Anyone who’s done an undergraduate degree in philosophy will have been made to read the great philosophers of the past—the 16th and 17th-century rationalists and empiricists, certainly, probably some Kant, and in all likelihood Plato and Aristotle as well. For decades, particularly in the anglophone world, students were encouraged to treat such monuments of the western tradition as Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason not as relics to be venerated but rather as if they’d been published in the most recent issue of a scholarly journal such as Mind. It’s the arguments in these books that matter, so the thinking went, and if these turned out to be deficient when judged against the most rigorous contemporary standards, then so much the worse for Plato or Kant. That great swathes of the Republic or the first Critique survive this kind of treatment is presumably a sign of greatness.
This is one of the morals to be drawn from Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s new book, Plato at the Googleplex, in which she imagines Plato reappearing on a book tour in 21st-century America. Goldstein’s Plato is our contemporary, a thinker who still has much to teach us about knowledge, truth, goodness and beauty. Her book is also a defence of the discipline of philosophy itself against those she calls “philosophy-jeerers”—who think there are no interesting or substantive questions that can’t be answered by science. Goldstein, as I discovered when I met her in London last week, thinks not only that certain philosophical questions of the sort Plato asked still resonate, but also that the progress of science will continue to throw up new questions which philosophers are well-placed, if not to answer definitively, then at least to frame in a clarifying way.
JD: The subtitle of the book is “Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away”. So you believe that there are perennial philosophical questions?
RNG: Yes. And I believe that there are new philosophical questions, too. As science advances, it keeps throwing up more philosophical questions. My view of philosophy is as a mediator between the scientific image of us in the world and all the other intuitions that we have and by means of which we try to live coherent lives. And some of them we’ve had to give up because of science. That’s philosophy’s role. Take the foundations of quantum mechanics—that…