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Meno 79 86 & Phaedo Notes

Classics Notes > Plato’s Meno and Euthyphro Notes

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Plato: Meno 79e - 86c In this section of the dialogue "Meno's paradox" is discussed, in which Socrates argues for and tries to prove the theory of recollection and the immortality of the soul. He does so by forcing one of Meno's slave boys to "recollect" a maths problem. Meno begins by comparing the effects of Socrates' questioning to the numbing effects of the torpedo fish and saying that if he were in a foreign city he would be arrested for being a wizard. He goes on to set out his paradox by which he is claiming that there is no point in such an inquiry as they are undertaking because it can not lead them closer to any new knowledge. Socrates will later accuse Meno of putting forward an eristikos argument; however this question seems to follow on naturally from the narrative. They have reached a dead end in their discussion and Meno feels numbed mentally so he understandably queries into the point of only achieving such perplexity when what they are really looking for is knowledge, or at least some greater understanding of virtue. Meno puts forward two distinct problems about the nature of inquiry:1) "And how will you inquire, Socrates, into something when you don't know at all what it is? Which of the things that you don't know will you propose as the object of you inquiry?" 2) "Or even if you really stumble on it, how will you know that this is the thing you didn't know before?" He is effectively saying that all learning by inquiry is impossible because 1) implies it is impossible to begin an inquiry and 2) that it is impossible to end an inquiry even if you managed to start one. If 1) were really such a powerful hindrance to the process of inquiry then why does he feel need for 2) or even realise it is a problem if an inquiry has never been started before, which is surely what 1) would imply if it were always true. Socrates, perhaps a little surprisingly at first, does not disagree with these statements. He re-states them in his own words, with a slight difference, so that they are easier to tackle with the argument of recollection which he will later use. He says:1) If you know the object already then you cannot genuinely inquire into it. 2) If you do not know it you cannot inquire, because you do not even know what you are inquiring into. (very similar to Meno 1) ) 3) (Implicitly): Either you know something or you don't. 4) Therefore you cannot inquire into any object. This broadens the paradox which Meno put forward because now no inquiry is possible, rather than just inquiry into what you don't know. The key change comes in the grammar of the Greek which changes from the indirect question in Meno's speech to the relative clause in Socrates'. The former comes from the question, "What are you looking for?" which can reasonably be given an answer, but Socrates says we cannot know "that which you're searching for." This is a much more specific statement and is far more eristikos than Meno's. Socrates' answer to this new paradox is to accept that we cannot inquire into what we don't know but, he says, we can inquire into what we already know because we already

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