn well ought to do it.   Yes, we analytic philosophers love precision, and yes the best philosophical thinking demands a precision that lost on—that loses—most non-philosophers.  But I think that a certain compromise can and should be struck between absolute precision and general accessibility.  Scientists who write for popular audiences have brilliantly struck such compromises..  Why can’t philosophers? Well, I think one reason is that philosophers are more insecure to speak accessibly because non-philosophers are skeptical that philosophers have any special expertise.  After all, all people—not just philosophers—have attitudes and points of view on various philosophical questions, and they rather resent being told that there are professionals who can think about these things better.  So philosophers feel a little more cautious about letting down their technical guard lest the general public doesn’t recognize their special credentials.  It’s the fact that philosophy is of general interest that, paradoxically, keeps philosophers from wanting to speak in a way that’s accessible to the general public.

OB: I must say, I see the MacArthur grant as a glorious vindication of doing the kind of thing you do; of doing academic philosophy and literary writing. Has it made it easier for you to combine things any old way you want to?

RG: The MacArthur grant came to me when I was in career-despair, feeling both spurned by the community of philosophers for being a novelist and cold-shouldered by the literary community for being a philosopher. I was actively considering a third career, one which would have involved educating young children.  The MacArthur gave me encouragement to continue with my experiments in writing about philosophy in non-academic ways. I’ve  always felt that playfulness is essential to good thinking, and so that’s always been involved in my experiments, the non-fiction and the fiction.  I have my Plato talk a great deal about the importance of play in thinking.

OB: What about Plato himself? Would he be pleased to see A C Grayling on the Colbert Report? Or would he think it was far too vulgar to mix up philosophy and television. In the Protagoras, Socrates seems down on the very idea of trying to teach arête, and perhaps anything else that’s not purely how-to. Do you think Plato loaded the dice against the sophists? Or was he making a good point about the marketing of canned wisdom?

RG: I’m going to answer your question first for Socrates and then for Plato. Socrates plied his trade in the agora, the Athenian marketplace, and he was a sly old fox, willing to use all kinds of tricks to try and wake his fellow Athenians out of their habitual ways of thinking and acting.  Now Plato went and created the Academy, separating himself from the non-philosophical populace.   Perhaps, after the trial and execution of Socrates, carried out by the restored Athenian democracy, he just threw up his hands at trying to figure out ways of speaking to the general population. But maybe not.  After all, he created the dialogues, which were read by the general population. The dialogues are great art and they’re often extremely entertaining, even hilarious—to us, who live 2400 years later. How much more  entertaining they must have been to his contemporaries, who got all the in-jokes, and knew about the real-life characters he peoples his dialogues with.  And it was Plato who gives us, in the dialogues, that sly old fox Socrates.

OB: I encounter a lot of people who have an annoyingly philistine attitude to philosophy, claiming that it’s just a lot of useless pretentious verbiage. I urge various titles on them in hopes they will learn better. Do you have any favorites for this purpose?

RG: Ah, Ophelia, you and I probably encounter many of the same people.  I would say Spinoza’s Ethics, though the book is almost impenetrable without a good background or teacher.  But that book probably did more to bring about the European Enlightenment than any other single work, as beautifully demonstrated by Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment, which I also enthusiastically recommend to those who think philosophy does nothing.

Here is the thing about philosophical progress: it changes what we take to be “intuitively” obvious, and this change covers up the tracks of the laborious arguments that preceded the changes.  We don’t see these changes, because we see with them.

OB: Even worse than that, I think, are the people who think Sam Harris wrote a revolutionary book on moral philosophy, and one that has made all other books on moral philosophy pointless. Do you ever encounter such people, and if so, what do you say to show them their error?

RG: No, I’ve never encountered such people. But I would say to anybody who thinks that all the problems in philosophy can be translated into empirically verifiable answers—whether it be a Lawrence Krauss thinking that physics is rendering philosophy obsolete or a Sam Harris thinking that neuroscience is rendering moral philosophy obsolete—that it takes an awful lot of philosophy—philosophy of science in the first case, moral philosophy in the second—even to demonstrate the relevance of these empirical sciences.

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