How is knowledge remembered?
Daniel Pérez ∙ 10 min de lectura
What is the role of Recollection theory on Plato’s answer to Meno’s paradox? I think Recollection theory is the answer itself to Meno’s paradox, it resolves the paradox planted in the Meno dialogue, it solves the question of how people can approach to know new things or seems to know things that they didn’t know at all.
Let’s explore the main dialogue used for this essay very briefly: The Meno dialogue was written by Plato after Socrates death, between 395-380 BC and after founding the Academia and being in contact with the pitagoric philosophers . This dialogue talks about virtue and if it can be taught or learned, due the topics involved in the dialogue Sokrates and Meno ended up facing the question “How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all?” Because they accepted that they didn’t know the nature or meaning of virtue, then after this question was asked Sokrates proceeded to explain that Soul is immortal and it recollects knowledge throughout its existence. All we need to approach "new" knowledge is to remember it by being asked the correct questions. Then after exploring this topic Meno and Sokrates ended considering that virtue cannot be learned or taught and it’s given by something divine.
In this essay I’ll give my explanation about why Recollection theory solves Meno’s paradox. I'll start by recreating the arguments about the paradox and then expose Recollection theory very briefly and the core elements and its meaning in order to explain my answer to the question planted in this essay, also I’ll explore a counterargument.
● Meno’s paradox: Reconstruction of the main arguments
● Recollection theory: Reconstruction of the main arguments
● Core concepts: Related to Recollection theory, concepts we may clarify in order to have a clear vision of what Recollection theory exposes
● Why recollection theory is the answer of Meno’s paradox
2. Meno’s Paradox
The paradox is planted in the Meno dialogue written by Plato; the dialogue exposes the question: Can virtue be taught? At some part of the dialogue the main topic gets distracted by a question made by Meno to Sokrates:
“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 that you did not know?”
They ended up in a situation that seems to doesn’t have a solution, so they got distracted due the interesting topic planted, this is the core of the Meno’s paradox, but let’s explore this with formal arguments:
A. If a person doesn’t need to inquire about X then this person knows about X
B. A person doesn’t need to inquire about X
C. Then this person knows X
Let's continue with the second part of the paradox:
A. If a person doesn’t know X, then this person can’t identify X
B. A person doesn’t know X
C. Then this person can’t identify X
A. If a person identifies X, then this person can inquire about X
B. A person doesn’t identify X
C. Then this person can’t inquire about X
So that said, we can tell that knowing new things is impossible because we can’t identify them, and if we know a thing then we don’t have to inquire about it. So how can people approach new knowledge? At this point Sokrates proceeds to give his answer to this question by quoting some poets and people that he thinks say true things even if they didn’t know the topic they talked about.
3. Recollection theory
After the paradox is planted, Plato (using Sokrates as a character) as I already said proceeded to give examples of people that seems to say true things about different topics that they probably didn’t know at all, also he explains ideas about the soul, and how people can know something that they have never studied in their life’s, Socrates talks with a Meno’s slave about a geometry problem in order to explain Meno his argument:
“As the soul is immortal, has been born often and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned; so it is in no way surprising that it can recollect the things it knew before.”
This is the main argument of recollection theory, but as we already did with Meno’s paradox let’s explore this as formal arguments:
A. A person remembers X if you asked the right questions
B. You asked the right question
C. This person remembers X
A. If a person knows X, he remembered X
B. A person remembered X
C. This person knows X
A. A person remembers X, if he already knows X
B. A person knows X
C. This person remembers X
This is the core of Recollection theory: our Soul contains knowledge, the only thing we need is to remember that knowledge.
4. Core concepts
a. Soul: I want to talk about this concept, because there are tons of definitions of soul throughout human history. Let’s take the main characteristics that Plato used for the Soul in his Recollection theory:
i. Soul is immortal
ii. Our knowledge comes from Soul
iii. We remember our Soul’s knowledge when asked the correct questions
So, we can say that these characteristics portray the Soul as knowledge’s seat.
Let’s mention other characteristics mentioned about the soul: Heraclitus identified the soul as the seat of emotions, motion, and knowledge, and intellect as a function of it . Thales identified the soul as which gives something live thus capable of motion.
So briefly, we can say that in Recollection theory we may understand Soul as the seat of some characteristics and functions (ie. knowledge, emotions, intellect, etc.).
Many other opinions and views were made about Soul, I’m just considering the ones that fits better for the definition in Recollection theory.
b. To Remind/Remember: Let’s consider this concept as how we take things/thoughts/knowledge back to our mind (re-mind), in spanish we can use the word recordar which comes from latin recordāri, re: prefix used to express reiteration and cordāri (cor) which has a close meaning to hearth, also interesting that the hearth also was considered as the seat of Soul. Of course this belief changed throughout history.
5. Why Recollection theory is the answer to Meno’s paradox
I consider Recollection theory as Meno’s paradox solution because this theory gives an answer to how people could be capable of inquiring about something that they didn't know at all. In the Meno’s dialogue it’s used by Sokrates to explain how he would inquire about virtue by not knowing virtue's meaning or nature at all.
Of course, we can mention some arguments that may refuse this argument, one example is the Endoxic method planted by Aristotle, let’s explore this method very briefly:
“As in other cases, we must set out the appearances (phainomena) and run through all the puzzles regarding them. In this way we must prove the credible opinions (endoxa) about these sorts of experiences—ideally, all the credible opinions, but if not all, then most of them, those which are the most important. For if the objections are answered and the credible opinions remain, we shall have an adequate proof.” (EN 1145b2–7)
Aristotle identified that we may take the phainomena (appearances) as they are, start by what our feelings can identify, and then we may have endoxa (credible opinions) about any phainomena, based on this, better endoxa will stay and bad endoxa will be discarded, so by using this method we can approach to new knowledge. So, we may think that the Endoxic method idea may refuse that Recollection theory solves Meno’s paradox because it negates the idea of remembering knowledge.
But let’s compare the ideas in order to have a general view of them, in one side we have the Endoxic method that identifies that knowledge comes from what our feelings identify about phainomena and the endoxa (credible opinions) that stay against another endoxa, like if we were solving a puzzle by using our better credible opinions, on the other side we have Recollection theory that identifies that knowledge comes from our Soul because Soul recollected knowledge and then we can remember that.
I think Endoxic method is as its names says a method, and it doesn’t invalidates the idea that knowledge can be remembered because it’s stored in Soul, I also think that Endoxic method encourages Recollection theory because it makes people ask good questions, which is an important concept in Recollection theory because it triggers remembering knowledge.
Also it seems that in the Meno’s dialogue, when Sokrates is talking with Meno’s slave they’re using something similar to endoxic method, they started by watching an square as is and then the Slave procreeded to give his more credible opinions (endoxa) and as he were solving a puzzle he started to accept and refuse his own opinions, but of course being guided by Sokrates that was making him good questions in order to make him remember the knowledge from his Soul.
Talking about weaknesses of considering Recollection theory as Meno’s Paradox is that we’re talking about abstract concepts, so it’s harder to identify a thing that doesn’t have a physical form, but this is also a good thing of this argument. In my opinion understanding a concept with his more abstract form bring us better acknowledgement about it, as also mentioned by Sokrates in Meno dialogue, sophist used to confuse the example with definition (ie. Types of virtues with the virtue itself), so identifying the concept itself even if it’s an abstract concept will make us understand it better.
We may have a right balance between these two arguments, as I already mentioned I consider the endoxic method as a method to make good questions. In my opinion it doesn’t refuse Recollection theory and using the endoxic method may trigger remembering by making good questions by the endoxa being planted, refused and accepted. Another thing that I appreciate about the endoxic method is that endoxa is not considered as the final truth, it’s just a credible opinion that has passed a proof and we may abandon these credible opinions if a better one is exposed to us, so we may have better questions everytime this happens and thus remember knowledge.
Meno’s paradox is really close to Recollection theory because it makes us ask “Where does knowledge come from if we’re unable to inquire about new things?”, so this dialogue (as a secondary topic) is planting an epistemology problem, probably Plato was giving an introduction to his Recollection theory which is mentioned in other dialogues that he wrote after the Meno’s (ie. Phaedo). Also, because Recollection theory says that knowledge is on our soul this makes us remember Aristotle and his empiricist arguments about knowledge. In this essay I explored very briefly the Endoxic method that plants that we inquire about new things based on phainomena and endoxa, and I think there’s right balance between this argument and Recollection theory.
This topic is important to Philosophy because it talks about something that everyone has faced: learning a new thing, due this we consider this topic as epistemological, another thing everyone has faced is being curious about learning something but how would we approach something that we’re curious about if we don’t know anything at all about it. I consider this as the main reflection of this essay: are we able to learn something about a thing we don't know at all? In my opinion: yes, but we may approach it by being asked the right questions or being guided by someone that has the correct questions, also I want to mention that I consider that feeling also affects our approach to knowledge but this doesn’t mean they’re the source of it.
The word “question” was mentioned many times in this essay, and due Philosophy is about making good questions and being curious. I consider this topic very important and related to philosophy and very close to humankind. I took the strengths of each argument mentioned on this essay because if they may look like counterarguments, I think they’re encouraging each other (Endoxic method and Recollection Theory).
Martínez Oscar (2007) “Platón: Protágoras, Gorgias, Menón”, Pg. 27-28, Biblioteca Edaf
Curd, Patricia, "Presocratic Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/presocratics/
Shields, Christopher, "Aristotle", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2022/entries/aristotle/