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Plato's slave boy experiment in the Meno


To: Mark S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's slave boy experiment in the Meno
Date: 28th November 2008 14:32

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 18 November, with your essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics paper entitled, 'What exactly is Socrates examination of the slave boy in the Meno meant to show? Does it succeed?'

The lucid way in which you have set out the problem and analysed all the alternatives would easily earn you a mark in the Ist bracket if you were answering this question in an exam. You show an impressive command of the issues around the slave boy experiment in the Meno.

I suppose that the examiner might be a tinge disappointed that you don't go in to the question of the difference between 'K' and 'D' interpretations discussed by Dominic Scott. However, you still gain credit for mentioning Scott's paper. One can't have everything.

One question that could be raised is, How important is the Theory of Recollection to Plato, really? (I mean in its literal sense -- assuming we can even make sense of that). As you explain, the problem addressed in the dialogue is Meno's unwillingness to continue the dialectic on the a priori grounds that the investigation cannot succeed because of the paradox of inquiry.

Whenever in philosophy one is faced with a paradox, the first question is whether this is, as it appears, a genuine paradox or merely a fallacy.

All Plato has to do, assuming that the paradox of inquiry is a fallacious paradox, is to point out the false assumption. On the face of it, the alleged problem is patently absurd. When you look for 'an X' you obviously don't know in advance everything about the X you are looking for (say, you are looking for 'a wife who can cook'). How do you look? You pick likely candidates and test them. How do you know when you've found what you are looking for? When they pass the test. Problem solved.

That is a fairly accurate account of how Socrates actually proceeds in the elenchus -- except for the slightly worrying fact that every candidate (putative definition) he and his interlocutor come up with fails the test.

So why go into all this palaver with the slave boy, when there is a much simpler answer: 'If at first you don't succeed, try try again'?

However, there seems to be a mixup here between epistemological and metaphysical questions. Meno has posed his paradox as an epistemological problem. But it isn't. All Socrates has to say is 'this is hard knowledge to get'. The real problem is metaphysical: what is the nature of the 'fact' or 'reality' in virtue of which a correct answer to a Socratic definitional question would be TRUE?

Consider the diagram in the sand. The theorem which Socrates proves is not true in virtue of the relationships between the roughly drawn lines. It is in fact false because the area of the square on the hypotenuse is not exactly double but only approximately double.

The fact in virtue of which the theorem is true is a fact about the 'the square' (i.e. the ideal square'). This is what the diagram portrays.

By parity of reasoning, the fact by virtue of which a Socratic definition is true is not fact about how this or that person uses a term like 'virtue', or about the things we normally call 'virtuous' but rather a fact about the 'the virtuous' as such.

If this is what the slave boy experiment was designed to show, then it succeeds. The slave boy hasn't demonstrated knowledge, as Socrates claims (and as you demonstrate with considerable precision). But we weren't talking about knowledge. What the experiment shows is that the truths we seek in the elenchus are about things unseen.

You can't point to the virtuous even though you know it's there. You can only make 'diagrams' in words which point beyond virtuous acts and virtuous people to that which those items exemplify, as the square in the sand exemplifies 'the square'.

Rather that state the metaphysical theory in question -- which we may assume was only half-formed at this stage -- Socrates describes a myth. The myth correctly characterizes the nature of the metaphysical facts by virtue of which a Socratic definition is true, in formal terms, as objects of some other kind of perception than sense perception, super-objects which require a super-subject to super-perceive them.

I am not denying that this raises a deep epistemological problem. But that problem is not posed by Meno. It is a problem created by Plato's metaphysical answer to his metaphysical take on a paradox which, on the face of it, is not a genuine paradox at all.

All the best,