Exploring the relevance of philosophy with “Plato at the Googleplex”

Why doesn’t philosophy progress?

Plato is still just influential as ever, but Democritus is not shaping modern physics nor is Aristotle a serious voice in modern biology.

In 2014, Rebecca Goldstein’s book “Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away” aimed to answer the question. The book takes a novel approach to exploring the relevance and value of philosophy in modern times by imagining Socrates visiting the Googleplex and engaging in philosophical discussions in various modern settings.

Personally, I found the premise of the book to be a bit gimmicky — modeled on Dialogues, each other chapter featured imagined discussions but it all too wooden. While it may be an interesting thought experiment to consider what Socrates would make of the world today, I think the book could have achieved the same goals without the need for such a contrived setup.

Despite my reservations about the book’s premise, I did find some value in the discussions that took place. Goldstein makes a strong case for the continued importance of philosophy in the modern world, arguing that it can help us to think more critically and deeply about the complex issues that we face as a society.

Goldstein, who is married to Steven Pinker, whose books I’ve read, certainly contributed to modernizing the themes. Give it a try. My notes are below.

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Will the world be a better place to live in the future?

version of this essay was published as part of my monthly newsletter several weeks back. Find other archives and join here to get updates like this first.

In 2018, Harvard psychologist and pop intellectual Steven Pinker wrote a book that made a lot of smart people very mad. He argued that, on the global whole, quality of life was continuing its trend of getting better for humans. It was the continuation on a theme from a book he wrote in 2011.

His argument was that we are so (understandably) focused on the immediate pain, suffering and injustice of the day that we feel heartless to zoom out and acknowledge broader trends. Diseases are eradicatedGlobal poverty is downLife expectancy is up. As Pinker often put it: We remember stories about airplane crashes but we ignore stories of airplane takeoffs. (In fact, there’s a movement among journalists to respond to that last point.)

Those aren’t trivial accomplishments for the world. Yet many intellectuals waved Pinker off as an overly-optimistic privileged pollyanna who went beyond his expertise. 

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Notes on ‘Stuff of Thought’ by Steven Pinker

Language is a manifestation of human thought. So it’s an effective tool to understanding how we perceive the world.

That’s the premise of the 2007 bestselling book The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window Into Human Nature by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker. His prodigious collection of popular books blending linguistics, thought and human nature have made him both a celebrity academic and a frequent source of scorn.

I appreciate his contributions and regardless of popular perception, I’ve enjoyed working through his catalogue. Below I capture some notes from finally getting through this one. Find 2007 reviews from the New York Times and the Guardian.

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Language is more like fashion than math: “Words on the Move” by John McWhorter

We get it wrong: language is always in motion, more like fashion, than science or math. This changes how we treat language and its uses.

We don’t quite say someone is wrong for wearing bell-bottom jeans today. It might feel outdated. We also might think they could return someday in some form if fashion and culture moves in the right way. It’s just not what most of us would consider common today. That is a pretty good approximation of language.

This concept is the big idea from linguistics that John McWhorter most gets at in his sublimely readable and thoughtful Words on the Move book from 2016. (Read the New York Times review here)

I first read this book earlier this summer, part of a binge on McWhorter’s books and linguistics generally. I finally wanted to share my notes from reading this. But if it interests you, you really should buy it, because there’s so much more.

Below I share my notes.

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