The machinery of moral progress: an interview with Rebecca Newberger Goldstein.

Author:Norman, Andy

2011 Humanist of the Year Rebecca Newberger Goldstein's latest book, Plato at the Googleplex, is audacious in conception, intellectually stimulating, and an altogether fascinating read. In it, Goldstein ushers the ancient philosopher into the twenty-first century, breathing new life into the man and his work. The book develops a unique interpretation of the project of Western philosophy and affords new insight into humanism's intellectual foundations. It will challenge and delight anyone who likes to think.

The Humanist: What inspired you to write Plato at the Googleplex? Is there something about our time that necessitates a fresh look at Plato?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: I'm concerned that many who speak in the name of reason are, unreasonably, selling reason short by failing to recognize the vital role of philosophy. By bringing Plato into the modern age and reinterpreting the discipline he invented, I aim to show the role philosophy has played, and continues to play, in the project of reason.

Philosophy shouldn't be seen as being in competition with science in describing the natural world. Rather, philosophy is focused on increasing our coherence, seeing the implications of beliefs and attitudes we hold, and reconciling them with one another. Philosophical dialogue unmasks the presumptions that hide our inconsistencies, including our moral inconsistencies, compelling us to expand the circle of moral concern. It's a real driver of moral progress, and we need to understand both why this is and how it works.

The Humanist: You imagine Plato questioning a scraggly Google employee about the Internet and then discussing parenting with two self-styled "experts" on raising exceptional children. Then, you have him tangle with a talk-radio blowhard about fame, money, and power. How did you arrive at these colorful characters and topics?

Goldstein: I wanted to explore how the questions Plato first posed continue to play out in our private and public concerns. Each of the scenarios I come up with is grounded in the preceding expository chapter in the book, trying to give the genesis of the questions in the times and the thinking of Plato. In Plato's day, too, at the very dawn of philosophy, there were plenty of people denying its usefulness, often claiming that religion or politics or some other form of accepted ideology answers the questions he was posing. As often as I could, without making the dialogues sound too contrived, I wove passages from Plato's own writings into our own contemporary discussions.

The Humanist: Why did you use the dialogue form to explore Plato's ideas?

Goldstein: Plato believed that philosophy is best pursued in living conversation; he wrote with misgivings, as he tells us in the Phaedrus. I believe he worried that philosophy itself had the potential to harden into ideology. And he was right to worry because over the course of its history, philosophy has, at various times, become ideological. It's a sad irony that Plato's ideas have been used to shore up ideologies of both the religious and secular varieties. But philosophy, to be true to itself, is the struggle against ideologies, both personal and collective. Because an accepted ideology becomes the very means by which one thinks, it tends to go unnoticed and so unexamined. And as we know, the unexamined life is not worth living. That's why lived dialogue--many different points of view clashing together...

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