Research Article

Platonic Doctrine of Recollection.
How can Plato’s Doctrine of Recollection be a plentiful answer to Meno’s Paradox?

“Can you tell me, Socrates, is virtue the sort of thing you can teach someone? Or is it the sort of thing no one can teach you, but you pick it up by practicing it? Or maybe it’s neither: virtue is something people are born with, or something they get some other way?” 1  With these questions posed in the dialogue of Socrates with Meno we hit upon the start of unearthing a fundamental school of thought that has been influencing a lot of historic aspects of our reality. And although dilemma positioned in this dialogue is a crucial one for philosophy, it remains an open question that requires a logical solution which would dot the i’s and cross the t’s. Such solution was proposed by Plato through the character of Socrates in the very same dialogue and that is - the Doctrine of Recollection. As an answer this may sound paradoxical to many people but to Plato’s ideas it was very centrical and in this paper we will dive deeper in understanding of both Meno’s Paradox and Doctrine of Recollection at an attempt to see whether or not this Doctrine is a prolific answer to this oddity.

1 Plato (2002), Five dialogues : Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
Platonic Doctrine of Recollection

First of all we should start by questioning, what is the paradox of Meno and what virtue meant for the Ancient Greek civilisation. Virtue, which comes from a latin translation of the Ancient Greek ἀρετή (arete) stands for an attribute or nature that is presumed to be morally good and consequently valued as a bedrock of ethical and good moral being. With this being a general assumption, Socrates than claims that he thinks he has “never yet met anyone who did know” 2 what virtue is, to which Meno’s endeavour to answer follows up - there are a lot of virtues, he says, which leads him to believe that as a result of this it is not that hard to say what virtue is, as there are different kinds of it for every action at any stage of life, for any person, at any characteristic and capacity. Now, we can argue that this statement is controversial, as how can we easily define something that has so much variable illustrations and attributes that of a chameleon? What Meno misses here and what Socrates points out in the dialogue as follows is the shared aspect of virtue that covers all the others and in search of which a dialogue continues for the most and comes upon the purposes of enquiry. Socrates has taught us that he knows how to dismiss and see faulty definitions, but how does he know when a definition is correct? If you hear a definition for the first time, can you know if it is right or not? Or if you already know what the definition states, do you even need it then? At this point Socrates gives in and says: “I cause doubt in others. So now, for my part, I have no idea what virtue is, whilst you, though perhaps you may have known before you came in touch with me, are now as good as ignorant of it also.” 3 All this leads to the argument that follows and can be reformulated into three main statements, that are, in fact, the “Meno’s Paradox” or “The Paradox of Inquiry”.

1.If you know what you’re looking for, inquiry is unnecessary.
2.If you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible.
3.Therefore, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible.

2 Plato (2002), Five dialogues : Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
3 Plato (1967), Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 3 Meno (80d-e) translated by W.R.M. Lamb.
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd.

Now, all these statements awoke a lot of problematic questions that are hard to answer at first attempt. From the first sight it looks considerably logical, indeed - if you don’t know what the matter of your search is, you can not find anything, and you can not even attempt at enduring in such process. Either you know what you are looking for or you don’t know what you are looking for. But what is most dangerous in this paradox is contained in the third statement - if the search is becoming unnecessary or impossible, then people are at danger of becoming apathetic and loose the catalyst of life (if talking about ones that find their meaning of living in the matter inquiry). However, this is the time where Platonic Doctrine of Recollection steps in, suggesting answers and solutions to the problematics of this paradox.

Philosophy of Plato - is the philosophy of idealism, although not in the ordinary way of understanding the term “idealism”. This is a philosophy that accepts objective existence of ideas and thoughts, Forms or Essences, which only our soul is capable of unearthing and reconnecting with once again. Since our soul has lived amongst those divine Forms and Essences before falling, as Plato puts it (and before him, according to André Bon- nard, this could also be connected to Pythagoreans), into its’ coffin - our blind, mortal bodies. In reality, the soul, partially blinded and speechless in the impenetrability of the physical body, being, as Plato presents it, jailed in the realm of shadows and illusion of our darkened world wouldn’t be able to recognise them unless it has seen and experienced those Forms and Ideas before. In another mythical fable that complements “The Allegory of a Cave”, Plato tells a story of a procession of souls that seeks the heavenly height, where in the absolute realm exist Ideas, Beauty and Justice. It is commonly known as a “Chariot Allegory”, where Plato depicts soul having: “...care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing – when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground – there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature.” 4

4 Plato (1952), Plato’s Phaedrus. Cambridge :University Press.
Interesting to note: In Plato’s “The Republic” he states that in order to have a just and virtuous society human souls should be in the condition where each of its’ three components should do their own work, without interfering in the working of the other parts, but isn’t the role of the charioteer that represents human reason to guide and direct the other two parts? Or that is not counted as interference with their own works?

With all of this at hand, one can notice, that Plato’s thoughts and teachings could be a turning point in the ancient world. Seeing concepts of fall and rise of a human soul, where the physical body is portrayed as a jail cell that constraints the soul from the remembering of the Forms, we can even start questioning - wether or not this is almost a fundamental notion for Christianity? Although this question is undoubtedly interesting, now we know just enough to look back at Meno’s Paradox and examine if and how is Platonic Doctrine of Recollection a sufficient justification for it. At first sight the idea of anamnesis seems like a right solution to the issue. It successfully escapes the aspect of gaining knowledge of anything you never heard of, by instead suggesting the process of remembering everything that you had already known. This is also a moment where we probably should try to correct the way we formulated the Meno’s Paradox and say that inquiry is not impossible or unnecessary. Inquiry, originally means a seeking for truth, knowledge and information, which never specifies whether that is the knowledge forgotten or the absolute new one; thus there appears a need for such detailing, as to say - inquiry of anything new is either unnecessary or impossible.

Ironically, the concept of recollection, or anamnesis, that was meant to overcome the Meno’s Paradox becomes paradoxical in itself. Plato (through Socrates’s words) claims that the soul is immortal and all-knowing, which (with the main argument in Meno’s paradox being - the impossibility of confirming) in order for this Doctrine to work against the Paradox forces Socrates to be able to prove the immortality of the soul. How does one do it? Socrates gives his proves in the examining of the slave boy at Meno’s house, by guiding him into finding the diagonal of a given square.5 According to this, if the boy can remember the knowledge of geometry, that he is assumed not to have any knowledge of, then it triumphantly proves the eternity of the soul. This is also where the importance of understanding teacher’s role in this equation comes prominent. The Socratic method of educating ties in, introducing a teacher in a form of a memory-teaser, that provokes your thinking with questions and helps you grasp those glimpses of Forms and Ideas that your soul sees and keep them in a form of recollected intelligence.

5 Plato (2002), Five dialogues : Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.

Although, this is not the only concerning question raised. Reflecting on our lives now, we can surely define at least two types of knowledge - the absolute knowledge that can exist transcendentally and flow from “Past life” into the “Present life” through souls’ memory; and the present knowledge - the one that is relevant only in this very life, as one’s relationships with their brothers and mother. The second type of knowledge (the present knowledge) can not exist in Forms, as no one knows who is going to be your father next time your soul falls into the coffin (body). Some could speculate that we can not be sure that our relations are not also being predicted in Forms and Essences, but that would be facing, again, the difficulties of proving. However, there is no urgent need in accepting the “reincarnation” part and while putting aside Past and Present lives, the idea of recollected information as our nature could also work as well without those concepts, by simply suggesting that the mind does have embedded ideas which we are able to recollect with time.

So does this answer the question of our inquiry? How can Doctrine of Recollection successfully give answers to Meno’s Paradox? Despite the fact that more imperfections in the connection of the Doctrine and Paradox have been found through this research, the concept of recollection does have arguments that offer solutions to it. And we have even more reasons for supporting Plato’s Doctrine with relatively recent suggestions from Carl Jung, saying that there might be a form of “genetic memory” which could allow generation to prosper from the experiences and achievements of the previous ones. No matter how odd this might sound to some, nonetheless, the chance of accepting a concept of evolution for our thinking feels rather natural and only highlights the fundamentality of Platonic Ideas. Thus, where does this bring us to, as we conclude? Doctrine of Recollection can offer several intriguing arguments in clarification of the Meno’s Paradox, as well as leaving people with questions that can’t yet have provable answers. In the end, what do we know of immortality and the world of Ideas? Be that as it may, the Doctrine of recollection and its reinterpretations to this day is yet the most sufficient way to elaborate on Meno’s Paradox, and perhaps it’s best feature is hidden in its ambiguity - which helps us to understand it individually. As Cebes has said: “Such is also the case if that theory is true that you are accustomed to mention frequently, that for us learning is no other than recollection. According to this, we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect. This is possible only if our soul existed somewhere before it took on this human shape”6 And now its up to us to identify where is that “somewhere”. One may see poetic or spiritual explanations in it, others consider genetics and human psyche and Plato called it the world of Forms and Ideas.

6 Plato (2002), Five dialogues : Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.