A masterwork of sustained bad explanation: On Sunday, April 20, Professor Gottlieb reviewed Professor Goldstein’s book, Plato at the Googleplex.
His 1200-word piece appeared in the New York Times Book Review section. On balance, we’d say his review was positive. This was his early nugget:
PROFESSOR GOTTLIEB (4/20/14): It's diverting to speculate on which aspects of the Internet would be embraced by time-traveling ancient thinkers. The epigrammatic Heraclitus would surely have appreciated the enforced brevity of Twitter. Diogenes the Cynic, who made a spectacle of himself in order to heap scorn on conventional values (to which end he allegedly masturbated in public), would presumably have relished Facebook—until his selfie-strewn account was deleted. Diogenes Laertius, an infamously undiscerning historian, would have gleefully reposted every hoax and rumor to be found in cyberspace. It's harder to swallow the idea that Plato would be such a Googler, given his insistence on the chasm between mere information and genuine wisdom. Aristotle, a keen collector of biological oddities, is the more plausible hoarder of facts.Two Sundays later, the Book Review published two letters complaining about the tone of the review. (No other letters appeared.)
But this is not a criticism. Quite the reverse: Goldstein's resurrection of Plato actually works, which is no mean achievement. His avid Googling is slightly puzzling precisely because her character is recognizably the real thing—or rather, a plausible reconstruction of his mouthpiece, Socrates. When the rejuvenated Plato gently probes the loud certainties of Roy McCoy, Goldstein's invented cable-news pundit, on the subjects of happiness, virtue, success and religion, we hear authentic Platonic arguments brought nicely up to date.
Each letter cited a turn of phrase Professor Gottlieb might well have avoided. That said, the letter from retired advice columnist Margo Howard also revealed a revealing fact.
Howard wrote from Cambridge, Mass. We were struck by the highlighted point:
HOWARD (5/4/14): Anthony Gottlieb, not quite reviewing “Plato at the Googleplex,” throws Rebecca Newberger Goldstein a few complimentary bones, but the spotlight is on Gottlieb's own intellectual gifts.We were struck by the highlighted fact. Here’s why:
We learn of his familiarity with the history of quantum mechanics as well as with the overreaching of neuroscientists. Gottlieb says Goldstein has written two “love letters'' (first to Spinoza, now to Plato) when those books are deeply researched and have been well reviewed. Who writes love letters? Why, smitten women, of course. (Men write admiring tomes.) In the same vein, it is contemptuous to identify Goldstein as a ''teacher of philosophy.” She is a not only a professor of philosophy but a philosopher who has been recognized by the MacArthur Foundation (the ''genius'' grant), and she has been named a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among other honors...
In recent weeks, we’ve delighted each day, by the morning’s first light, to Professor Goldstein’s 2005 book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Godel.
We don’t exactly mean that as a compliment. As we admitted last weekend, we’ve conducted a decades-long love affair with certain types of bad explanation. In the past two weeks, a realization has finally dawned:
We don’t think we’ve ever seen an exercise in sustained incoherence to compare with the one performed in this book. For that reason, we were struck by the fact that its author once received the MacArthur “genius” award.
Struck, but not quite surprised. For last Sunday’s post, click here.
In her book about Godel and his theorem, Professor Goldstein’s capacity for incoherence seems to know no limits. For a lifelong student of the form, virtually every page in the book contains a delightful surprise.
Examples and greatest hits:
We’ve been amazed to see the way the professor deals with such concepts as “objective reality,” “objectivity” and “subjectivity.” Godel and Einstein were “staunch believers in objectivity,” she even says at one point.
In our view, Professor Goldstein never offers a way to understand such claims. This particular species of incoherence appears in an endless array of forms.
“Objective reality” is just the start of the garden of delights. Just this morning, we reread the professor’s passages about the way Godel “fell in love with Platonism.”
For our money, Professor Goldstein never quite explains what “Platonism” actually consists in. And uh-oh! This type of writing may help explain the choice of words for which her reviewer was criticized:
PROFESSOR GOLDSTEIN (page 59): It is no easy task to penetrate the inner life of Kurt Godel…At some length, Professor Goldstein attempts to describe what belief in “Platonism” might constitute, require or entail. In our view, this involves reams of bad explanation, mingled with the kind of writing at which her reviewer snarked:
I think it is fair to say, however, that like so many of us, Godel fell in love while an undergraduate. He underwent love’s ecstatic transfiguration, its radical reordering or priorities, giving life a new focus and meaning. One is never quite the same person as before.
Kurt Godel fell in love with Platonism, and he was not quite the same person as he was before.
PROFESSOR GOLDSTEIN (page 63): First exposure to Platonism can be an extremely heady experience for those with a passion for abstraction. (I remember my own.) It can amount to a sort of ecstasy.“Abstraction!” So that’s what we’re going to call it!
As the ecstasy and the abstraction spread, Professor Goldstein continues to discuss “the set all of sets not members of themselves.” She goes on about the so-called “liar’s paradox,” and about other nonsensical wastes of time devised by Lord Russell so long ago.
Like a stone-ager confronting a flash cube, Professor Goldstein continues to gape at Lord Russell’s “self-referential sentence: ‘The very sentence is false.’ ” As Lord Russell wasted everyone’s time with these remarkable species of twaddle, someone should have stood up and told him to stop.
Eventually, Wittgenstein pretty much did. Plainly, it did little good.
Enough with this listing of hits! (We’re omitting as many as we’re including.) Professor Goldstein’s remarkable book is mainly concerned with Godel’s incompleteness theorem, which she describes as one of the revolutionary intellectual breakthroughs of the past century.
That’s a standard assessment. That said, can Professor Goldstein explain this theorem in a way we people can understand?
Tomorrow, we’ll return to that basic question.
Professor Goldstein’s book was intended for non-specialists. On the back of its dust jacket, three well-known professors take turns saying how “remarkably accessible,” “lucid” and “artfully written” it is.
Early on, Professor Goldstein takes her first crack at describing Godel’s theorem. She quotes the way the theorem is summarized in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, saying it has been “rendered in more or less plain English” there.
In our view, this first pass at Godel’s theorem constitutes a masterwork in upper-end incoherence. Tomorrow, we’ll show you what “more or less plain English” looked like in 2005.
Alas! Our culture runs on bad explanation, from the professors on down.
Tomorrow: An intriguing type of bad explanation