Meno presents a paradox to Socrates that questions the very basis of Socrates method of arriving at knowledge of unknown things through inquiry. The question that is asked is how he can inquire into something that he knows nothing about. Socrates always seems to be asking people questions in attempts to gain knowledge and all the while always claims that he does not know anything. This criticism by Meno is one that raises serious doubts regarding Socrates claims and the method of acquiring knowledge through inquiry.
Socrates responds to this by stating that what Meno wanted to do by this claim is state a “debater’s argument” such that Socrates doesn’t really know what he is doing, because if he knows something he can’t search for it because there’s no need for the search, and if he doesn’t know something he couldn’t search because he doesn’t know what he’s searching for. Interestingly Socrates replies by saying, “I know what you want to say, Meno” (AGP 212). This is already a dead giveaway that Socrates claims of not knowing anything are fallacious to begin with, because he has just claimed that he knows what Meno is thinking. Furthermore, Meno’s argument does not appear to be any sort of a trick as it is simply a statement of truth in regards to the appearance of Socrates claims. If Socrates really wants to gain knowledge of what no one knows, then inquiry into the content of that “unknown” thing will simply produce nothing.
Therefore, in his response Socrates presents his Theory of Recollection. The entire business by which Socrates goes on to present this makes me question him at every level. First he states that he heard some high authorities talk about his. It appears that this Socrates speaking in Meno would be different than the earlier depictions of Socrates because in the earlier examples of him in Plato’s works, Socrates appears to criticize the claims of knowledge on basis of authority alone. But, Socrates here is employing that very same method to provide a legitimate basis to his ideas. Secondly, his theory makes bold claims about the knowledge of souls and how the souls supposedly know everything but become stupid when coming into human form. He claims that through inquiry a person is simply recollecting what the soul had already known but somehow the soul became stupid and forgot.
There are some critical problems already present here. One, how do you know about the journey of the soul to begin with, besides through the authority of priests and others? It would seem that a mortal body should not know such knowledge of the soul because the knowledge is a type of immortal knowledge. Acquiring “knowledge” of this type would require one to have had substantial inquiry, according to Socrates, in order to recollect this knowledge. If such a grand inquiry did occur, who performed this method of inquiry and with whom? What is the content of the inquiry and what was said in it, so that others may also come to fully comprehend such profound immortal knowledge as that of the soul’s journey? Also important in answering all of these questions would be to mention the process by which the souls became stupid and how this knowledge was gained.
There are numerous problems in the theory that Socrates presents and these problems seem to occur mainly because I do not think they are the real content of the real Socrates, rather Socrates is the simply the mouthpiece for Plato’s contemplation of ideas that he is encountering in his time period. When Socrates proceeds to use the example of a slave boy and geometry it becomes even clearer that his method of knowledge by inquiry is severely flawed. Every time he asks the slave boy a question, he keeps leading him on towards the answer. Then it seems that his method of inquiry actually requires having some knowledge in regards to the content of what is claimed to be unknown. Without this knowledge, Socrates could not have gotten the slave boy to arrive at the answers he did. Therefore, I do not think Socrates provides a legitimate answer to Meno’s question; rather he invents a mysterious story by which his method could be legitimized.
Ancient Greek Philosophy, from Thales to Aristotle, Edited by S. Marc Cohen, Patricia Curd, and C.D.C. Reeve (Hackett 2005).