Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away by Rebecca Goldstein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I finally went with a 2-star rating for this book. I will note that Goldstein did stimulate my thought at times, albeit half the time to take notes on how she was wrong, and did get me to modify somewhat the harsh take I’ve had on Socrates since reading Izzy Stone, but, the book is still not that good.
First, a couple of overarching issues.
I am discomfited by a professional philosopher diving into the tank of commercial toutery. Plato can’t just have a laptop, he has to have a Chromebook. He can’t just like the Internet, he has to like Google for searches rather than using a generic term for Internet search. He has to like Google’s cloud-based services. He has to like Google so much that, per one chapter that gives the book its title, he does indeed visit Google’s Googleplex, where much of the chapter’s dialogue is taken up by a Google PR flak.
Frankly, it made me want to vomit. Strangely, even among “negative” reviewers, I’m seemingly the first to hit that much on this issue.
The second overarching issue, is despite all the puffery on the blurbs and on some five-star reviews, Goldstein is not that good of a writer in my opinion. The book lacks some coherence, including exactly how she’s trying to make Plato relevant for today and why. Plus, some specific writing tricks do not float my boat.
On page 192, she says in a footnote: “I’m not sure whether Plato is just managing Munitz here or is really implying that she’s guardian material.” Bulls***. Don’t go Stanley Fish on me. You know full well what your conscious intention was with the passage you footnoted.
I'm skipping around a bit, in part to get more feel for the book, and in part because it hasn't floated my boat that much so far, despite all the advance touts it's gotten.
First, Goldstein, while noting Whitehead's observation about all later philosophy being but footnotes to Plato and Aristotle, then noting many modern philosophers disagree, doesn't explain why she, essentially, comes down on the side of Whitehead. And, as a philosopher, she knows that for a philosopher not to “argumentatively” justify one’s decision or stance on something like this is …. Unphilosophical!
Second, some of her specific stances related to Platonism are ones that are also contentious. The idea that there’s no single character in Plato’s dialogues that truly represents him? I know that’s nowhere unanimous. One need not believe that Socrates is Plato’s sole voice to nonetheless believe that he is his primary one, and certainly so in his early and middle dialogues.
Third, she buys wholeheartedly and blindly into Plato’s description of who the Sophists were. Plenty a critic of this position has noted that the elitists like Socrates, and arguably, Plato, disliked the Sophists not because they proposed to teach “sophistry” in its modern English terms, but because they proposed to, relatively inexpensively, teach the basics of rhetorical tools that would help level the social and legal playing field between the rich and the non-rich.
Related to that, even if Plato's description of Socrates isn't the be-all and end-all of who Socrates was, she certainly seems to take at face value Plato's presentation of Socrates as a straight shooter, never engaging in sophistry himself. Nor does she ever entertain the idea that, if Plato is a mouthpiece or tool of Socrates at times, in turn, his "opponents" are just straw men for positions they never actually held.
Fourth, she’s not proven at best, possibly wrong at worse, on the background of “Ivriim,” which may be the root the Hebrew word for “Hebrew.” Yes, it does mean “pass over,” or “pass through,” in its verbal root, but, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Hebrews applied it to themselves as “over the Jordan.” First, no ancient people are likely to define themselves this way, in terms of another culture or nation’s geographic point of view. Nor are the Jews likely to have said this about themselves because their mythical ancestor came from Transjordan and beyond. And, her interpretation starts with the noun form.
Better understandings of the root of this word are that as people “passing through,” it can mean immigrants, without geographic reference. Again, though, would a people likely refer to themselves that way? Interestingly, the verb is used in Genesis 15, where the torches pass between the cuts of meat during the Abrahamic covenant ceremony. That is one possible alternative etymology.
Another? “Hebrews” may well instead be a patronymic from alleged ancestor Eber (same consonantal Hebrew). And, the older attempts to connect them to the Egyptian “Hapiru,” while left by the wayside today, may not be totally dead.
Anyway, the fact that Goldstein, in a book about Plato, feels the need not just to talk about “Hebrews,” but the Hebrew etymology more than once, and possibly getting it wrong each and every time, is also disconcerting.
That’s from the first chapter.
On talking about the Republic, she made me realize that, of course, Plato’s ideas for youth education founder on Piaget’s stages of development. Pre-adolescents wouldn’t have been ready for his program. Surely, somebody else has mentioned that somewhere. But, she doesn’t.
I just realized that Plato's Allegory of the Cave has two holes in it as an analogy. First, if all we see our shadows, each of us has to be in our own cave; we can't be in one common cave because, of course, other people have to be shadows, too. Of course, to write it that way would wreck some of its force. Second, Plato talks about one person being freed then compelled to re-see things. Plato doesn't mention a personal agent, but the language sure implies one. And, of course, no other person can compel new knowledge. Even if an agent is not intended, the passivity of the allegory, the "being freed," is just wrong.
Also, one need not agree with Izzy Stone’s attributing Socrates’ death entirely to legitimate politics to nonetheless say that it was part of it.
What I got from all of this is a Goldstein who largely believes in the largely idealized picture of Socrates that Plato has handed us.
So, I guess she stimulated my mind to reject the Whitehead idea that the rest of philosophy is but footnotes to Plato and Aristotle.
Besides the Googleplex chapter, one other one rings very false. That’s the one about Plato appearing on a would-be Fox News with an ersatz Bill O’Reilly.
It all adds up to the fact that she is NOT a skilled writer, period and end of story, despite the fluffy touts from A.C. Grayling and many another. She needed an editor with a good understanding of both philosophy and classics, and a firm and heavy hand, and got none. (Sic semper the decline of the modern book industry.)
Finally, from all this, no matter my interest in philosophy, I won’t be reading another book of hers.
I'm not sure which bothers me most — the commercialism itself, the commercialism without warrant (philosophical or otherwise), the failure to defend the modern relevance of Plato before jumping in to chapters, or the failure to justify her interpretation of Plato.
In any case, it's a failure. There's also, in a Gertrude Stein sense, no "there" there. There's not a lot of unification between chapters.
Update: Now I know more of why it's bad: Goldstein is Steve Pinker's wife.
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