In the Meno, Plato justifies the possibility for ones mind to uncover knowledge. Knowing one can obtain knowledge motivates the mind to gain more knowledge. Plato explains the theory of recollection by first questioning what virtue is, then demonstrating the process through the questioning of a slave boy. Although a few weaknesses present themselves in Platos argument, Plato presents a valid theory on how our minds can obtain knowledge. This paper focuses on exploring Platos theory of recollection by examining the strengths and weaknesses of his discussion with Meno.
The discussion of Platos theory of recollection evolved from a single question, What is virtue? When questioning Meno on the single definition of virtue, Plato was never satisfied. He never accepted Menos answers because Meno gave virtuous definitions, not virtues definition. For example, Meno claimed, if you want a womans virtue, that is easily described. She must be a good housewife, careful with her stores and obedient to her husband. Then there is another virtue for a child, male or female, and another for an old man, free or slave (Greek Philosophy, 111).All of these are examples of how a persons role becomes virtuous but never defines what virtue really is. Plato questions Menos self-knowledge of virtue, but Meno expounds virtuous characteristics rather than giving a definition of virtue. This presents a problem because if Meno does not know what virtue really is, then he cannot apply which characteristics associate with virtue and which do not. When Plato asks, Does anyone know what a part of virtue is, without knowing the whole? (Greek Philosophy, 119), Meno agrees this is simply impossible. This presents a logical argument against Menos definition(s) of virtue.
Plato believes the conversation to search for what virtue really is should continue despite achieving no success in their first efforts to form a satisfactory definition. Meno becomes very aggravated with Plato and proposes a valid argument to him. Meno exclaims,
And how will you inquire, (Plato), into that of which you are totally ignorant? What sort of thing, among those things which you know not, will you put forth as the object of your seeking? And even if you should chance upon it, how will you ever know that it is the thing which you not know?(Platos Meno, 77)
Although Menos paradox seems to be merely a dodge of proceeding to continue and ponder the true meaning of what virtue really is, the (paradox) is one of real philosophical importance and is basic for understanding the Theory of Ideas and the related notion of Recollection (Platos Meno:Text and Criticism, 78). The problem with this paradox is that in order to discover the definition of virtue, one must use reflection and logical insight, not research and proof. If the question under discussion had been a merely empirical one-e.g., How many citizens are there in Athens?-then Menos objection would have been utterly pointless, for this is a question to be answered by counting heads and not by reflection (Platos Meno:Text and Criticism, 79). Plato, who has confronted this paradox before, told Meno the argument was an excuse for indolence: and hence we must not give ear to this specious argument, for it will make us idle, and is pleasing only to the slothful (Platos Meno, 78). Plato strongly believes in this concept and discusses his thoughts furthermore:
I am ready to fight for as long as I can, in word and act: that is, that we shall be better, braver and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we dont know that if we believe there is no point in looking because what we dont know we can never discover. (Greek Philosophy, 128).
The concept this point made by Plato explores the subject that one not only obtains knowledge through perception but can also obtain knowledge through reason and hard work.
Plato expresses his theory of recollection, due to Menos difficulty in his search for virtue and to motivate Meno not to give up. Plato first explains the soul of man is immortal and has been born many times. The soul already has learned everything from the past. This means, the soul has the ability to recollect information and knowledge from the past. There is no reason why (one) should not find out all the rest (from a single piece of knowledge), if one keeps a stout heart and does not grow weary of the search, for seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection (Greek Philosophy, 121). This new kind of knowledge confuses Meno and he cannot quite grasp the whole concept of knowledge derived from the soul. To better explain himself, Plato calls a slave boy over to him to demonstrate the process in which a person goes about obtaining knowledge from the soul. Plato uses a geometric equation that the boy does not know. Plato asks him directatory questions until he derives the answer. Plato never gave him any new knowledge but through his line of questioning the boy recollected the answer. Therefore, the boy must have known the answer the whole time but simply forgot the knowledge needed. This demonstration illustrates Platos doctrine of knowledge, Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting (Platos Meno:Text and Criticism, 39). Meno now understands and agrees with Platos viewpoints on how one retains knowledge through recollection.
Although Meno does agree with Platos theory of recollection, the theory is still weak. When Plato speaks of the slave boys recovery of knowledge within himself and by himself, the theory fails to explain how the boy acquired the knowledge. If asked, How do we come by the knowledge that is in us?, Plato would answer one would come to acquire it through prior life. This answer simply restates his theory again. The force of the reply indicates when we acquired it not how. The difficulty is making the claim that knowledge is acquired prior to birth without associating it with the pre-natal existence of the soul, and fails to constitute an answer to the how question (Musings on the Meno, 128). Platos failure to answer how one obtains knowledge leads to a fallacy because of an infinite regress.
The regress is vicious for two reasons. First, because expectations of an explanation of the way we learn are simply filled by postponements (unending appeals to prior incarnations), and secondly, because the putative explanation by recollecting from a previous existence is precisely what stands in need of explanation, and is, therefore, debarred from functioning as the explanation of the learning process (Musings on the Meno, 128).
Therefore, one can look upon the theory of recollection as being inaccurate, because one knows the human mind can learn. The study of psychology proves the human mind can learn and gain knowledge through processes dealing with classical, operant, and cognitive conditioning. Platos point was correct, but how he argued it was incorrect.
Platos theory of recollection on how our minds can obtain knowledge is of great significance. He presents a strong theory on why the mind should not cease to expand its knowledge. The theory of recollection emphasizes the human mind can obtain knowledge and define what virtue really is. This theory is essential to Plato and Meno continuing their work on obtaining knowledge. Unfortunately, the theory of recollection presents an infinite regress of how the soul first obtains the knowledge to recollect. Despite the fallacy in Platos theory of recollection, he still proves his point to Meno that the mind can obtain knowledge, and the search for knowledge should continue.
Allen, Reginald E. Greek Philosophy, Thales to Aristotle. New York, NY: Free Press, 1966.
Fleming, Noel and Alexander Sesonske. Platos Meno: Text and Criticism. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1965.
Thomas, John E. Musings on the Meno. The Netherlands: The Hague, 1980.