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Plato's theory of recollection and innate knowledge


To: Alistair L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Plato's theory of recollection and innate knowledge
Date: 4th February 2011 12:41

Dear Alistair,

Thank you for your email of 26 January, with your essay for the University of London BA Plato and the Presocratics module, in response to the question, 'Is there any type of knowledge of which Platonic recollection might be an appropriate account?'

This is an excellent essay, which draws a nice contrast between a 'narrow' and 'wide' view of innate knowledge. This fits the question because we are not only asked to consider how Plato actually viewed recollection but also whether there might be an approach for which (something like) 'Platonic recollection' might be 'appropriate', even if this was not Plato's intention.

You use the term 'innate knowledge' in considering the wide view. This naturally leads to a quasi-empiricist view where evolution plays the role once allocated to God, and which gives the empiricist much-needed ammunition in order to defend objections to the crude 'tabula rasa' picture.

The claim has been made (by Vlastos, in a well known article) that the knowledge in question was a priori knowledge. This obviously fits the geometrical example. But the claim is that knowledge of the meaning of 'virtue' or 'justice' is, according to Plato, like geometrical knowledge in being a priori. Before Quine's 'Two Dogmas of Empiricism' article, it was considered perfectly acceptable to say that one knows a priori what one means by a term. That's knowledge of 'analytic truths'. On this picture, if we are analysing 'justice', say, or 'cause', what we need to do is introspect our understanding of the meaning of the term, and make this understanding explicit.

I don't think anyone would claim this today. Philosophers talk about 'theories' of justice or causation. The picture of language, as understood by a speaker, as a rich repository of a priori knowledge now looks naive, as does the idea of conceptual analysis making explicit what we already know implicitly as competent speakers. Competence in using the term 'just' or 'cause' does not suffice for knowing what justice or causation are. For that, one needs a theory, where all the real philosophical work goes.

Well, that's now, what about then?

My feeling is that the usual treatments of Plato on recollection fall far short of getting inside Plato's metaphysical vision of reality. In fact, the idea that the soul spends its time waiting to go into a body 'gazing' at the Forms, like an array of paintings on a wall, is ridiculous. You speak at one point of an infinite regress. That would be the case if my recollection was recollection of what I learned in a previous embodied life. But on Plato's theory, it is not necessary that my soul has ever existed in a body before it existed in this particular body.

However, we still have to account for the ability of the soul to recognize the form, say, of Justice or the form of Equality as the form that it is. Here, an infinite regress does threaten (maybe that's what you meant?). As Meno says, if you don't know what you are looking for then you won't recognize it even if you stumble across it. If I don't know what I'm looking at right now (say, I'm a not-yet embodied soul contemplating the form of Justice) what extra information could possibly help me? (Don't say, 'a label'!)

What this neglects is that Plato relies very strongly on mythical language to express something which he felt unable to express in prosaic terms. He is dealing with the deepest mysteries of human existence. Each of us as an inner nature, he believed, which in some way reproduces the nature of reality itself. One could talk of 'similarity of structure', but the notion of 'structure' doesn't quite succeed in expressing the idea.

The thought came to me recently that the form of 'virtue' (so close to the form of the 'Good') is the key here. What is virtue for a human being? Meno thrashes about. He doesn't get close, doesn't even get to first base. In the Republic, Plato has something interesting to say about this, concerning a similarity of structure between the soul and the ideal polis, but this is still on the level of myth. Reality is rational, has a rational nature or structure (Hegel: 'The rational is the real.') You and I duplicate that structure in our own souls. How could real knowledge be anything other than self-knowledge?

To know what virtue is, really is, is nothing less than knowing our ultimate place and destiny in the universe, the reason why we are here, as well as how we should live and what we should aim for. I think Plato thought this. From this perspective, Meno's question acquires an entirely different aspect. Yes, we must seek to recollect. But we will never get there, never reach the final knowledge which Socrates proposes in his innocent seeming question, 'What is virtue?'

All the best,