An entertaining new book on philosophy (who would have thought there could be such a thing) called Plato at the Googleplex, transports Plato to various settings in our modern world, and attempts to show that we are still grappling, or should be grappling, with many of the same problems that Plato addressed in dialogues written more than 2000 years ago. The book’s Plato character makes you wonder whether, for example, Google does a better job of organizing knowledge than the ancient philosophers did, or whether we’ve made any progress in dealing with child rearing or love or figuring out how to live a better life.
This “Plato” leads the people who pass for our modern dispensers of wisdom (such as search engine specialists or Tiger Moms or advice columnists or cable news producers) through the kinds of Socratic dialogues meant to help them think about what is fair, or what is most satisfying, or how best to organize society, or what ideals are most important.
Naturally these dialogues made me wonder whether philosophy as exemplified by these Socratic dialogues has any relevance to the practice of mediation. It seems obvious that parties involved in conflict also need help in identifying what is most important to them, what results seem fair and why, and similar considerations that enter into resolving a dispute. In that way, the mediator is acting in some respects like a philosopher, by challenging parties to consider their noblest impulses, and by asking people to step outside themselves to try to imagine what would constitute a just resolution for all parties.
If we try to resolve a dispute only by making predictions about how the legal system might handle that dispute, we might fairly be accused of acting like we are stuck in Plato’s cave. We are blinding ourselves to other considerations that might provide a better solution. On the other hand, if we venture outside the legal system, how do we identify the values that would lend legitimacy to mediated resolutions? This is where philosophy might be able to help.
We know that mediators sometimes need to act as an amateur psychologist, an amateur economist, an amateur diplomat, an amateur judge, or apply other kinds of expertise to help resolve conflict. That’s what makes the practice of mediation so interesting. We might not have realized that mediators also need to act as amateur philosophers. But in helping parties move beyond vindictive or selfish concerns to discover their best selves, as well as finding principles that can guide them to resolution, mediators are practicing philosophy whether they know it or not. Reading Plato at the Googleplex makes me want to dig out my old copy of the Republic to explore further whether these ideas have practical value in dealing with modern problems.