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Plato's answer to Meno's paradox


To: James S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's answer to Meno's paradox
Date: 4 January 2006 12:11

Dear James,

Happy new year!

Thank you for your email of 21 December, with your essay, in response to the University of London Plato and the Presocratics examination question, 'Does Plato have a good solution to Meno's Paradox?'

It was clear to me by the time I got to the second paragraph that this is a first class piece of work. I will stick my neck out and say that you should be aiming for a First in the examination and I think you can achieve it.

To be more specific, this is as good as the work which another of my students, who gained a First for this paper last year, has done for me.

The difficulty for me in commenting on this piece is that I agree with just about everything you say. The most serious (in fact, the only) potential objection that I can see is that you assume the literal interpretation of the Theory of Recollection, and do not raise the possibility of a less literal reading.

Plato is know to give 'mythical' explanations which are not always to be taken at face value. It does not seem totally implausible to suppose that he might not have believed in the strict, literal truth of the recollection theory. However, for reasons which I give below, like you I think he did.

Also, if I were answering this question I would spend some time contrasting the specific kind of knowledge aimed at in the elenchus with more common or garden kinds of knowledge (like the road to Larissa for example). How does empirical 'knowledge' fare when we apply Meno's paradox? The paradox is formulated in sufficiently general terms. So, for example, Meno could have asked, 'How can I possibly search for the way to Larissa if I don't know which way it is?' And this does seem vaguely paradoxical.

You don't fully 'know' that a given way is the way to Larissa until you've travelled along it and have become sufficiently familiar with the route to follow it in the snow, or in the dark, or - crucially - be able to explain it to someone else.

The problem is how one arrives at this 'knowledge' in the first place. The only answer to Meno's paradox in this case would therefore seem to be something like, 'trial and error', which is not really a solution at all. (It has occurred to me, however, that this is a rather tricky example because one is assuming that you know you have arrived at Larissa when you get there, i.e. in one sense you clearly do know the 'object of your search'.)

There is an issue here about whether Plato at this stage had thought sufficiently about the difference between empirical 'knowledge' and knowledge gained through the elenchus. However, it is clear that the problem posed by Meno is one which we would recognize today. How is it possible to construct a philosophical theory or conduct a philosophical analysis? - i.e. G.E. Moore's paradox of analysis.

One way that one might try to 'bracket' the Theory of Recollection would be to interpret the problem and Plato's solution to it in terms of a question about the possibility of a priori knowledge, as Gregory Vlastos does. This is, after all, what the slave boy experiment demonstrates: how it is that through reasoning we arrive at a priori knowledge. I do not find this very convincing. There difficulty with understanding how the elenchus is supposed to work is not just a special instance of the more general question concerning the possibility of a priori knowledge.

We must know what virtue is, otherwise we would not be able to criticize proposed definitions of virtue as being inadequate. Similarly, we must have an innate ability to reason logically (or geometrically) otherwise it would be impossible to guide a beginner through a geometrical demonstration, or convince them that they had made a false inference. To that extent the question of a priori knowledge and the question about analysis are parallel. But there is a world of difference between possession a general logical ability, and possession of something as specific as implicit knowledge of the nature of virtue.

Which brings us back to the literal interpretation of the Theory of Recollection as the 'best explanation', from Plato's standpoint, of the philosopher's ability to conduct the elenchus - as implausible to us today as this might seem.

That's really all I have to say. This is a very well organized and well argued piece of work. An impressive start. Keep it up!

All the best,