This meetup we will discuss the lecture posted last week. I thought Rebecca Goldstein's talk about her recent book Plato at the Googleplex was excellent. She was trying to make two points: that philosophy pervades our culture---like it or not, know it or not. And that Platonic thought, in particular, still does. Much of what we now take for granted was once an open philosophical question. Plato was the master of the open question.
(You don't have to have read her book or attended the talk to get something from our discussion. I will briefly restate her main points. And you can get a lot from the links below.)
I realize Goldstein is essentially doing rearguard philosophical defence in the face of attacks from certain specialized quarters that want to dismiss philosophy and also from the ignorance or indifference of most who don't have a clue what philosophy is (and something not entirely their fault). I can only suggest that her strategy could use supplementation: philosophy should also go on the offensive sometimes. The fact that this doesn't happen often enough is partly due to the professionalization of philosophy. When your career can be compromised by how far you stick your neck out, your neck muscles won't get exercised. ("Clarity" and "precision" are, of course, the watchwords of analytic philosophy, but I fear they have been used too often to mask cowardice. Some of the biggest philosophical problems go unnoticed right in our face.)
The bottom line is that those intuitions, even the more knowledgeable among us are vulnerable to, should be under constant scrutiny---if not attack. There was a time when you had to know your religion to do your philosophy. Now it is science that has made itself indispensable. But the problem is that both religion and science are prone to assume things that cannot be settled. When they forget this, they become stagnant. A little pot stirring is what philosophical examination aspires to offer.
The darker side of this is that the reason much of that which we take for granted in our thinking of human experience generally got promoted to unquestioned intuition is also due to philosophers trumpeting their insights as final answers. So they, too, have to take responsibility.
The answers are moving targets.
We will not confine ourselves to discussing Goldstein's book specifically, but will include those larger points she was trying to make.
See last week's meetup description for context.
Even if you didn't attend the lecture or read her book yet (neither have I) you should be able to pick up enough for our discussion by listening this podcast of her interview with Alex Cohen:
Podcast from Mark Taper Forum
Interview with Rebecca Goldstein.
Presentation Notes 3/27/14
This evening’s topic is sparked by Rebecca Goldstein’s talk at Town Hall last Thursday. In her recent book, Plato at the Googleplex, Goldstein tries to do make the case that philosophy is relevant in the modern world to those who may doubt it or know little about what philosophy is.
Philosophy has a PR problem. Philosophers working in academia largely address each other and rarely trumpet their activities to the general public. Scientists have done better outreach. Goldstein is among those few philosophers who are making an effort to make the presence and significance of philosophy known to a wider public. Her book imagines Plato in various contemporary contexts addressing problems we recognize but from his two thousand year old perspective. The point is our problems are not that new, philosophers are still arguing about many of the same things Plato and other philosophers from the distant past were. Many open philosophical questions today were open then, too. In fact, it seems to be a hallmark of a philosophical question that it is open. If it gets closed, it thereby ceases to be a concern of philosophy (unless someone has the temerity to successfully re-open it). It probably falls into the purview of some other field. (Occasionally, a question just gets ignored or is seen as misguided, but this is usually a sign that it never really was a true philosophical question in the first place. True philosophical questions have a way of enduring or reappearing in new dress.)
But this static unsettledness of philosophical questions may suggest to some the idea that philosophy does not progress at all, at least by comparison to how it seems other fields of inquiry do. This idea that is doesn’t progress probably has fed the case for its dismissal and charges of irrelevance by some. Why not expend our intellectual energy in areas that show results, that add positively to our storehouse of knowledge, that get things done, that result in information we can use?
Two critics of philosophy:
Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and science writer, has argued that philosophy—at least philosophy of physics—is obsolete, that real theoretical physics has outstripped anything that philosophers can offer. We know so much more, thanks to physics, and have now progressed far beyond things philosophers speculating about what there is in the physical universe can hope to imagine. Useful thought about physics is not coming from philosophers. Krauss takes, as an example, the philosophical charge made against him that his claim that something can come from nothing is incoherent. Krauss responds that there is a difference in theoretical physics between “an empty space” and “no space.” Krauss is saying that before there was empty space to contain anything there was no space at all—a very different idea from empty space that is called for by physical theory and that apparently philosophers have trouble grasping. Space itself and its laws had to come into being and they couldn’t have come from something else. They came from nothing—not a “something” that, at least, we, in this universe, can understand as a something. The fact that philosophers can’t seem to grasp this reveals the pointlessness of philosophical speculation at this level.
Stanley Fish, a well known literary theorist and legal scholar (who some have noticed has certain deconstructivist affinities) takes a dim view of the dominant view among many moral philosophers that there are moral absolutes that need philosophical expertise to determine. Fish does not think that anything resembling a “moral absolute” of the sort that interests philosophers plays any role in day to day moral decisions, not even the decisions of most moral philosophers themselves. We appeal to common sense when faced with situations calling for moral judgment. Common sense is a set of rough and ready intuitions derived from our place in a community, a culture, a history and general experience unfettered by rigorous theory of any sort. There is no such thing as theory of common sense. Philosophical pronouncements about ultimate governing principles or absolute moral truths that found our judgments may be interesting but their relevance to moral practice is highly overrated. (He is not saying that such moral absolutes do nor exist. That would make him skeptic and engage him in a debate he thinks is irrelevant. He is saying that whether they do or don’t it makes no practical difference. Moral absolutes may exist but we have no assured access to them and so they cannot possibly guide us in the decisions that are forced on us.) Philosophy, as Fish puts it, does not travel. It is a homebody in academia.
Oddly, I can’t help but notice the irony, seeing the views of Krauss and Fish side by side: would the physicist’s notion of “no space” “travel” to even the workaday scientist going about his research, let alone the person on the street? Is theoretical physics at this level just as useless as philosophy—or not?
It’s an open question. A very philosophical one
See the links to the interview with Krauss and the article by Fish below in Gene's post.