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Jack Weinstein

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What is Philosophy?


This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away” with guest Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. Click here to listen to the episode.


Philosophy tends to be invisible. We don’t look at Luke Skywalker and shout “metaphysics!” when he tries to feel The Force and we don’t refer to Downtown Abby as our Aristotelian Virtue Ethics soap opera. We can label these things after the fact. We can also argue about whether The Force is real or whether Lord Grantham is a person of character. But these acts feel, to most people, like artifice. A nerdy sport for the select few.

That’s why my approach to public philosophy is almost always to try to slip the explicit philosophical themes in through the back door. I like to get my audience interested in the topic first and then bring out the more subtle stuff once they’re hooked. I like to show them that they are doing philosophy after they start doing it, because otherwise, they get self-conscious. Too many people think philosophy is not for them. They don’t understand that they do philosophy naturally, as part of their daily lives.

I think my approach works. Why? Radio is now in its eighth season. But there are still some people–some professional philosophers especially–who claim that we’re not doing philosophy at all. We’re not quoting texts every few minutes, we’re not narrowing our discussion to focus on technical definitions of abstract concepts, we’re not isolating arguments, challenging evidence, or disagreeing about the veracity of premises. We’re not fighting with each other. If you compared our show to what happens in a philosophy seminar room, there wouldn’t be much resemblance.

Sometimes then, we at Why? Radio have to back up and ask the most basic questions: are we doing philosophy and what is philosophy anyway? To a certain extent, that’s the point of today’s show. We are going to get to look at the meaning and nature of philosophy itself. But there will be more going on than just that because if we’re doing philosophy, it’s because the discipline itself has staying power.

For 2500 years this method, this art, has asserted itself on the human consciousness and refused to go away. People have tried to destroy it. They have killed and exiled philosophers, they have banned books and ignored scholars, but philosophy is still here. In fact, despite his death millennia ago, Plato, the greatest philosopher of them all, is still here too. Plato, the person who set the agenda for the rest of us, the person who, more than anyone else, modeled the philosophical method. Plato, the person whose name is so famous that everyone knows it, even if they’ve never read a word he wrote.

And this is where our guest Rebecca Newberger Goldstein comes in. Her new book, Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away is written for a general audience, but it tackles the subject head on. It aggressively defends philosophy against its critics and places Plato in modern situations offering an account, as only a novelist can, of what Platonic debates might look like today. What would Plato think about Google search engines? How would he write if he took over from Dear Abby? These are fun ideas but they are enhanced by her willingness to stand up in the crowd and shout “look at me! I’m doing philosophy!” She doesn’t sneak any of it in. You like it or you don’t. You’ll read it or you won’t. She’s taking advantage of a luxury that a well-established author has and that, if I’m being honest, a struggling radio show does not. She can be unabashed.

Why? Radio is caught, constantly, between a public that tends to think we are too heady and academics who think we are welterweights. One of the exciting things about having Rebecca on the show then, is that she’s managed to make a career out of the very project we’re trying to succeed at. She reminds us that public philosophy needs to be brazen about its intentions. She offers, pardon the Platonic pun, no apologies.

I would guess it was the need for unquestioned legitimacy that inspired Rebecca to write about Plato in the first place. People may doubt his relevance, but they wouldn’t dare question his genius or influence. Plato is philosophy’s patriarch. He describes it, refines, and articulates the standard by which, even now, almost all of us evaluate our ideas.

On this episode, I will ask whether Plato is the measure of academic philosophy or public philosophy, and I’ll start now by suggesting that they are one and the same. It seems to me that public philosophy appears when academic philosophy loses its punch and that academic philosophy regains power when public philosophy goes underground. There is, I think, a historical cycle of influence that ensures that philosophy is always with us, even if it changes rhetorical form. And if philosophy is always with us, then Plato is as well. Because Plato and philosophy really are one and the same. The rest is just explanation. We are all always learning.

Follow the author on Twitter at: @jackrweinstein

Follow Why? Radio on Twitter at: @whyradioshow

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