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5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophizing with Plato and with Rebecca Goldstein, February 1, 2014
This review is from: Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away (Hardcover)
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Philosophy is the love of wisdom. In her new book, "Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away" (2014) Rebecca Goldstein examines the continuous nature of philosophical questioning through a partly expository partly fictional presentation of the thought of the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. The twentieth century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead observed that all Western philosophy basically constitutes a series of "footnotes to Plato".

Rebecca Goldstein serves as both author and guide in this latest "footnote to Plato". One can only be humbled by her range of learning and her literary skill. Goldstein, a MacArthur Fellow, has written philosophical studies, including a book about Spinoza, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity (Jewish Encounters) and philosophical novels, most recently "36 Arguments for the Existence of God". 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Vintage Contemporaries) She combines philosophy, fiction, and much else in this book. It is rare that a thinker can write with such scholarship and insight on diverse, difficult subjects such as ancient philosophy and history, popular culture, Spinoza, and the mathematical philosopher Kurt Godel. Goldstein does so with a breathtaking ease.

Goldstein aims to show how philosophy, in the face of its many detractors, remains of critical importance. There are many ways of approaching the question of the continued value of philosophy, but Goldstein here does so almost exclusively through a detailed consideration of Plato. She argues that Plato, who wrote over 2400 years ago did not have the best or final answers to philosophical questions. She finds Plato important in raising and formulating questions, showing their significance, pointing out directions, and in being open to differing points of view and to changing his mind. Broadly speaking, Goldstein's Plato asks readers and students to consider what makes life important and worth living. Goldstein argues that Plato's approach to this question led to the approach of modern secularism as opposed, most obviously, to the nearly contemporaneous writings of the Hebrew prophets, as well as to the teachings of the Buddha, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism. Again in a broad sense, Goldstein follows Plato in his emphasis on secularism, mathematics,science, and on thinking in a humanistic way about the value of human life.

There are books and jokes that begin with the line "Plato walks into a bar and ... " which Goldstein trades on to an extent. There is no mistaking, however, the serious, erudite character of this book. The book alternates two kinds of discussions. In the first, Goldstein writes as a philosopher discussing Plato's teachings and his character, in so far as they can be determined, his literary works, his relationship with Socrates. Her discussion is historically informed. When I first studied Plato in the 1960s, little attention was given to putting Plato's writings in the context of ancient Greek history. Philosophical study at the time tended to be markedly ahistorical. It focused almost exclusively on setting out and analyzing arguments. Goldstein, to the contrary, develops her Plato in the context of the Homeric poems, the Persian wars, the rise of Athens, and the war with Sparta. She tries to show how key Platonic concepts, such as that indicated by the difficult word "arete" changed in Plato's development of them from their historic background in Greek thought. Her expositions of Plato manage to be passionate, eloquent, and learned at once. She offers copious footnotes not only to Plato's texts but to a vast range of modern scholarship.

These expository chapters each alternate with a fictitious scene. Plato is brought to life in our contemporary 21st century, speaks English, and engages in discussion with a variety of characters. Instead of walking into a bar, Plato, when the reader first meets him in person walks into the Googleplex where he meets, becomes fascinated with, and masters the use of the Internet. He is at the Googleplex for a book signing. In the process, he has a discussion with a hostess, who questions the value of "elitist" philosophy and a young man. In subsequent chapters, Plato discusses education and child-rearing with a psychotherapist and warrior mom. He assists an Ann Landers-type columnist in responding to letters for help with love problems. He appears on a cable tv news program with an obnoxiously hostile host. Finally Plato has a discussion about the mind and body with a neuroscientist and his young assistant before submitting to a scanning of his brain.

These fictional present-day dialogues are carried out with panache and with a great deal of laugh-aloud humor. The discussions are tough and colloquial and display a surprisingly sure pulse on contemporary habits. Plato receives a convincing portrayal as Goldstein uses and refers to his own dialogues wherever possible. The discussions sometimes get bogged down. But these chapters enhance Goldstein's expository sections. She succeeds in her goal of showing the questions Plato raised about reality, ethics, knowledge, and the nature of a meaningful human life remain embedded in contemporary life and are ignored or brushed aside with peril.

This book touched me deeply. As a philosophy major in the 1960s, I became enamored of Plato. I studied classical Greek with the intent of understanding him better and reading his works in the original. I pursued a different career and returned often to Plato and to other philosophy, including Spinoza. Goldstein draws many parallels between Plato and Spinoza and has also written about him. In addition to the philosophical discussions, the book brought back memories about why I began to love Plato and philosophy and continue to study.

For all its literary flourishes in the fictional sections, this book is slow and difficult, both in the text and in the detailed notes which are essential for understanding. The readers of this book will likely be those who are already committted to the value of the philosophic endeavor. Such readers, and those new to philosophy but willing to engage with Plato and Goldstein, will find this book inspiring. It made me want to go back and reread Plato again. Books tend to find their own proper readers.

Robin Friedman
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Showing 1-9 of 9 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 2, 2014 3:11:30 PM PST
H. Schneider says:
I have an anti-platonic prejudice from Popper, from his Open Society and its Enemies. Need to check up on that, if I manage to. H

Posted on Feb 2, 2014 3:17:45 PM PST
Aceto says:
Slow and difficult is the way. A bit of flummery along the way does no harm. Sounds like a book I want, from your careful review.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 4, 2014 8:08:35 AM PST
Plato remains controversial after lo these many years, and there are many ways of understanding him.

Posted on Mar 19, 2014 2:13:50 PM PDT
MSY says:
An erudite and interesting review but need to correct "compliment."

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 21, 2014 6:15:42 AM PDT
Thank you for your kind and constructive comment.

Posted on Mar 24, 2014 6:39:43 PM PDT
Your writing is so clear and informative, and your description of the book gives me a very good sense of whether I want to read it. (And I do.) Thanks for putting your time and thought into this.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 24, 2014 7:45:20 PM PDT
Thank you. I am looking forward to your review of the book.

Posted on Mar 30, 2014 12:34:46 PM PDT
this is an excellent review, by someone familiar with the territory, and able to identify strengths and weaknesses. Well done review!

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 31, 2014 6:11:06 AM PDT
Thank you for your kind comment.
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Robin Friedman

Location: Washington, D.C. United States

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