Plato’s Meno

One very significant part of the Meno is that which demonstrates the Theory of Recollection, or the idea that what appears to be learning something new is really recollecting something already known (Cohen, University of Washington), or what is known as the doctrine of anamnesis, which means that all learning is [merely] recollection (Samet, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). This theory is what Socrates exactly proves to Meno when the latter asks, …on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all? (Plato, Meno, 80d2). The thing that Meno is referring to in his question is actually virtue, for this is the concept upon which the dialogue is particularly focused. Virtue, in fact, is the whole point of the discourse. However, the discussion has temporarily shifted to the Theory of Recollection in the middle part of the dialogue. This begins when Socrates has concluded that [no one] can know a part of virtue when he does not know virtue itself (79c1), which means that neither Meno nor anyone else knows virtue. Upon hearing this, Meno then begins to ask Socrates a rather common sense question: How can the latter know that this is not virtue the former has been talking about early on in the dialogue when the latter himself does not know what virtue is? Socrates’ reply to this rather sarcastic accusation is the Theory of Recollection. In demonstrating the theory, Socrates first attempts to explain to Meno the roots of the theory by stating that it came from priests and priestesses (81a8) and poets of heavenly gifts (81b1), and that these people all say that the soul of man is immortal (81b1). Socrates then concludes from this premise that the soul has been born many times, and has [therefore] beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms [and therefore] has acquired knowledge of all and everything (81b1). Socrates then adds that since the soul has already learned everything, then there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing – an act which men call learning – discover everything else (81d1). Now, if one goes back to Meno’s accusing question – How can you look for something whose nature you do not know? – Socrates’ answer is that one actually already knows everything but simply cannot remember anything. In short, everyone knows what virtue is, only that not everyone can remember. According to Socrates, aside from courage and determination in searching, research and learning are needed in order to remember. Moreover, Socrates even equates research and learning with recollection (81d1), which means that, for the philosopher, the learning and the remembering are the same, and that everything is simply all remembering. After Socrates calls on the boy, what follows is an elenchus, whose literal meaning is refutation but may actually mean a type of cross examination (Ionescu 10). One purpose of the elenchus is for Socrates to help his listeners discover for themselves the inadequacy of what they hold as true (Johnston). A second purpose, however, is, according to Socrates himself, is for an individual to [find] out the truth of the matter [and to] push on in the search gladly, as lacking knowledge (Plato, Meno, 84b7). In short, the first purpose of this elenctic discourse is for someone to discover his ignorance and for him to search for the