The Enduring Value of Philosophy

Ronald A. Lindsay

Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014, ISBN 978-0307378194), 480 pp. Hardcover, $18.26. Also available in paperback, on Kindle, as an audio CD, and as an Audible book.

Philosophy has been declared worthless and pointless ever since, well, since there were philosophers—individuals who asked questions about the nature of reality, our ability to know reality, how and why we find value and significance in things, and the extent and nature of our obligations to others and ourselves. Many reasons have been given for the dismissal of philosophy, including the alleged idleness of its speculations, for which most people don’t (or say they don’t) have the time to consider, to the more contemporary view that to the extent philosophy once served a purpose, it has long since been surpassed by science. Whereas philosophy groped for answers with the limited resources available to it—basically critical thinking mixed with inexact observations—the scientific method combined with our armamentarium of precise instruments allows us to dispense with philosophy. We now understand the universe and ourselves much better through science than we ever did—or could—through philosophy.

In Plato at the Googleplex, a book remarkable on many different levels, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has delivered a powerful argument for the continuing relevance of philosophy. One remarkable feature of the book is that it blends fact and fiction, and in doing so boldly uses a dramatic technique fraught with literary peril. As indicated by the book’s title, Goldstein’s exposition of philosophy focuses on the thought of Plato. Given his prominence, this is not an illogical choice, but one’s first thought might be: Aren’t Plato and his views just a wee bit dated? Will focusing on Plato not reinforce the perceptions of many that there is no progress in philosophy? But Goldstein meets that concern directly by effectively reanimating Plato: in the fictional sections of the book, she introduces Plato as a character in several contemporary settings where Plato can discuss his views with various persons exhibiting modern-day attitudes. He’s at the Googleplex discussing skepticism toward ethical issues and considering whether “crowdsourcing” is the proper way to answer ethical quandaries; he becomes involved in a panel discussion on educational methods; he assists in providing advice to the lovelorn; he’s interviewed (or lectured at) on a cable talk-show that bears a striking resemblance to one that might be found on Fox News; and he has a vigorous exchange with a neurologist who’s convinced that studying the brain will give us all the answers to the questions worth asking.

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