Welcome to Socrates' classroom, the Painted Stoa. If you would like to see where this was located in Ancient Athens, simply click the left half of the picture below. For a digital recreation of what this Stoa might have looked like during Socrates' time, click the right half of the picture.
Background: Socrates takes up this book where he left off in Protagoras, in which the philosopher Protagoras is made to defend various theories on virtue, weakness, and knowledge. At the end he and Socrates are left wondering whether virtue can even be taught. They begin the Meno discussing the idea of virtue and how one can know what virtue is. If neither knows what virtue is, how can it be taught? Socrates answers with his Theory of Recollection.
Theory of Recollection: "we do not learn, but that what we call learning is recollection" (Meno, 81e). Socrates theory of recollection stems from his theory of Form and substance (as developed fully in the Phaedo) so we will start there before proceeding on to the theory of recollection here in the Meno.
Socratic/Platonic Forms: For these two philosophers, the form - or universal - of something can in some ways be viewed as the ideal or theoretical property of something. For example, the object you are sitting on takes part in the Form of chair. This means that if you were to strip away the Form of chair, you would be left with a shapeless piece of wood. However, this arguably would be taking part in the Form of shapelessness, or the Form of a block. Suffice it to say that Forms for these philosophers are ideal or universal states and properties. Less tangible concepts, like justice and equality are also considered Forms. Because the Forms are ideal we are limited in what we can know by our sensory system(you may remember Francis Bacon's Idols of the Cave were originally based on Plato's Allegory of the Cave).
How does this relate back to the Theory of Recollection?
The only way we can obtain knowledge of the forms is through indirect inference via our sensory system. However, our soul is immortal and takes part in the universal knowledge of forms that exists independent of the body. Therefore, our soul already has perfect knowledge of the forms. It stands to reason then that we do have perfect knowledge of the forms in each of us, though it may be locked inside our soul. The unfortunate part about being mortal is that our sensory system is all that we have to examine the world as well as our soul. Thus although our soul is omniscient, we are limited by what we can perceive. However there is light at the end of the tunnel for Socrates. It is his belief that all of recollection is simply a process of revealing the information already contained in our soul. That is, although our body is incapable of knowing this information immediately, all learning is really just a process of revelation. Hence his theory of recollection states that all learning is really a process of remembering what the soul already knows.
Background: The Phaedo takes place on the last day of Socrates' life and continues the discussion of the theory of recollection that began in the Meno. The book ends with Socrates taking the hemlock and describing his death. In the following book, the Symposium, Plato describes the soul's final ascent from the world of tangible objects to the world of the immortal. In Plato's view of physics, it is an attractive force, eros or love, that draws us towards the immortal.
Dualism: It is clear even from the start of the Meno that Socrates and Plato are Dualists. The soul is described as the immortal, intangible part of our being while our body is seen as the physical essence, limited by its sensory capacities. The soul is a force compelled to investigate the truth of the forms via its vessel, the body. It is only through death that they can obtain true knowledge but this does not cheapen the pursuit of knowledge in this world for to desire truth is one of the noblest desires. Obviously both philosophers are advocating separate systems for the mechanical and spiritual sides of our being. It is unclear to me how much they would believe they are able to interact versus simply exist in parallel so I am unwilling to comment on their subclassification within Dualism. However, perhaps we can explore it more closely by examining the various arguments put forth for their belief:
Argument from the Opposites: The gist of this argument is as follows. Everything has an opposite, the night has its day and white has its black. Furthermore, it seems to Socrates that all things arise from their opposite. Essentially he is stating that it was from an original nothingness that the something that is the world came about. Additionally, it was from a time of darkness that the light came and day began. To use an example from biology, what was once short became taller in both animals and plants. He leads this argument a step further to say that it is from life that we die and it is from a state of seeming nonexistence or death that we are born. Because we have already established that the soul is intangible, and thus incapable of death, it stands to reason that it exists apart from the body during this period of 'death'. Therefore the soul can exist apart from the body and Dualism is upheld.
Argument from Recollection: This argument is similar to that presented in the Meno for the Theory of Recollection. The soul must exist separately from the body because we are born with knowledge we could not acquire elsewhere. In this argument, Socrates solidifies his position on knowledge being innate. An example he gives of such knowledge is the property of equality. He states that people can argue about the equality of two objects, such as the length or color of two sticks. When they do this they are actually discussing the Form of Equality, which becomes known to us through the earlier process of recollection. By assigning equality the status of a form, Socrates argues that unequal objects are always striving to be equal and we are aware of this discrepancy. It is this awareness that tells Socrates that we must have had knowledge of equality innately. However, I think there is more compelling evidence from more modern child development studies. It has been shown that infants have preference for novel objects, implying they can tell the difference between a new object and a familiar one. It would seem that infants thus have a knowledge of the Form of Equality. I find this to be a more compelling argument than Socrates' example of two older individuals arguing over the equality of sticks. With the modern research, we are able to show this knowledge exists before language, and thus has a higher probability of being innate. Whichever example you choose to believe, both could indicate the existence of innate knowledge, thus confirming for Socrates the separate and immortal existence of the soul.
Argument from Affinity: For this argument, Socrates relies heavily on his belief about matter and form. The Forms are universal, immortal, and most importantly unified. A Form is never made of different parts for it is the purest knowledge one can acquire. On the other hand, matter is merely a composite of different types of other matter. It stands to reason then that something made up of many parts is more likely to be destroyed than something that is unity by definition. Therefore, one could easily conclude - as did Socrates - that the soul belongs to this class of unified Forms and the body is a composite of matter. Furthermore, the soul can become more Form-like by contemplating the forms closely and not attending to the distracting body ("it strays and is confused and dizzy, as if it were drunk..." Phaedo, 79c). He summarizes this Dualist argument as follows: "They say that the human soul is immortal; at times it comes to an end, which they call dying, at times it is reborn, but it is never destroyed, and one must therefore live one's life as piously as possible" (Meno, 81b).
An Argument Against the Arguments: At the end of the Phaedo, Socrates refutes all of these arguments with a single comment about assumptions: "so our soul must exist before we are born. If these realities do not exist, then this argument is altogether futile. Is this the position, that there is an equal necessity for those realities to exist, and for our souls to exist before we were born? If the former do not exist, neither do the latter?" (Phaedo, 76d-e). I am not sure his words need much elaboration but for clarity, I will summarize the argument. Socrates is making the claim that all of the earlier arguments presuppose the existence of the Forms. If the Forms do not exist, then none of the arguments made so far will hold up to support a Dualist interpretation. Although this is seemingly a compelling argument, one must remember that nearly any theory or belief rests on certain assumptions. I am not arguing for existence of forms, I am merely stating that this criticism could be mounted against the vast majority of all beliefs. Perhaps this quandary is what led Descartes to his famous questioning of existence.
It is worth noting that Socrates' Argument from Affinity is taken as evidence for his belief in the afterlife of the soul, specifically the nature of this afterlife. It is Socrates' belief that the soul continues to contemplate the Forms after it leaves the body. Although he has no evidence for this, he relies on his theory of recollection to once again complete the circular defense of his beliefs.
How is the Soul like the Mind?
The soul is capable of contemplating and of ruling the body in many ways. In this respect it is very much like our current conception of mind. Socrates makes this point genuine when he states during the death scene of the Phaedo that "if during life he has ignored the pleasures of the body and its ornamentation as of no concern to him and doing him more harm than good, but has seriously concerned himself with the pleasures of learning, and adorned his soul not with alien but with its own ornaments, namely moderation, righteousness..." (Phaedo, 114e). Socrates is rationalizing his lack of fear of dying by showing that his soul is merely going to a better place of contemplation. While it existed on Earth its duty was to assist Socrates in learning as much as possible about truth but it could not do so purely until released from the material confines of the body. Socrates also attributes various beliefs and feelings to the body instead of the soul: "As it shares the beliefs and delights of the body, I think it inevitably comes to share its ways and manner of life..." (Phaedo, 83d). Clearly this conception of the soul is much narrower than our conception of mind, which would include such beliefs and delights.
How does this theory of the soul/mind change in Plato's work?
Proceed to Plato
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