welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Picking A Fight With Plato

Ed Fraser argues that the theory of recollection presented by Socrates in the Meno is circular.

The primary objective of Plato’s Meno is an inquiry into the nature of virtue. Accordingly, Socrates, acting as usual as Plato’s mouthpiece, and Meno, a student of the sophists, attempt to answer the question ‘What is virtue?’ Their initial failure to understand what virtue is prompts Meno to ask whether they should even suppose that an answer is possible. The problem is, how do you find something, such as virtue, when you don’t know what it is you’re looking for? If you already know what it is, then you don’t need to find it; but if you don’t know what it is, how will you know when you have found it? This problem of finding a definition of something is known as ‘the paradox of enquiry’.

Socrates argues that in order for a person to enquire into something it must be knowable. Meno’s criticism is in effect that in order for a person to enquire into something it must also be known. He argues that if the object in question is not known – in other words, if the person doesn’t know what they’re looking for – then they cannot begin their enquiry at all; for how can one enquire into the nature of ‘x’ without knowing what ‘x’ is? Meno is also concerned with the possibility that enquiry is never-ending, since even if one were to stumble across the right account, one might not know that it was the right account, (Meno 80d). Socrates focuses primarily on the first part of Meno’s dilemma: how enquiry might be started. The difficulty can be rephrased as being that enquiry into what is known is unnecessary, and enquiry into what is unknown is impossible.

Socrates refers to the problem as a ‘tired dispute’, and suggests that it might be solved upon a proper examination into the nature of knowledge and enquiry. Specifically, he proposes that everything a person knows or can come to know was previously known by them. Although it has subsequently been forgotten, it may be ‘relearned’. This is the Platonic/Socratic theory of recollection. In this sense Socrates accepts that a person cannot enquire into what they genuinely do not know, but he avoids the paradox of enquiry by maintaining that they can enquire into what they have forgotten. Since this will include all knowledge, enquiry is secured in very general terms.

In defence of his position, Socrates refers to what he describes as a “glorious truth” – namely, that the soul of man is immortal. It might die and be reborn, but it is never destroyed. He reasons that, since the soul is immortal and has been born again many times, it must have seen all things that exist in this world or in the world below or in the world of the Forms and has knowledge of them all. In this way, the soul has learned everything that there is to know (i.e., everything that can be enquired into). Although everything the soul has learnt has been forgotten, during the process of enquiry someone might come to recollect something that they had previously known, thereby ‘relearning’ some piece of knowledge – say of the nature of virtue.

Socrates provides a demonstration. An uneducated slave boy of Meno’s is shown to be capable of recognising the right answer to a mathematical problem that he has never (in this life) heard before (Meno 81a-86b). Socrates is keen to stress that the boy arrives at the right answer by himself through a series of questions. Since the boy was not taught the right answer, Socrates proposes that he expressed an opinion that was already in him. He argues on these grounds that the soul already contains an array of true opinions, gathered, as it were, from a previous life, which can be newly aroused though simple questioning. In this respect, one can enquire into what one is ignorant of in virtue of the fact that the true opinions are ‘stirred up’ into your mind through questioning.

Circular Knowledge

I do not intend to argue that Socrates’ theory of recollection does not work as a solution to the paradox of enquiry. Instead I intend to demonstrate that the theory of recollection doesn’t work generally. To do this I shall make three claims:

1.) That in order for his theory of recollection to be coherent and therefore potentially resolve Meno’s paradox of enquiry, Socrates must be able to demonstrate that the slave boy is in fact recollecting some previous true opinions rather than learning new knowledge by using general reasoning.

2.) That Socrates attempts to establish recollection by employing the notion of what I shall describe as an ‘immortal and knowledge-giving soul’.

3.) That the reasoning he uses to promote his ‘immortal and knowledge-giving soul’ is circular.

The first of my claims is obviously a requirement for Socrates. His theory turns on whether or not the slave boy learns anything new. In particular, Socrates needs to show that the true opinions arrived at were already-learned forgotten truths.

The second claim seems equally uncontroversial. Socrates is able to take the slave boy to have arrived at true relearned opinions because he has already introduced the notion of an immortal and knowledge-giving soul. Given this notion, if a person comes to the correct answer to a problem of which they have no experience (in this life), it can be reasonable to suppose that it’s because they have relearned something they already knew.

Now for the tricky part. I think Socrates does not assume the existence of an immortal and knowledge-giving soul. Rather, I believe that he sets it out as a possibility to be examined, and attempts to persuade us that this is the case. I put it to you that the slave boy example is intended to demonstrate that such a soul exists. In other words, Socrates draws the grounds for his notion of an immortal and knowledge-giving soul out of the slave boy example, because he believes that it is the best explanation for the apparently relearned true opinions he observes in the boy. But it strikes me that Socrates is not entitled to use what he sees as the relearned true opinions of the slave boy to prove the existence of an immortal knowledge-providing soul, because the true opinions themselves cannot be established as relearned until they are proven to have originated from such a soul. The point is that if the ‘relearned’ opinions noticed in the slave boy are supposed to offer evidence for an immortal knowledge-providing soul, then Socrates’ reasoning is circular here, because the existence of such a soul is offered to account for the origin of the opinions. To put it another way, having initially proposed that the true opinions of the slave boy originated out of the otherworld experiences of the immortal knowledge-providing soul, Socrates is not then in the position to say that they offer evidence for the existence of that soul. Thus Socrates draws his evidence for the existence of an immortal knowledge-providing soul on circular grounds.

We may draw an analogy with a challenge made against Descartes. In his Meditations Six, Descartes proposes that everything that we clearly and distinctly perceive is true with certainty because it is guaranteed by the existence of God. But in Meditations Four, he has already proposed that we know that God exists because we clearly and distinctly perceive that he exists, and whatever we clearly and distinctly perceive is true with certainty. The reasoning here is circular – one cannot at the same time infer the existence of God because one clearly and distinctly perceives it, and infer the truth of what one clearly and distinctly perceives from the existence of God. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Cartesian Circle’.

I am suggesting that Socrates here commits what we might call the ‘Socratic Circle’. At the same time that he seems to say that he can establish that the slave boy’s true opinions are relearned on the basis that he has an immortal knowledge-providing soul, he also seems to say that we know the slave boy has a knowledge-providing soul on the basis that he has relearned true opinions. This reasoning is circular in a similar way to Descartes’. This has severe consequences, because unless Socrates can prove that the slave boy comes by the right answer in virtue of already knowing it in a past life, then the problem of enquiry is not solved by the theory of recollection, and the Platonic theory of knowledge cannot get off the ground.

© Edward Fraser 2012

Edward Fraser graduated in 2010 with a degree in philosophy from King’s College London. He’s the creator and co-host of philosophical podcast ‘The Thirst’.

Allegory of the Cave

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, as told in the Republic, Book VII, is a fable related by Socrates to illustrate the gap Plato perceives between the transient world as it appears to us, and the unchanging world of the Forms, which exists behind or beyond appearances.

In an extended metaphor, Plato/Socrates considers dwellers in a cave. All their lives they’ve been chained up so that they cannot move their heads to look around. The entrance to the cave – the exit to the daylight of truth – is behind them, and so is a fire, with a walkway in front of it. People walk along this path, or things are paraded on it, and the shadows of these people and things are cast by the fire onto the wall in front of the prisoners. Because they have no experience which might suggest a different interpretation, the cave-dwellers assume that the shadows they see moving on the cave wall are the reality of the people and things. This idea seems to be confirmed by the whispers of voices or other noises they hear echoing around the cave in time with the movements or gestures of the shadows. In an analogous way (the argument goes), we assume that the world we experience is absolute reality, never imagining that there might be a hidden reality which is the source of our flickering experiences, but which is quite different from them.

Socrates goes on to relate how one day one of the dwellers in darkness is dragged up out of the cave to the light of truth. Plato clearly is referring to himself here, as going beyond appearances to perceive the world of the Forms – the highest of which, the dazzling ‘sun’ of the Forms, is the Form of (the) Good. He has Socrates say of this Form “Once [the Good] is perceived, the conclusion must follow that, for all things, this is the cause of whatever is right and good: in the visible world it gives birth to light and to the lord of light, while it is itself sovereign in the intelligible world [of Forms], and the parent of intelligence and truth. Without having had a vision of this Form no one can act with wisdom, either in his own life or in matters of the state.”

Plato tells us that the freed man, having seen the truth, will return to tell his former companions what he has experienced. Plato also thinks they won’t believe him, will abuse him for his foolishness, and will kill him if he tries to free others. Nevertheless, for Plato it is the duty of the enlightened to try and convince the endarkened of the deception they suffer under; and he goes on to explain why the philosopher, who has knowledge of the Good, should rule over those who do not have such knowledge.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X