Wed 13 Feb, 2008 04:06 am
When Socrates, in his dialogue with Meno on the nature of virtue, admits that he does not know what virtue is, Meno blindsides him with a devilish question: "And how will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of inquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?" Socrates, who has heard this paradox before, immediately recasts it in an expanded, declarative form: "a man cannot inquire about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to inquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to inquire." As if irritated by its insipidity, Socrates dismisses the paradox as the prelude to a "tiresome dispute"-certainly nothing to lose sleep over. The solution, in his mind, is straightforward:
[INDENT]The soul [...] 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 [....]
[/INDENT]On the one hand, since it would be impossible for the soul to identify virtue unless she already knew what virtue looked like, she must have already seen it. On the other hand, since it would be equally impossible for the soul to inquire about virtue unless she was in some way ignorant of it, she must (for whatever reason) be temporarily unable to recollect its exact appearance. Conveniently enough, this kind of psychic amnesia is arguably neither knowledge nor ignorance, and so it narrowly escapes the jaws of Meno's paradox. We may know, for example, the name of our kindergarten teacher even if on occasion we are unable to call it to mind. Just because we are unable to access our knowledge, does not necessarily mean that we do not possess that knowledge. Thus, for Socrates, "all enquiry and all learning" about virtue, or anything else, is nothing but the recollection (anamnesis) of what we have momentarily forgotten.
Socrates quickly betrays his motives for contesting the paradox, imploring Meno "not to listen to this sophistical argument about the impossibility of enquiry," since "it will make us idle; and is sweet only to the sluggard." The theory of the soul's recollection appears to reopen the possibility for inquiry, hence allowing Socrates and Meno to remain "active and inquisitive." This, needless to say, is the most important thing for Socrates, as philosophical discussion is his raison-d'etre as well as his raison de vivre.
But what if Socrates is wrong and inquiry really is impossible? The human will rebels against such a thought; and even those who normally despise philosophy-who would sneer at the ambitious anti-skepticism of Kant as if it were the work of a sexually-repressed idiot savant-find themselves momentarily championing the contemplative life, although for much different reasons than those of the philosopher. For while the philosopher wants to continue philosophizing, the non-philosopher wants to continue believing. Hence Meno's paradox sets into motion that which yearns to remain still, and makes still that which desires to remain in motion.
The modern intellect, uncomfortable with Socrates' quasi-mystical appeal to an immortal soul, searches desperately for a "down-to-earth" solution to the puzzle. And indeed there is one to be found. With a little thought, one can point to a number of real-life examples in which we begin in a state of ignorance and, through inquiry, seemingly end up in a state of knowledge. If we hear a knock at the front door, we may not know who it is that's calling; but if we open the door and see our neighbor standing on the porch, then we do know-do we not? Indeed, were we not in a sense aware of the "subject of inquiry" when we wondered who was at the door? Although we did not know who it was, we at least knew that we did not know who it was; and so the subject of our enquiry was the identity of the unknown person. Likewise, whenever we want to know what time it is, not only must we know that we don't know what time it is, we must also know that what we want to know is the time; and when we look up at the clock on our wall and see that it is five o'clock, we then know the time-do we not?
One must wonder why Socrates, rather than waxing poetic on the amnesia of the immortal soul, does not turn to these more rational counterarguments instead. Why does he feel the need to leave the solid ground of logic and empirical data, where he is arguably most at home, and take off on a metaphysical flight of fancy? The answer may be that Socrates realizes the true power of Meno's paradox-the fact that it deals not so much with physical phenomena as with innate, foundational concepts.
Socrates is surely aware that if one wants to know the time of day or the condition of the weather, he can easily find them out. But what if someone wants to know what virtue or justice is? Here the non-philosopher, blissfully ignorant of the real stakes involved, triumphantly enters the debate, and contends that humans cannot know what virtue and justice are, or even whether such things exist. This statement, if true, greatly reduces the scope of philosophical inquiry, limiting it to only those phenomena which are perceived by the physical senses. Like the wolf that has chewed off its own leg to escape a trap, philosophy will hobble on in a wretched and diminished state. It will call itself physics, medicine, and psychology-much to the satisfaction of the non-philosopher, who now feels comfortable enough to leave the debate and return to the world of belief, within which he can enjoy the many useful creations of modern science.
Socrates' argument, on the other hand, can be criticized for going too far in the opposite direction. Whereas the modern scientist may be concerned only with physical, a posteriori phenomena-e.g., global warming, Alzheimer's disease, the expansion of the universe-the Socratic philosopher seems concerned only with innate, a priori concepts. The innate knowledge that Socrates attributes to Meno's uneducated slave is the understanding of fundamental arithmetic principles, and this understanding is brought out, or recollected, through a process of questioning rather than inculcation. Socrates asks the slave boy a series of questions, and in answering them, the boy discovers that he is something of a mathematician. This demonstration of the Socratic method is intended to encourage Meno, to show him that knowledge is possible and philosophy fruitful. Yet one question looms ominously in the background. If the knowledge of virtue is just as innate as the knowledge of mathematics (i.e., if it can be recollected in the same way), then why can't Socrates also bring out that knowledge from his interlocutors? What becomes of philosophy if the only truths that can be discovered are mathematical? Does it not become as myopic as modern science?
While Socrates' solution to Meno's paradox may not be the right one, the fact that it aims for an a priori, metaphysical conception of knowledge is significant. As we showed earlier, when the paradox is directed at a posteriori knowledge, it does not seem particularly damning. The neighbor at the door and the time on the clock appear to demonstrate that humans can formulate questions about things they do not know, and then through a rational process of inquiry, learn the truth about those things. However, when the paradox is aimed at a priori knowledge, it becomes deadlier than hemlock.
Let us take, for example, the concept of knowledge. And let us imagine that we have before us three possible definitions of that concept, written down on three separate pieces of paper. If, after reading all three definitions, we come to believe that the third one is the true one, how will we know that we are right? There would seem to be only two methods by which we could determine this with absolute certainty:
[INDENT]1. We can compare our belief in the third definition's accuracy with the true definition of knowledge, and thereby confirm that our belief is-according to this definition-classifiable as knowledge.
[/INDENT][INDENT]2. We can compare the third definition itself with the true definition of knowledge, to see whether both definitions are identical.
[/INDENT]Now, if these are the only two ways we can know that we are right, then the freefall has begun. For, as it would seem, we can never know which of the three sheets of paper bears the true definition unless we already know the true definition. In other words, unless we already know what knowledge is, we can never come to know what knowledge is.
Of course, Socrates would have us believe that we do already know what knowledge is, even though we do not know that we know it. Meno's slave boy surely did not know that he knew so much about mathematics, but Socrates' method of questioning ostensibly demonstrated that he did know that much. Yet still we must ask, Can this same method be used to recollect knowledge about anything besides mathematical principles? Can it really lead us to the true conception of knowledge itself? Considering that Socrates and Meno ultimately failed to discover the true nature of virtue, and that Socrates, after a lifetime of posing questions, could only conclude that he knew nothing, it would seem unlikely.
The practical, historical failures of the Socratic method are not surprising when we realize that the theory of anamnesis, which underlies the method and gives it its plausibility, does not actually escape from Meno's paradox. This is because the theory, despite its poetic beauty, has one fatal flaw: it fails to distinguish between conceptions or recollections that are true, and those that are false. What happens, for example, if the soul is unsure whether she has remembered correctly the true nature of knowledge? To whom or what can she turn for guidance? Here the paradox rears its hydra heads again, since in order for the soul to determine if her recollection of knowledge is accurate, she must already know what an accurate recollection of knowledge looks like! It would seem, therefore, that in order for Socrates' theory to defeat the paradox, it must assume that all of the soul's recollections are always accurate-a dangerous position to take.
There is, however, one way in which the soul supposedly can separate false recollections from true, and that is through the process of elimination, whereby those recollections that are free from inconsistencies and fallacies are left to stand alone in the mind. (The Socratic method is, rather ironically, an early manifestation of this process, which is the generic form of all rational inquiry.) Because the unaided intellect can think only within its own limits, it must humbly accept those limits as its highest standards. A definition of knowledge that does not meet these standards can be rejected, whereas one that stands the test of logic may remain in consideration, until the day it too is found impure. But here again the initial problem arises. If such a thing could exist as a completely unassailable definition of knowledge, one that not even a hundred Socrateses could overthrow, how would humanity know that it was the true definition? It would know only if it already knew that a true definition is one that cannot be refuted by the human mind. One must have faith in the capacity of the mind to separate truth from error-a faith that reason does not permit. Yet this is, of course, the one concession to irrationality that a Socrates must make if he is ever to live an examined life. The foundation of philosophy is beyond the scope of reason, but it must remain in place in order for philosophy to exist at all.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why Socrates, in answering Meno's question, turns to the language of religion; for he knows that the principle of his profession is as mystifying as the gods themselves. Our ignorance of knowledge, and our resulting inability to ground rational inquiry on a rational basis, threatens much more than the possibility of a priori knowledge: it calls into question our potential to have any knowledge at all. If humans do not know what knowledge is, then the useful discoveries of modern science, and all of the billions of perceptions we have every day, collapse into mere appearance and lose the name of truth-the wolf bleeds to death after chewing off his own leg. Unfortunately, this will hardly concern the non-philosopher, who is generally satisfied with appearance and considers truth a mere abstraction. Tell him that his pleasures are doubtful images, and he will reply, "So what?" The lover of truth, however, will be deeply troubled, for he yearns to pull back the shadows of appearance and lay hold of reality.
Meno's paradox is like an antidote made out of the very poison it is designed to neutralize. Although it forces us to acknowledge our ignorance, and thus increases our doubt, it also compels us forward in our quest to eradicate that ignorance by bringing us back to the first and most difficult questions-questions which we never should have left-and by preventing us from building on false foundations. The heart of philosophy is a violent whirlwind, yet it is so small that few ever find themselves within it, let alone notice it. And even if they were to fall into its vortex, they would need only take a single step to stand outside of it again. At its silent center is the question of knowledge, which is the question of mind, the only possible knower. Who can deny the immanence of this question? And how can we step out into the still air until we have answered it?
Hello, saiboimushi. I just wanted to say I really love your essay on Plato's Meno with its discussion of epistemology, it is simply divine!
You really made me think and wonder here. I am wondering about reason and the ultimate grounds of existence and about epistemology and warrants for our beliefs etc. These are all of the things that Plato brings to the table and I live them here again by reading your outstanding post.
I just felt I should give you some of the respect that your awesome post deserves. It is such a stellar philosophical essay.