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Meno 86 96 Notes

Classics Notes > Plato’s Meno and Euthyphro Notes

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Week 7: Meno 86c - 96d This section of the dialogue deals with the discussion as to whether excellence can be taught. Meno begins by asking as to whether virtue can be taught or whether it is comes naturally to a person or through some other way. Socrates then takes the outwardly surprising step of conceding to Meno that they will abandon the discussion of "what virtue is", the main driving force behind the discussion so far and now focus on "of what sort virtue is". This would seem to contradict the very opening of the dialogue in which Socrates rejects just such an approach as he now seems to be giving into. The crucial difference, however, is that now Socrates says that they shall discuss the nature of excellence from the starting point of a hypothesis. This shows he is not really giving into Meno but simply approaching the problem from another angle. As precedence for an argument from hypothesis he take the geometricians and so wants to show that such a way of going about the discussion is acceptable because it provides a valid starting point for your thoughts. It is not necessarily taken to be an absolute truth, but appears reasonable and so the discussion can proceed to either prove or disprove the hypothesis with the interlocutors having an open mind to either outcome. Socrates earlier stated that it was impossible to inquire into what you don't know, but perhaps this is another attempt to answer that problem because they don't yet know what excellence is but they have a loose conception that it might be linked to knowledge and so they can proceed to inquire into their hypothesis. Such a method of examination will be useful because it provides a basis from which they can deduce things and so explore the implications of these or disregard them (and possibly the hypothesis as a whole) because of any inconsistencies that may arise. Working from a hypothesis in this way is in fact consistent with the rest of the dialogue and not a betrayal of what has proceeded as some scholars, according to Bedu-Addo, think. This is because all attempted definitions of excellence are opinions which should be treated as hypothesis until the true essence of it is found, because nothing can be proved to be absolutely true until that time. The main hypothesis which they work from is that virtue is teachable and so they are able to ask the question which can guide them through the next part of the discussion. "What sort of thing among those connected with the soul would excellence be, to make it teachable or not teachable?" They then quickly agree that the word teachable can easily be replaced with knowledge because a man isn't taught anything other than knowledge. The new proposition which they are now considering is "whether excellence is knowledge or different from knowledge." This is why Socrates earlier claim that he was giving into Meno was slightly misleading because they are now in effect reflecting again upon the nature of excellence itself, which Socrates wanted to do anyway. They then assume that excellence is good, which seems self-evidently true, and the proposition then follows that if there is anything good not associated with knowledge then excellence is not knowledge. Socrates argues that this is true because knowledge is the only thing which can produce favourable results and that everything requires it to be beneficial. Conversely without knowledge anything can be harmful. The examples he gives are health, strength and handsomeness; things which are traditionally beneficial, but he claims this is only true because a sense of right, which only comes about through

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