Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A New Classic Philosophy of Philosophy

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away

Modern Euro-Americans can’t venture outdoors or watch television without encountering some concept which began with Plato. Politics? Plato wrote entire books on public service and leadership. Art? Plato couldn’t restrain himself from voicing opinions on artists’ responsibilities and role. Science? Okay, he didn’t invent experimental technique, but he pioneered ideas in physical cosmology. Yet moderns like us are monumentally resistant to Plato, at least directly. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein wonders why.

Philosophy, as we understand the word, begins with one fundamental question: “Why?” Why do we consider certain ideas obvious and true, rather than their opposite? Why do we do our jobs specific ways? Why do we spend our time on such-and-such? Plato’s mentor, the semi-legendary Socrates, wandered ancient Athens, asking politicians and scholars and tradesman questions. Whatever somebody considered self-evident, whatever certainties left citizens numb, Socrates punctured with simple dialog.

Notwithstanding his foundational position, Plato did not invent philosophy. The process began with nigh-forgotten Ionian scholars ruminating about what we’d now call science. Their speculative cosmology, roughly equal to seven-day creationism, makes Thales and Anaximander mere relics. Plato shifted philosophy’s focus off physical science and onto human spirits. He initiated questions about education, politics, and morals that pay off daily in modern schools, elections, and daily life.

Despite this persistence, not everyone agrees Plato remains relevant. Goldstein quotes people she calls “philosophy jeerers” on why changing times have (putatively) rendered conventional philosophy obsolete. But using their own words, she demonstrates the ultimate circularity of their arguments, and how attempts to discredit classical philosophy are ultimately philosophical. She concedes that not everything Plato records remains relevant. But we can only understand that by performing legitimate Platonic philosophy.

Goldstein, a humanist thinker who has written award-winning popular books on Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza, brings exhaustive familiarity with philosophic history to her inquiries. She can correlate Enlightenment-era innovations, such as individual rights, which we consider commonplace, with Plato’s thoughts. The correspondence may surprise us. Plato had remarkably progressive ideas about, say, women’s rights and governance. But he didn’t believe we existed individually; “rights” may have scandalized him thoroughly.

These discrepancies are themselves fascinating. Goldstein imagines Plato wandering modern American settings, encountering public thinkers and social pathfinders, testing contemporary ideas against pure reason. Platonic philosophy allows us wide latitude, Goldstein asserts. Unlike Enlightenment thinkers, Plato brings few presuppositions to his thought. He has principles, but remarkably few ironclad demands. For us to test ideas like Plato, we need only ask one important question: can this idea withstand its opposite?

Plato’s works make for very difficult reading. Even very dedicated audiences struggle with his frequent, densely mystical asides. I personally enjoyed Meno, but found Phaedrus almost unreadable. That makes authors like Goldstein profoundly valuable, translating Plato’s millennia-old ruminations into modern English. Because if Goldstein’s right, and Plato remains relevant to modern life, diverse audiences need a contemporary Virgil to guide us through the dense thicket of his prose.

Some reviewers will certainly misunderstand Goldstein’s intentions. One would-be critic anchored his entire review on one line, around the one-third mark, where Goldstein’s viewpoint character disparages Amazon reviewers (don’t look at me that way). But Goldstein isn’t saying this. Like Plato, Goldstein uses Straw Man arguers who are always wrong. Goldstein, like Plato, requires readers to pay attention, separating intermediate arguments from the final take-home lesson.

Goldstein’s oblique loyalties, combined with her extremely dense style, often make slow, effortful reading. Her chapters average over forty pages apiece, though some are much, much longer, and without natural integrated pause points, her polysyllabic prose is monolithically imposing. This ain’t beach reading, folks. Schedule generous sit-down time before reading, because Goldstein, like Plato, won’t let you consume her ideas with only half a brain.

Worse, Goldstein forbids readers to reach after pat answers. Humans often seek to resolve questions neatly, excluding ambiguity and doubt. But Goldstein, like Plato, often ends debates with key issues still unresolved. We’re more confused, not less, though perhaps confused in more sophisticated, productive ways. This can feel painful; but Goldstein notes early: “Philosophical thinking that doesn’t do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all.”

Readers willing to honor Goldstein’s stipulations will find, here, an engaging précis of Platonic thought, and a persuasive justification why Plato continue to matter. Her two-pronged concept lets us both understand Plato’s techniques, while also witnessing the mental processes in action. Because Plato’s questions on topics like virtue, education, and good governance remain alive today, Goldstein gives modern readers new opportunities to join this ancient debate.

On a similar theme:
Thinking About Thinking is Harder Than You Think

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