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Plato on recollection and Parmenides on plurality


To: Egor S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato on recollection and Parmenides on plurality
Date: 23rd March 2010 12:08

Dear Egor,

Thank you for your email of 15 March, with your one hour timed essay for the University of London Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'How successful is the theory of knowledge as recollection in solving the paradox of inquiry?' and your email of 17 March, with your one hour timed essay for the same module, in response to the question, 'Critically assess Parmenides' denial of plurality.'

Theory of knowledge as recollection

This essay at 512 words is on the short side. I would consider 800 words to be the minimum needed to give a good examination answer. Some of my students have managed to write up to 1600 words in response to a one hour timed question.

Your answer is not that bad. You are able to state what the theory of knowledge as recollection and the paradox of inquiry are. However, you would gain more marks by elaborating on those statements.

You also make two valid critical points which I will come to in a minute.

Did Plato mean that the soul, literally, 'sees' the Forms before birth? This ignores the fact that the theory of recollection is intended as a 'myth', a metaphorical expression for the strict and literal truth. What do you think that this literal truth might be? Elsewhere, Plato talks of the soul and the Forms sharing the same nature (Phaedo: the soul is 'akin to the Forms'). This suggests perhaps that the soul, as that which thinks and reasons, shares in the rational structure of reality.

This is not necessarily my view. I'm merely showing an example of how you have the opportunity to show the examiner that you have thought about what the theory of recollection could be.

Again, you state the paradox of inquiry. At face value, the claim that there is a paradox here seems absurd. If I want to know the answer to a question, obviously I don't know the answer but I would know if the answer answered my question if it were put to me. As for the question how one 'goes about finding' an answer, this is different in each case. (E.g. 'How many coins do I have in my pocket?' suggests that I look in my pocket and count the coins that are there. No problem.)

So, we have to consider the paradox of inquiry in the special context of the Socratic method of inquiry. Here it bears a strong resemblance to G.E. Moore's 'paradox of analysis'. You will gain credit for showing that you know what this is.

What does the slave boy experiment show? You are right to be sceptical given the very generous hints that Socrates gives the slave boy. However, some commentators (e.g. Vlastos) have argued that what Plato is really trying to show is that there is such a thing as a priori knowledge. The fact that the slave boy is able eventually to follow the proof shows that he is capable of gaining knowledge a priori, simply through answering questions about some figures drawn in the sand.

You remark that Socrates 'offers no evidence that this method could extend to areas of knowledge other than geometry'. However, it could be argued that philosophical analysis, like geometry, is an a priori form of inquiry and therefore that the experiment with the slave boy does have sufficient relevance.

As it stands, your essay would get a mark in the mid-50s. I would suggest perhaps not relying on headings as you have done, but rather using the standard essay format which I think would prompt you to say more. An essay should be more than just a set of notes.

Parmenides' denial of plurality

This essay is only 394 words, which is very short. You don't really give me much to comment on.

The first thing that an examiner is looking for in an answer to this question is a clear exposition of Parmenides' argument for 'It is'. You talk about the argument in a vague way, but you do not articulate it clearly enough. It is very important to do this -- preferably in numbered steps -- so that you can identify the point where you think that a fallacious inference has occurred.

There has been much discussion by commentators about what 'It' refers to. This has bearing on the validity of the argument. The same applies to 'is'? Is Parmenides using the 'is' of existence or of predication?

To take one example, which bears on your remarks about contemporary physics. Suppose that 'it' refers in some sense to the ultimate reality. Then it is not implausible that, although the world we know is made up of many things, ultimately there can only be one thing. That would be a useful line to pursue, although I would not necessarily agree on that interpretation.

A related interpretation would be that 'It' refers to the One of Milesian cosmology. What Parmenides is arguing, according to this version, is that the Milesians (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes) have been inconsistent in allowing their primary substance to form many things.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that 'It' is like 'x' in a logical proof. Take anything you like, any x. 'Is' can mean predication or existence. It makes no difference. Parmenides rejects the idea that we can say that 'it is not' because negation is simply not part of reality.

It is initially plausible to think that if I say that this desk is 'not red' then there is a reality by virtue of which that statement is true, e.g. the desk is brown. Similarly it is 'not square' because it is rectangular. Following this line of reasoning, it would appear that any negative statement ought to be replaceable by a more informative positive claim.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that every predicate that we use has negation built in: 'all determination is negation' is a principle of medieval philosophy. If one attempts to eliminate any form of predication which relies on implicit negation in this sense, then one literally has nothing to say other than 'it is'.

This isn't intended as an indication of what a model answer would look like. There are many possible answers which would be acceptable. I am merely showing the kind of thing you need to do in order to write an acceptable exam answer. In this case, you need to show an awareness that the interpretation of Parmenides' argument is a matter of some dispute, and also be prepared to do some philosophy, in working out possible interpretations, arguments and counter-arguments.

As it stands, your essay would score in the low-50s.

All the best,