Meno is one of the Platonic dialogues, where Socrates and his student Meno talks about the recollection of knowledge (knowledge is learned from previous experience). The dialogue between Socrates and Meno starts when Meno asks “What is virtue and can it be taught?” Meno attempts to define virtue by saying that it is ruling over people justly and moderately. Socrates agrees that justice and moderation are a part of virtue but do not make up virtue as a whole. After trying to define virtue a lot of time, Meno eventually gives up saying that “both my mind and my tongue are numb.”(80b). Meno asks Socrates, “How can you search for something when you don’t know at all what the thing is?”(80d). In such a situation how do you know even what to look for? Socrates continues by saying that there is also no way to search for something that you already know, since you already have that knowledge.
Socrates’ reply becomes known as the theory of recollection. Knowledge is innate, and learning is recollection of facts once known but forgotten. . Socrates first explains the soul of man is immortal and has been born many times. So, we acquire knowledge before we are born. So, true knowledge lies in the soul and not in the body, because soul is immortal and it exists before a body is formed. This means that the soul (not body) has the ability to recollect information and knowledge from the past.
The theory of recollection is the said to be the hidden knowledge from our past life. It can be used to explain logic, intuition, guesses and our ideas. For example, the intuition that something wrong will happen if someone comes or the logic that if x=1 and y=x+2 then y=3. Whenever we take decisions on matters of which we have no previous experience, we rely on our intuition, or our ability to guess. Is there any term that defines this sort of knowledge that we use? We cannot have learned it in our lifetime since we have had no experience of that action before. It is only reasonable to say that we recollect it. To illustrate it more carefully, when you put two books in front of an uneducated man he will still know that there are two books. When you add two more books next to them, he will understand that there are now four books. Furthermore, if you keep four pens to the side of those four books, he will still understand that the number of books and pens are equal. He may not be able to express this comprehensively, but he has the knowledge that the number of books has been doubled or the number of books and pens are equal. So can we say that the work of putting the books and pens in front of him makes him recollect that sort of knowledge?
To prove his statement, Socrates asks a slave boy some questions about a topic on geometry which he is completely unaware of. Socrates presents this to Meno as strong evidence to prove that learning is a recollection: if the slave wasn’t being taught, how did he come to know the relationship between the diagonal of a square and a square double the area? Socrates never gave him any new knowledge but through his line of questioning the slave boy recollected the answer. Therefore, Socrates believes the knowledge must already have been in him, which was recollected by the boy with the help of Socrates’ questions.
But, I do not see how the question and answer with the slave boy supports his statement that “Learning is recollecting”. The slave boy knows what a square is. He also agrees to Socrates when Socrates says that a square is made up of four right angles and four equal sides. In addition to this we can see that he can perform simple calculations when he answers that 2 times 2 feet is 4. Therefore, we can see that the boy obviously had some previous knowledge on geometry.
Socrates has guided slave boy towards the direction of the correct answer. When the slave boy is wrong, Socrates says that he is wrong and thus the slave boy starts all over again until he gets the correct answer. This shows that the slave boy has good intuition, logic or reasoning skills and through the proper questioning of Socrates, the slave boy is able to find out the correct answer. Socrates gives an answer within the question that he asks to the slave boy. His questions are like more of a statement. We can also see that the slave boy gave some wrong answers before giving the correct one. To illustrate it more carefully, if someone asks “In which continent does Nepal lie if it is between India and China which are in Asia?” Then the answer would obviously be Asia. Here, I was not given the answer straight forwardly but I analyzed the questions and gave the correct answer. Thus, I believe the slave boy has reasoned out the facts by the help of the facts that Socrates provided.
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Socrates says that he is not instructing but helps recollect by merely questioning the boy. But it seems like Socrates is in a way instructing the boy. In lines 82 c, Socrates asks the area of a square given the sides two feet but he immediately gives an extra hint that 2 times 1 is 1 which is an area if the sides are 2 and 1. So how can we say this is recollecting? Moreover, in 85a there is a line here from corner to corner, cutting the figure into two. And the boy is agreeing to whatever Socrates says because the boy already knows that a diagonal cuts the square from the corners. In 82c3-4, Socrates asks, “Doesn’t a square have lines through the middle equal?” So in these passages, the slave boy has all his answers in Socrates’ question itself. Thus, the dialogue between the slave boy and Socrates is not a good example to say that the slave boy is recollecting which is based upon the boy’s prior knowledge.
Some may also argue that a person is good at something while another person may be good at something else. Or some people learn some things quickly while others take a long time in learning the same thing. This may go again go back to the idea of recollection, where we can say if a person learn some thing quickly then, he/ she must have learnt it in his/ her past life. Thus, Socrates says that knowledge resides in our soul. So, there must be a time where the soul knew nothing and had to learn it at a point. How did the first men (soul + body) in the universe recollect the knowledge from the past? At that time, I believe the soul has not learned anything yet, but how did it recollect the unknown thing? To sum up, if a man doesn’t learn new things but merely remembers knowledge from a previous life, then where did he get the knowledge in the previous life or the previous life before that?
I believe that there are no explanations better than the theory of recollection when it comes regarding our ability to guess or use our logic or prior knowledge or intuition in the daily life. In conclusion, I would like to say that despite the attempts of Socrates to show that learning is recollection, I do not totally agree to his view or his supporting ideas. His logic and his explanations were not clear enough. To put it in a nutshell, there might be some things that can be recollected but I do not think that: knowledge is entirely recollection.
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