Mahmoud asked:

“Socrates: So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps once upon a time you knew, before you met me, but now you certainly look like someone who is ignorant. Nevertheless, I want to put my head together with yours, Meno, so that we can figure out what this thing is.

Meno: How will you look for it, Socrates, when you don’t have the slightest idea what it is? How can you go around looking for something when you don’t know what you are looking for? Even if it’s right in front of your nose, how will you know that’s the thing you didn’t know?” (Meno’s dialogue)

In this dialogue, Meno is presenting Socrates with a fundamental problem in Greek epistemology. Can you characterize the problem presented here? What was Plato’s solution to that problem? Critically discuss one contemporary solution for that paradox.

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

A widely accepted view of Meno’s paradox among Plato scholars is that the paradox concerns the acquisition of ‘a priori’ knowledge, that is to say knowledge gained through reasoning rather than through  empirical investigation. Plato encourages this view with his slave boy experiment, where a young lad, ignorant of geometry, is helped in following the steps of a simple geometrical proof. (The original influential article was by Gregory Vlastos — you can look it up.)

In recent times, the paradox has been taken as a challenge to the activity of philosophical analysis. How is it possible that one can give a philosophical analysis of some problematic concept — say ‘free will’ or ‘person’ or ‘knowledge’ — if we don’t already know in some sense what these are? How are you able to judge that the purported analysis is correct or incorrect?

One suggested solution is that we ‘implicitly know’ what a person or what knowledge is, or what it is to have free will. We know this because we are competent speakers of the language. The problem with that is that it assumes that our unexamined notions of these things are broadly correct — ruling out the possibility, say, that no-one has free will, or that there is no such thing as a ‘person’ (impossibility of giving a coherent definition of personal identity — e.g. the influential work of Derek Parfit), or that there is no ‘knowledge’ to be had: philosophical scepticism.

Plato had a different take: these ideas are implicit in us because our soul is ‘akin’ to the Forms (as he states in the Phaedo). As partners in Socratic dialogue, we are helping one another to ‘recollect’ the knowledge which our souls once possessed but have since forgotten.

What did he mean by this?

The idea that Plato had a ‘Theory of Recollection’ is a fairy tale, a travesty of his metaphysical view. Plato is using mythical language which he doesn’t intend to be taken as the strict literal truth. It completely ignores the very special nature of the subject under discussion in the Meno — the nature of virtue.

Virtue is the lynchpin not just of Socrates’ ethical teaching (‘virtue is knowledge’, the ‘unity of the virtues’) but of Plato’s metaphysics. This isn’t some homely discussion of ‘what it is to be a good person’, or how we judge this or that act or person as ‘virtuous’ or ‘unvirtuous’.

“… gods and men are held together by communion and friendship, by orderliness, temperance, and justice; and that is the reason, my friend, why they call the whole of this world by the name of order, not of disorder or dissoluteness. Now you, as it seems to me, do not give proper attention to this, for all your cleverness, but have failed to observe the great power of geometrical equality amongst both gods and men: you hold that self-advantage is what one ought to practice, because you neglect geometry.” (Gorgias 508a)

The question of human virtue is about nothing less than the order of the universe. The ‘cosmos’. Plato and Socrates were not the first to say this: the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus claimed that the cosmos is ruled by Logos which is also the essence of the human soul. In investigating the universe we are investigating the nature of the geometrical relation between the cosmos and the soul. In investigating the soul, we are investigating the nature of the geometrical relation between the cosmos and the soul.

The two questions — about the cosmos and the soul — are ultimately one and the same.

To ask about virtue, from Plato’s philosophical standpoint, is to ask the biggest question that there is. There is nothing bigger or more important. How can we possibly hope to make progress, when there is so much that we don’t know? The young aristocrat Meno is quite justifiably baffled. Following the advice of Heraclitus, Socrates and Plato believed that the answer is to ‘look into yourself’. The clue to this whole conundrum is in me, it is in you. We just have to faith that an answer is there to be found through diligent inquiry.

As an illustration of this, Socrates takes a young slave boy, the very last person whom you would expect to be able to conduct a geometrical proof. Even he can do it, he just needs to have the knowledge ‘brought out’. Plato isn’t saying that knowledge of virtue is similar to knowledge of geometry, although as we see in the Gorgias there is a respect in which he thought, like the Pythagoreans, that geometry had something to do with the philosophical question about the nature of the soul and the cosmos. As described in the Republic, the ‘mathematica’ — numbers, triangles etc. — are merely a clue to the nature of the Forms. Yet they remain fundamentally different. Dialectic does not work in the same way as mathematical proof.

The whole of Plato’s philosophy can be seen as a progressive working towards the solution to Socrates’ puzzle about virtue, a conundrum which he never succeeds in solving although of all the thinkers in Western philosophy, his work stands out as one of the greatest attempts to solve it.