Interview with Professor
Rebecca Goldstein — Novelist, Philosopher, and Public Intellectual
[Previously published in Conatus News]
Professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a novelist, philosopher, public intellectual, and visiting Professor of Philosophy and English at New York University and Visiting Professor of Philosophy at the New College of the Humanities.
What is your family story?
I was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish
household. My father was a refugee
from Poland, and all the kids in my
extended family were named after
relatives who had died in the Holocaust.
I’m named after my great-grandmother
who died on a cattle car on her way to
Auschwitz. I would say that my father
never quite adjusted to the New World
and carried tremendous sadness within
him. He was a gentle and
compassionate man, of great
intellectual potential, who had no
ambition beyond never again seeing the worst that humanity can do to each other. He was exquisitely sensitive to others’ pain, a great believer in performing secret acts of charity. He became a cantor in order to support his large family. We were poor. My mother, who was born in the U.S., had more worldly ambitions, but they were all directed toward her one son, my older brother, who is a rabbi. As a girl I was raised to have no ambitions beyond getting married to an Orthodox Jewish man. I was engaged to my first husband at age eighteen.
What about your personal story?
Though we couldn’t afford many books, it was a bookish family, which meant that we used the public library religiously. The Sabbath day was spent reading, and my parents’ attitude was that if a book came from the library then it couldn’t be a bad book. So, for example, when my mother saw me reading, at age thirteen, a book by the philosopher Bertrand Russell called Why I Am Not A Christian, she had no objections — especially since we were Jewish! She had no idea that the title essay went through each of the major arguments for the existence of God and systematically destroyed them. I was particularly interested in the elegant destruction Russell brought to bear on the so-called moral argument for God’s existence, which tries to argue that God is necessary to provide an objective grounding for ethics. (Only years later did I discover that Russell had cribbed his elegant counter-argument from Plato. It’s the famous Euthyphro argument.) In any case, after much intense thinking, spurred by Russell’s essay, I became an atheist — a quiet atheist, since I didn’t want to do anything to upset my parents, most especially my father, of whom I was, for obvious reasons, always protective.
What are your religious/irreligious, ethical, and political beliefs?
I’m a secular humanist and a political progressive. Although I began my career as a philosopher of science, most interested in the foundations of quantum mechanics, I’ve become increasingly interested in moral philosophy, which has — since the time of Plato and Aristotle — been going about the business of grounding morality on purely secular grounds. One of my books was on the philosopher Spinoza, with whom I feel a strong affinity. Spinoza was the first philosopher of the modern age to try to rigorously ground morality in naturalism. His concept of conatus is essential in his project of naturalising ethics, so I was pleased to see the name of your news organisation! I also sympathised with Spinoza’s personal story. He, too, had been born into a Jewish family that had been traumatised by murderous bigotry — only in his case it was the Spanish-Portuguese Inquisition. This personal involvement with his story went into my book, Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity. I’ve always been interested in showing how the whole person, including personal history, is involved in philosophical positions, which is one of the reasons I also write novels. Our individually variable intuitions that are expressed in our philosophical positions are embedded in our philosophical characters and temperaments, shaped both by genetic and environmental factors.
Your recent publication is Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away. It won the Forkosch Award (2014). An earned award from the Council for Secular Humanism. What was the content and intended message behind the text — or set of themes covered?
I had four interrelated goals. The first was to put forward an original theory as to why the ancient Greeks were responsible for inventing the field of philosophy. Their society was saturated with religious rituals, but when it came to the question of how to live our lives, they didn’t look to their gods but rather to a secular grounding. This doesn’t mean that they were a culture of philosophers. There never has been a society of philosophers! And, of course, Athens sentenced Socrates to die. But the pre-conditions for philosophy were created in their secular approach to the big questions, and I was interested in exploring this aspect. The second goal was to explain Plato in the context of the wider Greek culture. The third goal was to demonstrate that progress has been made in philosophy, and to demonstrate this by going back to the inception of Western philosophy and uncovering presuppositions that had been instrumental in getting the whole process of critical reasoning going but which critical reasoning had, in its progress, invalidated. I was concerned to demonstrate in the book that progress in philosophy tends to be invisible because it penetrates so deeply down into our conceptual frameworks — both epistemological and ethical. We don’t see it, because we see with it. And the fourth goal was to demonstrate that the kinds of questions Plato introduced, philosophical questions, are still vitally important to us, and to demonstrate this, I interspersed the expository chapters with new Platonic dialogues, injecting Plato into contemporary settings. The first place I bring him to is the Googleplex in Mountainview CA, the headquarters of Google International, where he gets into a discussion with a software engineer on whether philosophy makes progress. I also have him on a panel of child-rearing experts, including a tiger mum. Then I bring him to a cable news set, where he’s interviewed by a rabble-rousing blowhard; they discuss the role of reason in the public square. The last dialogue has him getting a brain scan and engaging the neuroscientists on the question of whether neuroscience dissolves the notions of personal identity and moral responsibility. I’d produced these dialogues as a bit of fun to enliven my points, but it was this aspect of the book that got all of the attention from reviewers.
You earned other prizes in previous years: MacArthur fellowship (2011), Humanist of the Year, Free-thought Heroine, Richard Dawkins Award (2014), and the National Humanities Medal (2015). What do these public recognitions of professional excellence mean to you?
Since I’ve been very experimental in my writings, using forms of writing that my fellow philosophers don’t recognise as legitimate — for example, novels — these prizes have been encouraging. I got the MacArthur prize, for example, at rather a low point in my philosophical career, when many of my colleagues had written me off because I’d written some bestsellers. The MacArthur carries a great deal of weight in American academic circles, since it’s popularly known as the genius prize, so this prize did a little bit of work in rehabilitating my reputation.
What one is most dear to your heart? Why?
Without a doubt, my proudest moment was having President Obama put the National Medal of the Humanities around my neck. And when he had greeted me in private before the ceremony, he had said, “Ah, the philosopher who knows how to write great novels.” Being in the White House, in the presence of the president who knew something of my work, I couldn’t help being flooded with memories of my father and how displaced he’d always felt in his new country — how displaced he’d felt in the world at large. And here was a president, putting a medal around my neck, who hadn’t been raised to feel entitled to stride the corridors of power — quite the contrary. I felt proud for all of us who believe that reason can destroy the groundless prejudices that break the human spirit and keep our shared human potential from being realised for the greater good. I only wished that my father might have been alive to witness the moment, though it might have been too overwhelming for him — as it nearly was for me.
What responsibilities come with these recognitions?
I wasn’t raised to be a public person, to say the least. The virtue that had been most impressed on me growing up as an Orthodox girl was female modesty, meaning never to attract undue attention to oneself, especially male attention — not to one’s body, not to one’s mind. So I have to overcome a great deal of inner resistance, even shame, in speaking out in the name of things I believe in. It remains a torment to me to do anything that gets me attention, though over the years I’ve toughened up a bit. Sometimes, when the criticisms against what I’ve said or written become very personal (and they do), my upbringing kicks in, and I have to fight the sense that this is what I deserve for being so immodest as to make myself heard. But I do feel that addressing a public audience is my responsibility, as someone who has had the privilege of being able to get myself a first-class education and to use it to think about big issues. It’s a great privilege to think for one’s living — especially when that is what one most loves to do! But, as with all privilege, this one, too, begets obligations, which is why I’ve ventured beyond the confines of academia.
You are the visiting professor of philosophy and English at New York University (NYU) in addition to the visiting professor of philosophy at the New College of the Humanities (NCH) in London, England. What tasks and responsibilities come with these positions?
I try to impress on my students what a hard thing knowledge is to achieve and that they ought to take their responsibilities for being accountable for their beliefs — as well as their actions — seriously. No matter what they go on to do in their lives, they can’t leave accountability behind. That’s what I most want to impress upon them.
What are your favourite courses to teach to students?
Coming to philosophy from a background in physics, my first interest was philosophy of science, and this is still my favourite course to teach. I love it because it requires that one understand both the science and the philosophical issues to which the science gives rise, and it forces me to keep up with what’s going on in science. In general, I like to teach courses that attract an interdisciplinary mix of students, so that they can learn from the strengths of one another. I also teach philosophy courses that use novels, and these courses also attract an interdisciplinary mix of students.
Who is the smartest person you have ever met?
There are too many kinds of smartness for me to be able to answer this question. I’ve known mathematical geniuses who are dunces when it comes to the kind of imaginative intelligence that goes into interpreting works of art — or, for that matter, interpreting people. I’ve met brilliant novelists whose deductive talents aren’t sufficient to get them through an elementary course in symbolic logic. I have an appreciation for sundry forms of smartness, though there are characteristics other than smartness that I value far more in people. Too many people who are celebrated for their intellectual or artistic talents think that their gifts license them to be jerks. What I call “talentism,” the conviction that those with extraordinary abilities matter more than other people, is as faulty a normative proposition as any other that regards some people as mattering more than others — such as sexism, racism, classism, ableism, lookism, ageism, nationalism, imperialism, and hetero-normativity. Challenging all of these presumptions is part of the mandate of progressive thinking and progressive activism, at least as I conceive it. The truth to which progressive movements have always been pointing is this: to the extent that any of us is committed to our own lives mattering — which is, of course, a commitment that forms the infrastructure of our entire emotional life, something that Spinoza had tried to capture with his notion of conatus — then we must be equally committed to all lives mattering and to the exact same extent. To me, that’s the essence of what drives moral progress forward, and the greatest privilege of my privileged life is to play any role at all, no matter how small, in that progress.