Interview with Rebecca Goldstein on Plato at the Googleplex, philosophy for the public, and everything

OB: As a fan of philosophy I’ve been delighted to see the rave reviews for Plato at the Googleplex in major media – the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Slate, NPR, The Atlantic. This has to be a good thing: a sign that philosophy can be made interesting to the reading public, and itself a step to getting more people interested in philosophy. It’s all the more gratifying because part of your point, as I understand it, is to show readers that philosophy has value and has not been rendered superfluous by science. Can you tell us a little about why philosophy does indeed have value?

RG: I’ve been delighted to see the rave reviews, too.

Okay, why is philosophy of value?  The short answer is that it addresses, in a systematic and progress-making way, questions of deep concern to everyone.  There are of course, technical, narrow philosophical questions of concern to only professional philosophers, and I don’t mean to disparage them, since I’ve spent a good part of my life on them. But what I’m speaking about here are problems that just about all of us confront in virtue of our being thinking humans: What—if anything— are our lives about?  Even if they’re not really about anything—goodbye to the old monotheistic usurpation of this question—can we find answers that will allow us to maximize our own flourishing and—of equal if not greater importance—reasons to care about the flourishing of others?  (Caring about ourselves comes kind of naturally to us.) Philosophy has been addressing such questions and making significant, if invisible, progress with them almost ever since there’s been philosophy. [Read more...]

Invisible because incorporated

Another review of Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, this time at NPR, by Marcelo Gleiser.

(Don’t forget, she’s a speaker at Women in Secularism 3, a mere two months from now.)

The man who gave us philosophy as we know it is back, walking among us, going to TV talk shows, visiting Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., having his brain examined by a naïve reductionist neuroscientist, engaging with our current struggles. [Read more...]

Plato in a panel discussion at the 92nd Street Y

Colin McGinn reviews Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a pity they chose Colin McGinn of all people, but oh well.

Plato is brought marvelously to life, and, as a welcome corollary, philosophy is vindicated against what Ms. Goldstein aptly labels the “philosophy-jeerers”—those who rashly claim that philosophy has no intellectual substance or future in this scientific era.

Philosophy-jeerers should read some Rebecca Goldstein. Seriously. [Read more...]

Rebecca Goldstein on mattering

Now enough kvetching, it’s time to say how great the conference was, and why.

As I mentioned on Saturday morning, Rebecca Goldstein’s talk was brilliant. Miri did an incredible job of liveblogging it, so you can just read her post to learn what RG said. Ditto Jason and his post.

From Miri’s:

In preparation for this talk, I polled some very prominent women and asked them if they ever feel that their gender undermines them professionally. Virtually all of them reported saying something in a discussion or meaning and being completely ignored–until the comment is picked up and reported by a man. Then, suddenly everyone jerks to attention. [Read more...]

Meet Rebecca Goldstein

I actually did an email interview with Rebecca Goldstein once. Yes really! You didn’t know that, did you. I’m not just some shlub with a blog. [struts] I did an interview with Rebecca Goldstein once.


Rebecca Goldstein has a new book out: Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel.

Readers at Science Daily call Incompleteness ’Outstanding’ and ‘Superb’.

Butterflies and Wheels: Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont call chapter 11 of their book Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science: ‘Gödel’s Theorem and Set Theory: Some Examples of Abuse.’ They give a quotation from Régis Debray as an epigraph: ‘Ever since Gödel showed that there does not exist a proof of the consistency of Peano’s arithmetic that is formalizable within this theory (1931), political scientists had the means for understanding why it was necessary to mummify Lenin…’ The chapter’s first sentence starts, ‘Gödel’s theorem is an inexhaustible source of intellectual abuses…’

Sokal and Bricmont go on to quote more such abuses, from Debray, Alain Badiou, and Michel Serres, who wrote, ‘Régis Debray applies or discovers as applicable to social groups the incompleteness theorem valid for formal systems…’

Paul Gross and Norman Levitt examine literary critic (or ‘theorist’) Katherine Hayles’ musings on Gödel in Higher Superstition: ‘Hayles then cites the Gödel incompleteness result as the deathblow to the Russell-Whitehead program…This is  intended to figure the movement away from post-Enlightenment ideals of “universal” knowledge to postmodern skepticism…’

Is this a widespread view of Gödel? Is it a view held solely by people who don’t actually understand Gödel’s work? Are there any mathematicians or logicians who think Gödel is a social theorist or a postmodernist?

Rebecca Goldstein: I’m not sure that there is a “widespread view of Gödel.” While I was writing “Incompleteness” and people asked me what I was working on these days, I usually drew a blank stare when I said his name. Sometimes mentioning the title of Douglas Hofstadter’s popular book, “Gödel, Escher, Bach,” brought on a faint gleam of recognition.    So, by and large, Gödel – unlike his soul-mate, Einstein – is strangely unknown, and this anonymity is in itself something I wanted to address. I say in the book that Gödel is the most famous person that you probably haven’t heard of, and that if you’ve heard of him you probably have, through no fault of your own, an entirely false impression of what it was he did to the foundations of mathematics.

Which brings me to the crux of your question.  Among “humanist” intellectuals who do invoke Gödel’s name, he is often associated with the general assault on objectivity and rationality that gained such popularity in the last century.  I’d often find myself pondering which would be the preferable state of affairs regarding Gödel, anonymity or misinterpretation.  Which would Gödel have preferred?  I’m going to indulge in “the privileged position of the biographer” to presume I know the answer to the latter question, at least: Gödel, who was so passionately committed to the truth, would have far preferred utter oblivion to the falsifications of his theorems that have given him whatever fame he has in the non-mathematical world. [Read more...]