Why do research in philosophy? Wasn’t everything that needed to be said, already said by Plato? Hasn’t the time since then been spent by science filling in the gaps, and firming up the arguments?
This is the critique of philosophy that Goldstein is arguing against in this readable book. She brings Plato back to life and introduces him to the modern day: discussing the need for Philosopher-Kings and whether they could be replaced by computer AI, debating how to raise excellent children, giving relationship advice as an agony aunt in a magazine, being interviewed on cable news about science and philosophy, and finally, in conversation with a neuroscientist about mind v brain while waiting for a brain scan. Interspersed with these lively dialogues (an ancient idea, borrowed from Plato himself), Goldstein writes more traditionally-styled chapters, discussing the historical Plato and Socrates, and the cultural context in which their ideas were developed.
This is a fascinating read. I actually found the traditional chapters more informative, as the others are played for culture-clash laughs as much as for exploring the philosophical issues. What I found most interesting was the discussions of that cultural context: the explanation of precisely why those Greeks, insecurely looking back at their own Golden Age, found Socrates to be such an annoying little gadfly, and were so worried about the way he was corrupting their youth, that they were willing to democratically vote to put him to death.
The writing is lovely throughout, and I learned a lot, about Plato, Socrates and ancient Greece, about philosophy, and about the reason for doing philosophy (that is, for arguing a subject into the ground). There is a lovely passage near the end explaing why it is so important that we argue out all points, and that no ideas should get a free pass:
Yet despite all this, I felt there was something lacking. In the very first paragraph of the Prologue, Goldstein says:
And yet, the majority of the book seems to be about what Plato did get right. The points Plato concedes in the dialogues seem minor compared to the overall point; the majority of the standard chapters are about Plato’s philosophical achievements, and relatively small improvements since.
I take it that the argument is that we still need new philosophy (so still need philosophy researchers), not just that we need to apply existing philosophical principles and approaches (that we only need philosophy teachers). So I don’t think this book achieves what it sets out to do: to demonstrate that philosophy research is relevant today (although I agree that it is). However, that doesn’t matter; what the book does deliver is very good: Plato in his historical context, and Plato coping with the modern world, at the Googleplex, and beyond.