Plato and philosophical progress

…Is ancient philosophy still relevant in 21st-century life? Why didn’t Plato know that slavery was wrong…?  As part of Bristol’s Festival of ideas, Rebecca was invited to the Watershed to give a talk based her new novel: ‘Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away’.


Rebecca recounted her first run-in with Plato as a thirteen-year-old, sneaking a library book into her room and reading it under the covers. She grew up in a Jewish Orthodox family and turned to Philosophy when she started to question if these strong, religious ideas were ‘good’ ideas. ‘Intellectual ecstasy’ is how she expressed reading Plato for the first time. Now, as an academic, having first studied Physics and then Philosophy of Physics, Rebecca has come full circle, back to Plato. The novel is all about Plato in 21st-century life, enabling her to use Plato’s ideas in a whole range of new scenarios.

In the novel, Rebecca describes how her figurative Plato would react to the Internet, modern parenting, FOX news, and a neuroscientist, who believes that morality can be explained by the brain. Funnily enough, the figurative Plato is obsessed with googling things and the platonic idea of the iCloud. As well as being creative in its concept, the novel is historical, with extensive footnotes relating back to passages from Plato’s original 26 dialogues. In fact, she compares her own use of Plato to the way that Plato, himself, writes about Socrates in his dialogues.

Although, Rebecca’s talk was not so much about Plato as a person, not even his answers to problems in the dialogues. Rather, she wanted to talk about the philosophical questions that he uncovered. All branches of Philosophy stem from his philosophical enquiry in the dialogues: Metaphysics (the study of the essential nature of things), Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind… Language… Mathematics. Rebecca chose Plato as the philosopher to bring into her novel because she claims ‘he is the man who gave us Philosophy!’

In spite of this, you might ask why Plato didn’t consider issues such as racial equality? A member of the audience at the talk asked: ‘if Plato was such a great philosopher, why didn’t he know that slavery is wrong?’ You could put it down to historical context, but there is still the scary thought… how could such an intelligent and influential thinker not realize such an atrocity? To be brutally honest, Rebecca claims that we have ‘moral blindness’. We can avoid such inconsistencies in nature because ‘we have a tremendous capacity to compartmentalise… We live with moral inconsistencies because it is in our interest or in the interest of the powerful’.

To show what she meant, Rebecca used closer-to-home examples of slow philosophical progress. Forty years ago, Peter Singer brought up the idea that animals have basic rights too, it was controversial, to begin with, and took time to take hold as a social movement. Similarly, looking at the gay rights movement in the last thirty years, we are still only just coming to accept homosexual marriage alongside heterosexual marriage. In essence, Rebecca was trying to explain that we can be so blinkered by our moral blindness that it can take a very long time to crawl out of our caves of ignorance and to see the sunlight.

Philosophy- according to Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: ‘Philosophy tries to reconcile the scientific point of view with other intuitions we have, and that we need, in order to live coherent lives… Sometimes we have to give up some of our deepest intuitions because they are incoherent.’

Philosophical progress is a gradual, cumulative process of ‘unfolding our moral incoherence’. But the proof of our progress is the realisation, ‘why didn’t we see it before?’ The important question is, ‘what will future generations say when they look back at us? Is there anything that is incoherent?’

Yes, ancient philosophy is relevant in the 21st century. Not because of its answers, but because it asks all the right questions in seeking to correct the inconsistency.

plato at the b

You can buy Rebecca’s novel here.

If you like you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @hattiebottom


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