Plato and the Relevance of Philosophy in the Contemporary World

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

and

Interview with Rebecca Goldstein.


Presentation Notes 3/27/14

Intro

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.


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  • Gene L

    Below I've post a question I asked Rebecca Goldstein and her response, which she has given me permission to post. Sorry for the complicated format, running up against the word limit.

    March 27, 2014

  • Gene L

    I think that it would be a good thing for our culture to have respect for the field of professional philosophy, to know that there is substantive work that's going on there and that more progress has been made over the centuries--progress that has made positive impacts on society at large (e.g. the European Enlightenment) --than is apparent. And to induce this respect we have to give the general public some idea of how philosophy is done and some sense of how there is truly expertise here. However, in speaking to the general public a compromise has to be struck between the technical precision that actually gets the work done and accessibility. The scientists who have written popular books have managed to strike this compromise. I'm thinking particularly of Brian Greene whom I consider one of the best of the science popularizers even though is field demands the highest technical expertise.

    March 27, 2014

    • Gene L

      Part 2 of Rebecca Goldstein's response:Now philosophers have it harder in some sense than scientists, because everybody--not just professional philosophers--think somewhat about certain philosophical problems and has firm opinions on them. This makes people very resistant to hearing that there are experts who think about such issues as faith vs reason or does morality require God better than they do. Nobody's sense of themselves is threatened by acknowledging that physicists know more than they do about the structure of space-time.but tell people that philosophers have experts views on epistemology and ethics and watch the hackles rise. You're right that Plato didn't have a superficial understanding of philosophy in mind--for philosophers. And he was right that most people can't be philosophers.

      March 27, 2014

    • Gene L

      Part 3 of Rebecca Goldstein's response: But he also wrote those dialogues for people outside his Academy. He had a general reading public. And he made those dialogues damn entertaining and also beautiful in order to ensure that those outside the Academy would read them. If you agree that it would enrich our culture and lead to some progress if people could learn to think with some increased philosophical sophistication--even if it's not going to turn them into professional philosophers--then maybe you'll agree with me that certain compromises aren't fatally compromising.

      March 27, 2014

  • Gene L

    Below is a question I asked Rebecca Goldstein via email. She has given me permission to post her response here.

    My question:
    Although Plato hasn't gone away, the questions he raises are now often phrased in a very specialized vocabulary which is not readily accessible. I have an analytic philosophy background myself, and find that it is VERY difficult to discuss analytic philosophy with any rigor with a general audience (who unlike a philosophy student, has not done preparatory study). Plato himself, I suspect, might have praised this specialization, if he
    thought philosophy was for a select few.

    March 27, 2014

    • Gene L

      Part 2 of my question:

      March 27, 2014

    • Gene L

      Stanley Fish's criticism, which you mention, is that "philosophy doesn't travel". So if Plato would say that philosophy should be done by experts (like orthodontics), how does this address Fish's criticism? In other words, how can philosophy be done rigorously, in the specialized manner of any contemporary pursuit, yet still
      travel? I would note that the natural and social sciences, although of course specialized, have been amenable, in some areas, to popularization. This may be true with some limited areas of philosophy (like philosophy of mind, trolley problems etc) but in my experience, a superficial understanding of
      philosophy may not be what Plato had in mind.

      March 27, 2014

  • Gene L

    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303775504579395281102610124

    The above review by the well-known philosopher Colin McGinn probably does the best job of actually describing the content of the book.

    March 27, 2014

  • Gene L

    Plato, as Goldstein portrays him, thought that philosophy was not for most people. It is something that should be done by what in the contemporary world Plato would have recognized as experts, by ability and long training. In Goldstein's book Plato visits Google and criticizes the idea of crowdsourcing knowledge. Why does one go to an expert orthodontist (Plato's example) to fix teeth? Shouldn't the same go for all knowledge? In particular, per Goldstein's Plato, mathematicians and mathematical physicists (in our world) would be the ones with the best chance of getting out of the cave.

    March 23, 2014

    • Gene L

      MM actually I thought your prior posting about looking for the podcast was directed at me but it looks like it was for Victor (Meetup sends me the posts automatically so I can't tell who it is for if you don't say). That is what my post was about. I posted some material I thought would be interesting for those attending the meetup,

      March 25, 2014

    • Gene L

      I should have said that I initially posted some material I thought would be interesting for those attending the meetup, based upon my having read the book, and some additional non-public information. We can discuss further if you are attending.

      March 25, 2014

  • Gene L

    Victor,

    It may be useful to frame the topic as one about the relevance of philosophy in the contemporary world, with Goldstein's book/talk as just one of the starting points - as many people may not have attended the talk or read the book. I did manage to read Goldstein's book recently. Goldstein attempts to answer the "philosophy jeerers", in particular, Lawrence Krauss and Stanley Fish.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/has-physics-made-philosophy-and-religion-obsolete/256203/

    http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/01/does-philosophy-matter/

    One argument (Krauss) is that philosophy is just ill-formed science and will eventually be replaced by science. The other (Fish) is that philosophy "doesn't travel" (e.g., no one cares about it outside of the academic world).

    The book is excellent (on literary merit), but I don't think she makes the case well.

    March 23, 2014

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