The Analogy of Religion

Philosophy, Christian Theology, and Joseph Butler

Category: Meno

You’ll Never Learn: Innate Knowledge

In the last post I ask you to think about Meno’s Paradox. But don’t worry if you couldn’t grasp the Paradox or answer it; I will explain it in clearer langauge and then explore Socrates’s answer.

First, lets remind ourselves of the context. Socrates has left Meno is a state of confusion by uncovering his ignorance about virtue. Socrates offers to help, but Meno then states his objection to the inquiry of any type of knowledge, virtue included. His Paradox goes something like this: How can you inquire into a subject you know nothing about? After all, where do you start and how do you know when you have found knowledge? Socrates fleshes this out by stating the reverse: What is left to inquire about a subject you already know?

You own answer might be that knowledge isn’t an all or nothing sort of thing. Instead, there are degrees of knowledge. We don’t seem to start by literally knowing nothing about any subject, and our knowledge doesn’t really become exhaustive. So the implicit assumption in Meno’s Paradox seems wrong. But what answer does Plato give through Socrates?

To answer this Paradox, Socrates sketches his doctrine of the immortal soul. For him, the soul is part of the person that lives on after the death of the physical body. The crucial part for Socrates, however, is that souls have lived for many of past lives, both in the physical world and the after life. He explains the implications:

“The soul, then, as being immortal, and having been born again many times, and having seen all things that exist, whether in this world or in the world below, has knowledge of them all; and it is no wonder that she should be able to call to remembrance all that she ever knew about virtue, and about everything; for as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things; there is no difficulty in her eliciting or as men say learning, out of a single recollection -all the rest, if a man is strenuous and does not faint; for all enquiry and all learning is but recollection.

It is unclear how seriously Socrates (and Plato) takes the myth behind the doctrine; that is a debate for Plato scholars, and perhaps I will come back to the category of ‘myth’ in later posts. Regardless of that, since Socrates believes that our souls have already experienced many lives, he can claim that the soul has knowledge of “all things that exist”. That means all learning and inquiry is actually about remembering or recollecting pre-existing knowledge.

Learning is an illusion then, according to Socrates, and teaching is only the process by which the soul recollects knowledge it already has, not the impartation of new knowledge from teacher to learner.

Meno seems impressed by Socrates’ strange ideas, but like us he needs a demonstration or a proof. Socrates calls over one of Meno’s assistants, a boy who only knows how to speak Greek, and has no other expertise.

Soc: “Attend now to the questions which I ask him, and observe whether he learns of me or only remembers.”

Socrates asks the boy a series of, perhaps leading, questions to help him “recollect” how to solve a particular mathematical problem: how to double the area of a square.

At first, the boy gives incorrect answers; such as, by doubling the length of the sides. Socrates and Meno agree that the boy is only guessing at the answer; he doesn’t have understanding or knowledge. As the questioning continues the boy realises that he doesn’t know the answer too. Socrates remarks: “Is he not better off in knowing his ignorance?“. Meno agrees. After more questions the boy finally gives the correct answer.

Socrates draws some interesting implications from this demonstration. The boy, says Socrates, had “true notions” about the solution which he did not have knowledge of. Through the process of questioning these notions have been transformed into understanding and knowledge. The “true notions” then, are the innate knowledge within all of us, which has been learnt in previous lives.

This raises some questions which I don’t think are clearly answered by this extract. Do we unconsciously have these notions? Are these notions conscious opinions? Or would Socrates say it was a mixture of both? Without reading the whole Meno it is hard to know. Leaving that aside, Plato has given us some clues to the nature of knowledge and how we might come to know something. And even if we are not persuaded by his particular doctrine of innate knowledge, I think there is something to the idea of some pre-existing knowledge within us.

What do you think about the idea of innate knowledge? What are true notions and how to they relate to knowledge and opinion?

Next we shall learn (or recollect) about the difference between knowledge and opinion in an extract from one of the most important works of Philosophy ever written: The Republic. This is Plato’s Socrates at his finest, so don’t miss it!


Meno’s Paradox: An Introduction to Knowledge

What is Knowledge? What does it mean to know something? And how does a person gain knowledge?

A contemporary introduction to Philosophy may describe knowledge as the following: ‘knowledge is justified true belief’. However, since discussions of Philosophy should be historically informed we are going to start from the beginning; that is, in Ancient Greece with Plato.* I plan to explore the ideas of a number of past thinkers through a multiple part series. And at the we will come back to the common contemporary definition of knowledge and compare it to what we have learnt.

Philosophy is a hard subject. You can’t merely read Philosophy: you must write notes; summarising in your own words what other thinkers have written. You must also read some ancient philosophical literature, to avoid becoming slaves to contemporary thought. One of the aim of this blog is to encourage its readers, and me the writer, to engage with ancient texts themselves.

Before looking at some of Plato’s ideas, lets situate questions about knowledge and belief within the discipline of philosophy as a whole. Philosophy, as mentioned in my last post, is traditionally divided into a number of branches, or areas of enquiry. Questions about knowledge and belief tend to fall into a branch called ‘the theory of knowledge’, or epistemology (from the Greek word episteme, which means ‘knowledge’ or ‘understanding). Epistemology is sometimes called the grand daddy of Philosophy as it bears on all other areas of enquiry; indeed, my anthology of Western Philosophy starts with extracts on the subject of knowledge and certainty before exploring the other lofty branches of philosophy such as metaphysics, ethics, personal identity, and many more.

Our first extract, and the first extract of the aforementioned anthology, is Plato’s Meno. The Meno, like most of Plato’s works, was written in the form of a dialog, with Socrates, Plato’s primary character, engaging in Philosophical discussion with various others. In this extract, Socrates has just flummoxed Meno with his famous Socratic method of questioning, leaving Meno in a state of confusion and ignorance which he compares to being stung by a torpedo fish and paralyzed. You can read the whole dialogue here: Meno’s Paradox

Meno complains: “For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you; and though I have been delivered of an infinite variety of speeches about virtue before now, and to many persons-and very good ones they were, as I thought-at this moment I cannot even say what virtue is.

Socrates offers to help Meno enquire into what virtue is, and this is where Meno puts forth his objection to the inquiry of knowledge simpliciter; that is, knowledge of any sort. For Socrates, virtue is intimately linked to knowledge. We often find Socratic discussions of the former leading into the latter. Socrates believes that to be a virtuous person, first you have to know what virtue is; any attack on our ability to gain knowledge will be treated seriously by Socrates, who is very interested in living a virtuous life. The dialogue continues:

Men. “And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?

Soc. “I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the, very subject about which he is to enquire.

Men. “Well, Socrates, and is not the argument sound?

How would you describe Meno’s paradox? And how would you answer it?

Next time we shall look at Socrates answer to Meno’s conundrum: innate knowledge.

*Sorry Pre-Socratics!