The Socratic inquiry into the essence of virtue outlined in Plato’s Meno dialogue, describing an encounter between Socrates and Meno, and their discussions into the essence of virtue, and its ability to be taught and learnt brings about various issues. Meno’s paradox, for example, offers a tricky obstacle for not only Socrates’s search for the essence of virtue, in the short term, but the Hellenistic method of philosophical inquiry valuing reason over purely nominalist, empirical methods of philosophy often used by, for example, the Sophists. While these issues are problematic, they are not insurmountable, largely due to the fallacious nature of the paradox. Moreover, Plato’s Theory of Recollection provides a potentially logical response to Meno’s Paradox. While Plato’s theory is useful, it is arguably flawed in some ways, and thus of limited use.
The paradox raised by Meno does indeed pose a problematic question for Plato. While some scholars, for example Welbourne (1986: 231) point to the fact the paradox could be a mere riddle made in jest, Socrates (or Plato) “appreciates the tricksy nature of the puzzle” and uses it to reveal a deeper philosophical theory, namely that of recollection. The paradox raises the immediate issues of targeting and recognition. “How will you look for it Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all?” (Meno, 80d) This is a tangible issue, that a person searching for knowledge, more specifically the essence of virtue, is unable to search as he would not know where to look. In terms of recognition, this is also problematic. “If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know?” (Meno, 80d) This again presents the problem of inquiry into the unknown, as upon meeting what one was keen to find they are unable to know if they have found it, with no prior knowledge of that item. Thus “He cannot search for what he knows, nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.” The paradox though also presents an issue in that, it is built upon a sophistic foundation of philosophy that interprets reality, reason and epistemic matters in a contentious way. (Phillips, 1948: 88). Such nominalistic empiricism repudiates the entire Socratic method. Thus, the paradox “expresses fundamental doubt with respect to the possibility of such dialectical investigations” (Phillips, 1948: 89) on which the rational insight of the Platonic writings resides, presenting a wider more existential, yet lesser known issue for the Socratic method and the search for virtue.
Though the paradox is problematic, it is not insurmountable. As Welbourne points out, to the serious enquirer, identifying what he is looking for is not a problem. Indeed, he describes it as a “paper tiger”. (Welbourne, 1986:230) I argue therefore, that Meno’s Paradox assumes a kind of polarised state of cognition, in which an enquirer either knows everything, or nothing about his desired item, an entirely unrealistic state of affairs. Indeed, Plato’s Theory of Recollection recognises the importance of intermediate cognitive states. The Theory of Recollection suggests that the soul, before it belonged to a human, had a vision of the eternal forms before birth. However, when the soul enters the world this information is lost, and must be recovered not through the process of learning, but recollection. Since all true knowledge is of a form, recovery is only possible via recollection. (Ebert, 1973: 163). The theory also outlines 4 different cognitive states, most notably knowledge and belief, belief representing an intermediate cognitive state. “So, the man…has within him true opinions about things he does not know?” (Meno, 85c) Such opinions are “stirred” by the elenchus, resulting in the recollection of the relevant knowledge. (Meno, 85d). Therefore, in this we can see a solution to the paradox. Plato’s example of the Slave further reinforces this, while also discounting the sophistic foundation of the paradox. “So, these opinions were in him, were they not?” (Meno, 85c). Furthermore, the Slave’s interrogation highlights the elentic method’s ability to distinguish true beliefs from false, emphasising the “constructive role of the elenchus”. (Irwin, 1974: 753). The Theory of Recollection is presented as a view of “how knowledge is to be acquired once the Socratic Elenchus has achieved its aim. (Benson, 1990: 129) We see this in the uneducated boy’s recollection of simple mathematics in relation to a square. “You see Meno…I am not teaching the boy anything.” (Meno, 82e) Thus, there are two stages, the “stirring up” of true, innate opinions, and the transformation of these into knowledge. (Gulley, 1954: 194) On the other hand, as Ebert argues (1973: 164) Socrates’ apparent scepticism in his own theory undermines the strength of his argument, perhaps pointing to the fact that indeed the paradox is insurmountable. It is also worth highlighting the state of the paradox itself, which commits the fallacy of equivocation, weakening itself, as it uses the ambiguity of a phrase twice within the sentence. Nevertheless, the Theory of Recollection is logical in many ways. Thus, for these reasons I argue that the Paradox proposed by Meno does not create an insurmountable problem.
Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that Plato’s response to the Paradox proposed to him by Meno is fine, as indeed it does provide a solution which as to some extent based on logical reasoning. As Ebert emphasises (1973: 164), behind the guise of a metaphysical, mythological, prenatal vision of forms underpinning Plato’s Theory of Recollection is nothing more than a basic philosophical concept that there are “concepts and truths which can never be formulated merely on the basis of sense-perception.” For example, pure mathematics. Thus, in this sense Plato’s theory, as argued previously does have strengths which even today provide a somewhat cogent solution to the aspects of the perpetual issue of not knowing what we do not know. However, on the other hand, largely the theory is of “little genuine philosophical interest…it does not provide an answer to a problem which might still be accepted as valid today.” (Ebert, 1973: 163) Socrates acceptance of his craft analogy (Meno, 90c) is also problematic. The “systematic, rational procedures” of the elenchus may suit the elenchus’ method in moral discovery, but are “an absurd account of moral instruction.” “How could he claim that someone who acquires new beliefs about shoemaking really only has his true beliefs elicited from him?” If we are to take this seriously, it’s use as an example does the theory no favours. (Irwin, 1974: 755). Thus, the theory is supported by examples that really highlights its weaknesses, given the fact he claims all moral learnings are recollection. Moreover, while supposedly the product of rationality, the theory is further weakened by its clear appeal to the “religious doctrines of the Orphics and/ or Pythagoreans about reincarnation and metempsychosis”. (Ebert, 1973: 164) Thus, the logical foundation of the theory is weakened, as is highlighted by the fact that Plato’s theory essentially pushes back knowledge acquisition into a less accessible realm, posing the question, how did the soul come by knowledge in the first place? This is perhaps clear in Socrates’ (or Plato’s) own doubts about the strength of his argument. “I do not insist that my argument is right in all other aspects” (Meno, 86b). This creates a sense that Plato’s theory is slapdash, a quick fix to a problem. “We will be better men, braver and less idle.” (Meno, 86b). Due to this, I argue that the Theory of Recollection is mostly useless.
Therefore, in conclusion, I argue that Meno’s paradox is not insurmountable, despite the list of issues it creates for Plato’s search for the essence of virtue, and is in itself mistaken in numerous ways. I further argue that, within its logical confines Plato’s Theory of Recollection harbours a realistic response to Meno’s paradox, and that in itself can point modern philosophers towards a potential solution to an issue that continues to trouble us today. Nevertheless, this I believe does not reflect brilliantly on the Theory of Recollection, given the simplistic and flawed nature of Meno’s paradox. Realistically, it is largely of no use. It is for this reason that, while the Theory of Recollection is strengthened by its fleeting appeal to logic, it is weakened by its overall tones of mythology, religiousness and lacking self-assuredness.
- Meno, 80-90
- Benson, H.H., 1990. ” Meno”, the Slave Boy and the Elenchos.Phronesis, pp.128-158.
- Ebert, T., 1973. Plato’s Theory of Recollection reconsidered an interpretation of Meno 80a–86c.Man and World, 6(2), pp.163-181.
- Gulley, N., 1954. Plato’s theory of recollection.The Classical Quarterly (New Series), 4(3-4), pp.194-213.
- Irwin, T., 1974. Recollection and Plato’s moral theory.The Review of Metaphysics, pp.752-772.
- Phillips, B., 1948. The Significance of Meno’s Paradox.The Classical Weekly, 42(6), pp.87-91.
- Welbourne, M., 1986. Meno’s Paradox.Philosophy, 61(236), pp.229-243.