Plato at the Googleplex: Philosophical solutions and their problems

Can a 2,400 year old thinker possibly have anything of interest to say to us in the modern world? Yes, says Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, philosopher at Columbia, Harvard and other institutions. Not only does the thinker in question, Plato, provide arguments and views on issues still troubling us today. His entire project, philosophy, is alive and kicking. Goldstein argues convincingly that modern science has not and cannot supplant philosophical reasoning as such. She shows why there are some philosophical problems which science alone cannot answer. Personally, I don’t need to be convinced about this, but there are clearly many scientists who believe philosophy in general is a waste of time.

Goldstein makes her case in the book Plato at the Googleplex. Why Philosophy won’t go away. It is a wonderful book, clear, lucid and a good read. Imagining that Plato came back from the dead, she explores how he would see our world, highlighted by a visit at Google’s headquarters. How would we in the modern world meet the challenge of Plato’s views and arguments? How would he respond to our views? The text of the book never gets in the way of the thinking. I was a bit apprehensive that the author would be tempted by the premise to go wild describing amusing culture clashes involving ancient Plato in modern times, but those fears turned out to be unfounded. However, I have one important issue with how Plato is portrayed.

It involves one aspect of Goldstein’s approach. She discusses the problem of how to judge the validity of philosophical views. She first describes the distinction between validity and context:

I was trained as a philosopher never to put philosophers and their ideas into historical contexts, since historical context has nothing to do with the validity of the philosopher’s position. I agree that assessing validity and contextualizing historically are two entirely distinct matters and not to be confused with one another.

However, Goldstein is not entirely happy simply discarding the aspect of how ideas are formed, and this is her alternative:

A distinction that the philosopher of science Hans Reichenbach introduced has always seemed a very useful one to me in keeping the two sets of questions – historical influences and assessments of validity – unconfused. Reichenbach distinguished between, on the one hand, ”the context of discovery” and, on the other, ”the context of justification.” When you ask why did some particular question occur to a scientist or philosopher for the first time, or why did this particular approach seem natural, then your questions concern the context of discovery. When you ask whether the argument the philosopher puts forth to answer that question is sound, or whether the evidence justifies the scientific theory proposed, then you’ve entered the context of justification.

This is fine as far as it goes. But there is another way of looking at this issue which alters the perspective.

My starting point is a theme in the later philosophy of Karl Popper, more precisely the epistemology (theory of knowledge) that he presents in one of the essays in the book Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach. In chapter 3, Epistemology Without a Knowing Subject, Popper offers the following schema to describe the process of obtaining knowledge:

P1 → TT → EE → P2

That is, we start from some problem P1, proceed to a tentative solution or tentative theory TT, which may be (partly or wholly) mistaken; in any case it will be subject to error-elimination, EE, which may consist of critical discussion or experimental tests; at any rate, new problems P2 arise from our own creative activity; and these new problems are not in general intentionally created by us, they emerge autonomously from the field of new relationships which we cannot help bringing into existence with every action, however little we intend to do so.

Notice that Popper here is concerned with knowledge in general, not specifically scientific or philosophical knowledge. The point is that there is no such thing as a theory (TT) which comes into existence wholly on its own. It is always preceded by some problem, P1 in Popper’s schema. Popper is very clear about this; in his view there is no such thing as pure observation or pure theory. There is always a preceding problem which determines which observations to make or consider relevant. The theory is a always a response to a problem.

It seems clear that the error elimination phase, EE, must contain an evaluation of whether the theory actually does solve the original problem P1, or whether it fails to do so, in part or wholly. One must also admit the possibility of criticizing the particular statement of the problem P1, or even if it is at all relevant.

In the traditional approach described by Goldstein, and also in the modified approach proposed by Reichenbach (see above), the focus in entirely on the theory TT. The problem it addresses is not discussed, or is simply accepted as-is. It is considered to be part of the context of discovery. The context of justification, which is the main task of philosophers in Reichenbach’s view, corresponds to the error elimination phase as described by Popper.

This is an interesting and, I believe, significant point. What it means is that the critical gaze directed at the theory TT is likely to bypass the problem P1 that it is intended to solve. The problem is viewed as part of the context of discovery. Hence we may fail to consider whether there are entirely different solutions to the problem, or whether the problem itself is even correctly understood.

Reading Goldstein’s description of Plato and his views, I cannot avoid comparing it with the quite different narrative offered by Karl Popper in his most famous book, The Open Society and Its Enemies, the first half of which is devoted to a strongly critical analysis of Plato’s political philosophy. Goldstein does not mention Popper’s book, so I do not know what her views on it are.

My main issue with Goldstein’s image of Plato is that it is strikingly anemic compared to the portrayal implicit in Popper’s account. In Goldstein’s telling, Plato has ”gravitas” and is sorrowful whenever Socrates, his beloved teacher, is mentioned. It is a brilliant but subdued man who walks around the Googleplex, discussing different topics with cogent arguments, but somehow without seeming to become really engaged. There is no fire in Goldstein’s Plato. Indeed, she states:

My Plato is an impassioned mathematician, a wary poet, an exacting ethicist, a reluctant political theorist.

One is left wondering why her Plato invested so much hard work in his writing and thinking, especially about political theory.

In contrast, in The Open Society, Popper applies the approach that is underpinned by his discussion much later in Objective Knowledge. Plato’s views and arguments are described in the context of the problems that he tried to solve. Popper critically discusses both Plato’s problem statements and the proposed solutions. Those problem statements are political since they concern Plato’s views on how Athenian society treated Socrates, among other issues. As a result, Plato’s urgency and deeply-felt need for explanations becomes much more believable. The mystery is no longer that Plato thought so much in such political terms, but rather that he could think it through so carefully and logically.

This way of telling the story infuses much more life into the figure of Plato, in my opinion. This is so much more remarkable since Popper does not have the goal of portraying Plato as a person, which is what Goldstein attempts to, at least in part. So although Popper does not really try very hard, his Plato is more believable as the author of the Republic and all those other remarkable texts than is Goldstein’s Plato.

This also throws a light on why Goldstein seems to downplay Plato’s reactionary politics. If context is left out of the picture, then his views can be presented in more neutral language, as pure ethics, and the discussion can become more academic. The focus on the context of justification defuses the politics of Plato.

My point is not that Plato was a reactionary from our perspective, but rather that he was a reactionary also from the perspective of his own time. This in itself does not invalidate the arguments he makes, but it does raise the issue of whether the problems he wanted to solve really were general to, and commonly accepted in, Athenian society. Or, for that matter, in our society. Furthermore, we cannot take for granted that his stance necessarily was representative of his time. There were other thinkers in Greek philosophy and politics before and during his time, and some of his arguments are clearly aimed at their views. To downplay those conflicts renders Plato’s philosophy a disservice by making it less understandable.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Plato at the Googleplex. Why Philosophy won’t go away. Atlantic Books, 2014, ISBN 978-1-178239-557-7.

Karl R. Popper: Objective Knowledge. An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford University Press, 1972, 1979, ISBN 978-0198750246.

Karl Popper: The Open Society and Its Enemies. Volume 1. The Spell of Plato. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1945, 1974, ISBN 0-7100-4625-1.

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