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Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away Hardcover – March 4, 2014
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*Starred Review* Plato lives! Brilliantly re-creating Plato’s philosophic dialogues, Goldstein transports the ancient Greek philosopher to the twenty-first-century headquarters of Google, where his probing voice engages three modern hosts in exploring what knowledge means in an age of computerized crowd sourcing. Further dialogues put Plato into conversation with an advice columnist fielding questions about love and sex, with a child psychologist arguing with an obsessive mother, with a television broadcaster trying to score political points, and with a neuroscientist certain he can resolve all intellectual questions with brain scans. Though Goldstein’s gifts as a novelist animate these dialogues, her scholarly erudition gives them substance, evident in the many citations from Plato’s writings seamlessly embedded in the conversational give-and-take. Goldstein’s scholarship also informs the expository essay that prefaces each dialogue. Readers soon realize that the philosophical project that Plato launched 2,500 years ago has evolved as modern thinkers such as Kant, Leibnitz, and Spinoza have redefined its focus and methods. Readers will also confront the doubts of twenty-first-century skeptics—particularly scientists—who dismiss philosophizing as an anachronistic word game. But Goldstein prepares readers to grapple with changes in philosophic thinking and—more important—to recognize the abiding value of an enterprise too important to leave to academic specialists. --Bryce Christensen
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“A witty, inventive, genre-bending work...Goldstein’s philosophical background serves her impressively in this reconsideration of Plato’s work, and her talent as a fiction writer animates her lively cast of characters....[Her] bright, ingenious philosophical romp makes Plato not only relevant to our times, but palpably alive.”
Bryce Christensen, Booklist (starred review)
“Plato lives! Brilliantly re-creating Plato’s philosophic dialogues, Goldstein transports the ancient Greek philosopher to the twenty-first-century headquarters of Google, where his probing voice engages three modern hosts in exploring what knowledge means in an age of computerized crowd sourcing....Though Goldstein’s gifts as a novelist animate these dialogues, her scholarly erudition gives them substance, evident in the many citations from Plato’s writings seamlessly embedded in the conversational give-and-take. Goldstein’s scholarship also informs the expository essay that prefaces each dialogue.”
Hilary Putnam, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities Emeritus, Harvard University
“Plato at the Googleplex is an important and amazing book. It is important for two reasons: because philosophy is important, and Rebecca Goldstein does a wonderful job of explaining why, and because Plato’s genius remains inspiring, and she also does a wonderful job of explaining why, without losing sight of the fact that Plato lived and thought in a very different time, or losing sight of the fact that he was the beginning, not the end, of philosophy. It is amazing because the book takes great risks—including the risk of including 21st century dialogues about Plato’s philosophy, and thereby risking comparison with the greatest writer of philosophical dialogues that ever lived—and succeeds, in part because she keeps the dialogues as light hearted in tone as they are serious in intent. As she did in Betraying Spinoza, Goldstein beautifully combines the skills of a distinguished novelist with breathtaking philosophical scholarship. I repeat, this book is important and amazing.”
Harry Frankfurt, author of On Bullshit
“Plato at the Googleplex is a wonderful book—enjoyably readable, full of stimulating insights and refreshing observations, unintimidatingly erudite, and salted with a gentle wit. It will reward both readers who are professional philosophers as well as amateurs who are interested in acquiring a deeper understanding of what serious philosophy is all about and why it continues to flourish.”
A.C. Grayling, author of The God Argument
“This could be one of the best ever demonstrations of the value and utility of philosophy. Richly insightful, beautifully written, it is at once introduction, exploration and application, revealing the fascination and significance of philosophical ideas and their relevance to life. Like the Plato who figures largely here, Goldstein has both literary and philosophical gifts of the highest order: the combination is superb.”
Colin McGinn, Wall Street Journal
“I have not done justice to the richness and detail of this invigorating book. The combination of historical scholarship, lively presentation, vernacular dialogue, and intellectual passion make it a unique achievement. Plato may have died over two thousand years ago, but he lives on, vibrantly, in these piquant pages.”
Liana Giorgi, New York Journal of Books
“Books like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex are of the rare type that contribute to the popularization of knowledge and create appetite for more. After reading this book you will . . . question your views and knowledge about politics, psychology, science, history, and ethics.”
“Rebecca Newberger Goldstein manages to be so funny and right.”
Robert C. Robinson, Library Journal
“It would have been easy for a lesser author to drop Plato in a number of modern-day situations, cook up some clever dialog, and land on the conclusion that the philosopher is as comfortable at Google headquarters as he was at the acropolis. Instead, MacArthur Fellow Goldstein imagines Plato and his interlocutors as complex characters. She shows that we’ve brought Plato forward with us into the boardroom and the classroom because of our dependence on the Socratic method for arriving at new knowledge and refining old wisdom. Alongside a few more serious essays, we find Plato debating the distinction between information and knowledge with a Google employee, taking a personality test at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, and debating a “hardline” host on cable news. Verdict: Goldstein is a serious scholar, and her careful citations, footnotes, and background research betray this fact. However, anyone with an interest in philosophy, Plato, or his legacy on Western culture will find this book to be an accessible and enjoyable read.”
“Novelist and philosopher Goldstein has an imaginative conceit: to bring Plato into the 21st century by having him go on an American book tour. Here, Plato hauls around a Google Chrome computer, generally finds modern technology “wondrous,” and takes the Meyer-Briggs personality inventory. In lieu of Socratic dialogues, he engages in contemporary American ones....These witty contemporary sections constitute about a quarter of the book, while the remainder consists of an in-depth study of Plato’s views and the historical and intellectual context of his times....[Goldstein] proves a clear and engaging writer, and though the academic parts of this book take precedence over the entertaining and accessible contemporary passages, overall, this is both an enjoyable and a serious way to (re)learn Plato’s ideas.”
David Auerbach, Slate
“Consequently Plato at the Googleplex merits comparison to two of the best books of its kind in recent years, Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, but Goldstein’s is, in my opinion, the best of the lot, not because it necessarily has more facts or science, but because it hits more deeply and broadly at the faults of our societal discourse and makes us (well, me at least) feel embarrassed over it.”
Barbara Hoffert’s MY PICK, Library Journal
“A MacArthur Fellow and award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction, Goldstein always delivers something exciting for inquiring minds. Here, she imagines Plato brought to life, hashing out challenges from Fox News on religion and morality, keeping Freudians and tiger moms from coming to blows, and wondering why crowd sourcing trumps experts. C'mon, philosophy is fun, and it sells. Think Daniel Dennett, Alain de, Botton, Jim Holt...”
Michael Dirda, Washington Post
“Highly original…. In Plato at the Googleplex, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein set out to showcase, in sometimes startling ways, the continuing relevance of a classic philosopher. But what’s remarkable is that she actually brings off this tour de force with both madcap brilliance and commanding authority.”
The Week, Book of the Week
“‘Every generation could use a Plato,’ said Clancy Martin in The Atlantic. If you doubt it, pick up Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s ‘ingenious, entertaining, and challenging new book.” In an attempt to challenge the widespread contemporary assumption that science is leading us ever closer to resolving all mysteries, the ever-inventive philosopher-novelist has imagined Plato on tour in America engaging members of today’s chattering class in friendly dialogues that expose the inadequacies of various accepted paths to wisdom….In the end, Plato can be a maddening figure because he never did get around to defining what living the good life would be. Much as he believed that careful thought might help us conduct ourselves more wisely, he remained skeptical even of his own capacity to discern the answer.”
“Into a weighty discussion of the Platonic world view Goldstein inserts fictional interludes that see Plato, Cromebook in hand, touring the Googleplex, a neuroscience lab and beyond.…this thought experiment usefully casts an eye on our turbocharged century. And it shows what survives of this classical titan: an ability to plumb the deep questions we still grapple with, from the nature of knowledge to morality.”
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Top customer reviews
The book includes several "cute" sections where Plato visits Google, helps an advice columnist advise people on problems with their love life, debates a cable news character, shares the stage with a Tiger mother character and a psychoanalyst to discuss child upbringing, and debates free will with a neuroscientist.
These sections are good, and amusing, and extensively use quotes from various dialogues -- most of Plato's speeches are not made up by Goldstein, but are taken from his writings. For example, much of what Plato says to the cable news character is actually taken from the Platonic dialogue called the Gorgias, in which the character Socrates addresses a character who is very similar to some modern cable news personalities. So this chapter actually summarizes and redoes the Gorgias dialogue, which is both enlightening and amusing.
However, most of the content of the book is not these fantasy sections. Most of the chapters of the book are instead a straightforward exposition by Goldstein of what Plato's philosophy is, how it is based in the culture of ancient Greece yet deviated significantly from that culture and modified it for the better, how it is distinct from Judeo-Christian and other religious approaches to the "meaning of life", and how it influenced subsequent philosophy in the Western world, and in particular the liberal philosophies that came out of the Enlightenment.
I believe that this book is perhaps one of the best introductions to Plato for modern readers that I have seen. As far as I can tell, based on my reading both of Plato and of secondary sources on Plato, Goldstein's book is a highly accurate account of Platonic philosophy. It is also a sympathetic account of Plato.
At the same time, Goldstein makes clear that in some respects the philosophies that have developed since Plato HAVE made progress beyond Plato -- which, as she points out, would please Plato very much.
A reader of this book will get a biographical account of Plato's life, as well as summaries of some of the key points of many Platonic dialogues, and extensive quotations from many of these dialogues. It's a good introduction that should inspire many readers to read the original Plato.
I think this book also makes clear why Platonic philosophy can also be considered a RELIGIOUS philosophy, in the sense that it is not just a theoretical exercise, but a call to live a certain way of life.
This book is quite a lot of fun. Goldstein sort of divides it into two parts.
She has expository chapters in which she discusses topics in Plato. These discuss various topics and include a lot of detail on Ancient Greece, other classical cultures, other philosophers and similar subjects.
• She makes an excellent argument against the view of many famous scientists that philosophy is dead, and that physics explains everything. She, of course, also point out that this view is not universally held by scientists.
• Not surprisingly, she likes to talk about how "modern" Plato's thought is and likes to posit how eagerly he would accept various modern ideas. Some of these I found a bit questionable although in fairness Goldstien does offer reasonably congent arguments for most of the things she says. That said, she would be better served by using other topics as illustrations.
• She does occasionally interject her atheistic world view in expository chapters in a rather awkward manner. Although this mindset is important enough to Goldstein for her to have written a book about it, she sometimes really reaches to fit it in here and often her arguments are not as relevant as she seems to think.
Where the book really shines are in the chapters containing hypothetical dialogues. Most of these are quite good, a couple don't meet the standards of the others, but are still definitely worth reading. At their peak, these really make the reader wish it were possible to participate in them. At the low end, the reader wishes that Goldstien had resisted the impulse toward satire, it is not one of her many strengths. However, even the weaker of these chapters have merit.
One area where the book could be improved, is in dealing of the relationship between platinum and Christianity. Excepting the fact that Goldstein is and about atheist, she still could and should have spent more time discussing this critical aspect. Although it does run counter to many of her premises, the same was true of Bertrand Russell who did much better job on this topic
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