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Becky Tun


Meno 79-86: Discuss the theory of recollection: does the illustration of the slave boy help to convince the reader of the theory?
Plato's theory of recollection is the thesis that certain kinds of learning are in fact recollection, since the soul, having always existed, has knowledge of some eternal truths. This knowledge is capable of being awakened in us in this life through certain learning processes, so that in these cases we are not acquiring new knowledge but recalling what our soul has always known. The theory is mentioned by Plato in the Phaedo, the Phaedrus and the Meno: in the Meno, Socrates attempts to demonstrate the thesis in action to his interlocutor Meno, by helping one of Meno's slave boys come to some conclusions about the geometric properties of a square. The demonstration is given in response to a paradox which Meno presents to Socrates concerning the supposed impossibility of learning via inquiry. It all starts with a quest for the definition of virtue. Socrates has claimed not to know what virtue is and has asked his interlocutor Meno to give him a definition of it. Meno replies that there are many virtues, but Socrates asks him to define what all virtues have in common. Meno says that courage, temperance, and wisdom are virtues, but Socrates says that this answer does not define what is shared by all virtues. Meno then says that virtue is a desire for honourable things, and that it is also the power to attain them. However, Socrates disputes this assertion by arguing that if virtue is the power of attaining good justly, and if part of virtue is justice, then justice as a part of virtue is being used to define the whole of virtue (i.e. part of virtue is being used to define virtue, and virtue as a whole has not yet been defined). After these failed attempts, Meno's confidence falters and he protests: if neither of them already knows what virtue is, how can they make any progress towards a discovery? He says: But how will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing you did not know? (80d) Socrates says that Meno is here stating a well known sophist paradox. A person cannot inquire either into what he knows or into what he does not know, since if he already knows it there is no room for inquiry, but if he does not know it, he does not know what he is looking for. Socrates, however, tells Meno that he does not find this argument sound, and it is here that here introduces his theory of recollection. But despite his not being worried by the paradox, and dismissing it as sophistical (Socrates constantly criticised the Sophists for their so-called philosophical riddles and arguments which he considered merely shallow and rhetorical), it looks as if Socrates took the paradox quite seriously. This is clear from the fact that his response to it is to grant its central claim: that you can't come to know something that you didn't already know. That is, he claims that inquiry never produces new knowledge, but only recapitulates things already known. Now, Meno's paradox can be shown to be quite a mess, a minefield of ambiguity, shallowness and word-tricks, to put it mildly - and Socrates is right to call it a piece of sophistry. This is why it at first seems surprising that Socrates does not home in on the sloppy reasoning of the paradox but instead introduces a rather substantial theory of


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