You in the middle of the Meno is successful

You
Know Everything, Just Don’t Forget it

In Plato’s
Meno, Meno approaches Socrates with
an inquiry on whether the idea of virtue can be taught or it must be acquired
through one’s own experiences with virtue itself. Together they decide that the
best way to know if virtue can be taught or not, is to define the term. Discussion
continues back and fourth between the two until they arrive at a point where
Socrates argues that the only way of knowing the definition of virtue is to
question oneself until it is found within your soul. He contends that “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” (Plato 81c). Whilst
maintaining the idea that the soul is immortal and knows all, Socrates uses a
mathematical problem to establish the idea that knowledge on any given subject can
be recollected from the soul’s previous knowledge on that subject. Socrates
uses this mathematical problem to establish this theory. Although Socrates does
not directly answer Meno’s question regarding virtue, he uses the math problem
to attempt to prove Socrates’ theory of recollection. In the following, I will
argue that Socrates’ explanation using mathematics given in the middle of the Meno is successful in showing that
recollection is the only way to find knowledge and that there is nothing that
the soul has not learned.

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In the
Meno, Socrates is approached by Meno who
asks if virtue is something that can be taught or if it is something that only
comes through practice. To Meno’s surprise, Socrates does not have an answer
for him. Socrates explains that he cannot answer that question because he does
not have the definition of virtue to begin with. Meno shows signs of
disappointment and disbelief that Socrates does not even know the meaning of
the word. Socrates then turns the question around to Meno, asking him to define
virtue. Meno responds by giving examples of virtuous acts but failing to define
the word virtue in itself. Socrates then turns to similar examples such as
shape and colour. He explains that the key is not to define different colors or
shapes but instead to define color or shape in itself. Socrates then moves on
to explain how defining terms such as virtue, color and shape rather than
virtues, colors or shapes can be found by recollecting the answers that our
souls have already known. He argues that there is no learning but only
recollection of prior knowledge. To see if Socrates can prove his point, Meno
calls upon a boy for Socrates to use as an example. Socrates begins to question
this boy on the side lengths of a square he has drawn out. Socrates then asks
questions relating to doubling the side lengths of the square, the lengths of
the lines crossing through the center of the square, and the area of the square
resulting in a frenzy of questions and answers between the two. Each question
that Socrates proposes to the boy, the boy takes a second to think and then replies
either in agreement to his statement or with a response to the simple math
question Socrates has asked. Socrates is attempting to show Meno that with each
question he asks the boy, the answer that the boy responds with is his own.

Each answer that the boy has come up with is not credited to anything that
Socrates is teaching him but instead is formulated in the boy’s head once
having the question asked to him.  Socrates asks Meno if so far his theory has
been proven and Meno has no choice but to agree because it seems there is clear
evidence.  Socrates then continues asking
the boy questions regarding the square being double and the lengths being
multiplied by four and so on. Socrates uses his questioning to allow the boy to
see that he has actually made a mistake in answering the previous questions.

Socrates establishes between the boy and Meno that all the questions he has
asked the boy did not involve any teaching. Each of the answers that the boy
gave to Socrates were developed with the boy’s own opinion. Socrates concludes
this example of using mathematics by proposing some questions to Meno himself.

Socrates asks Meno if if the boy’s answers derived from Socrates’ teachings or
by simply asking him questions which allowed him to find the answers within
himself. Socrates establishes that when the boy answered the questions
correctly he was just using his own opinion (or knowledge) that he recollected
from his all knowing soul because it was not taught to him. Thanks to this
example used by Socrates using mathematics, Meno is only left with no other
option but to accept Socrates’ theory on recollection.

 Socrates uses the mathematical example of a
square and its dimensions on the young servant boy of Meno to justify his
argument that there is nothing that we can be taught and there is only
recollection of former knowledge. Using the young servant boy as an example,
Socrates successfully proves to Meno that his argument is completely valid.

First, Socrates’ intent of using the mathematical problem with the boy is not
directly involved in the overall argument that he is trying to make. The
mathematical problem is used only as a tool to prove his theory of recollection.

When he starts to ask the boy the simple mathematics questions such as “how
many feet is twice two feet?” (82d), he avoids making his point and focuses on
the actual example with the square. The boy answers all of Socrates’ questions
in the beginning, however, the boy realizes that he has been confused with the
questions to the point where he is almost sure that his answer is correct, but
he is also sure that he is confused. Socrates then turns to Meno and says “You
see, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but all I do is question
him. And now he thinks he knows the length of the line on which an eight-foot
figure is based. Do you agree?” (82e) and Meno agrees with him. Socrates then
says “And does he know” with Meno proceeding to say “Certainly not”. Once the
two have established that the boy is confused Socrates continues “watch him now
recollecting the things in order, as one must recollect” as we see Socrates to
continue questions the boy to see if he can recollect the correct answer from his
soul. His questioning continues to the point where the boy confidently answers
all questions thinking he has proved his knowledge on the subject, only this
time, he is misguided in thinking this. This time Socrates has tricked the boy
into being completely confident in his incorrect answer. Questions continue
until the boy’s eyes have been open to the fact that he is incorrect and he is
completely lost in regards to what the correct answers to Socrates’ questions
are. For the second time, Socrates looks to Meno to explain the boy’s mental
state when he says:

“You
realize, Meno, what point he has reached in his recollection. At first he did
not know what the basic line of the eight-foot square was; even now he does not
yet know, but then he thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he did
know, and he did not think himself at a loss, but now he does think himself at
a loss, and he does not know, neither does he think he knows” (84a)

For the last time before proving his point and concluding his argument
that all knowledge comes from recollection rather than learning, Socrates
proceeds to ask the boy his final set of questions regarding the square and its
dimensions. Once again, the questions he asks on the topic of the square do not
pertain directly to his argument, it is only the conclusion of what the boy
knows and does not know. When the questioning has concluded, the boy is left
with the correct answer and has come to it only by having questions asked to
him and finding the answer within himself. Socrates turns to Meno and asks if
the boy has expressed anything in his answer that was not his own opinion and
Meno has no choice other than to say that the opinions were all his. Towards
the end of the short excerpt containing this mathematics related example from
the Meno, Socrates concludes his
argument by asking Meno questions related to how the boy came up with the
answers. Was it teachings or was it just his questioning? If the boy’s
knowledge had not come from Socrates’ teachings, where did the knowledge come
from? Using this mathematical example, Socrates proves his argument to Meno
that knowledge comes from recollection of prior knowledge contained within
one’s immortal soul.

Although Socrates’ points regarding his theory of recollection are all
valid and serve his argument that the soul is immortal and has already learned
everything very well, it does not make the argument completely true. Socrates
fails to account for the idea that the soul may not exist. He proves that all
of his points are valid and it comes to a valid conclusion, however, the
conclusion is not sound. Since the soul is not a physical or tangible object,
it cannot be directly seen or proven that it does actually exist. Without the
existence of the soul, Socrates’ argument contains a massive hole in which
stops the conclusion form being sound. The soul is the main component of his
entire argument because if there was no soul then there would be nothing for
one to recollect prior knowledge from and therefore not having any prior
knowledge at all. Without this prior knowledge acquired form recollecting it
from the soul, the only way to gain knowledge is to learn it for oneself. This
then goes against Socrates’ entire position. Finally, without proving that the
soul exists first, Socrates’ argument may be valid but cannot be sound.

In conclusion, the mathematical example that Socrates uses on the young
boy is successful in proving to the readers and Meno that the soul has already
learned everything and the only way to acquire knowledge is not through
learning but rather through inquiry and recollection. Socrates uses this
example in an extremely intelligent way showing that with each question that he
asks the boy, the boy answers with his own knowledge. Since the knowledge that
the boy uses to answer Socrates’ questions was not taught to him, it shows that
this knowledge must have been recollected from within himself.  

 

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