21 - We Don't Need No Education: Plato's Meno

Peter tackles one of Plato's most frequently read dialogues, the "Meno," and the theory that what seems to be learning is in fact recollection.

Press 'play' to hear the podcast: 

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Further Reading: 

H. Benson, ‘The Priority of Definition and the Socratic Elenchus,’ Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 8 (1990), 19-65.

G. Fine, ‘Inquiry in the Meno,’ in R. Kraut, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Plato
(Cambridge: 1992).

D. Scott, Plato’s Meno (Cambridge: 2006).

Peter Adamson's picture

Alternate title

Honorable mention goes to a title suggested by a student of mine: "Finding Meno".

Edward's picture

Duly honoured!

Duly honoured!

Felix's picture

Meno's paradox

Hi Peter,

upon my first listening I felt that you hadn't given sufficient time to your explanation of Meno's Paradox to allow me to appreciate the basic truth that it contained, i.e. there is a problem in explaining how we can learn.

However, after 2.5 listenings of the podcast, I am of the opinion that the paradox is nonsense and that coming by knowledge is easy.

For example, let us assume that as a youth you saw Buster Keaton on TV one afternoon and were enthralled. Subsequently, you watched him each afternoon when returning from school and furthermore went to the library and borrowed a biography of Keaton as well as a history of silent movies which you read with enthusiasm.

You have therefore gone from complete ignorance of Keaton, through awareness, to knowledge and in the process you will no doubt have heard mention of Harold Lloyd who, as any fule kno, was the greatest silent movie actor of all. :-)

Thus, since the paradox does not exist, both Plato's solution and his willingness to offer a solution where none is required, do him no credit.

No doubt this is simplistic and wrong. But why?

Peter Adamson's picture

Meno's paradox

That's a very good question. One issue that arises here I guess is what sorts of knowledge Plato has in mind; that's something I discuss in a forthcoming episode, an interview with MM McCabe. But more generally, remember that this is a paradox about inquiry, so the "starting point" he's thinking of would (I guess) be something more like this: I set out to discover about Buster Keaton but know nothing about the topic, not even that Buster Keaton is a person.

Of course you might reply that not all knowledge comes from inquiry, sometimes we just come across new information/knowledge (this is implied by your imagined situation where I am lucky enough to come across him on TV). This brings us to the question of whether new experience can give rise to knowledge. Plato seems to think not: he argues for this in the Phaedo which will be the topic in episode 24. 

Perhaps the main thing to realize (again, this is something that will be discussed in future episodes) is that Plato thinks of knowledge as a very high-level attainment, and that helps to explain why we can't acquire it casually, as it were.

Does that help?

Felix's picture

Meno's paradox

I shall listen to the forthcoming episodes and then reconsider my position.


robcorners's picture

knowledge of...?

Let's forget a specific person, and take a concept such as 'music'. If you hear Bach, Barry, Beatles and people tell you that is music, then you may have a good, if narrow, definition of what music is.  Can this be knowledge?  Now you hear be-bop, Cage, Varese, rap.  Does this fit in your previous definition of music?  What about a police siren? Or birdsong? Or me whistling in the bath? Is there a definition that takes in all these, or takes in some and excludes others? One's experience of Herb Alpert hasn't prepared you for a definition that includes Tibetan throat singing.  
So experience can only get us so far.

Now try doing the same thing with 'friendship', or 'humour', or 'justice'.  If your inquiry took place in a school playground, your definition of justice would probably based on 'might is right'.  

To me, this is what Plato could be implying when he says knowledge is recollection.  'Justice' (along with Music and Pity and...) are all timeless concepts which are known and exist beyond specific examples or experiences of scapegoating, or family vendettas which pass for Justice (and may indeed be Justice for all I know - I know my limits!!).  

The example of recollected knowledge used by Socrates in the Meno is, of course, a mathematical one. Why? - because Mathematical methods work in all cultures, and in all languages, because they are shared concepts which exist outside of a specific time.  Surely this is a clue to the way Plato wanted us to think about these other concepts. 

And does this fit in with the theory of Forms?  It is easy to see how abstract concepts (as opposed to physical objects) can be imagined in this way.

OK, I've probably gone down a blind alley,,,

Paul's picture

Meno's Paradox


Loving the podcast so far, especially the presocratics, recommended it to several friends.

Your comment here brings me to a long standing gripe I have with undergrad degrees.

When I did my undergrad we of course got Meno's Paradox and Forms as the main Plato components along with a few others such as the Republic. That was in the intro to philosophy 1st year not the specialist module on him.

What I've always wondered is why lecturers choose these parts of Plato as usually not just the first of Plato you learn, but the first philosophy you learn. When I taught Philosophy A-Level, sure enough first chapter of the book was Plato's Forms, I skipped it.

Plato said a lot of great stuff but stuff I never got to hear this at undergrad level because once I heard Meno's Paradox and Forms I thought what a load on nonsense, thought Plato was ridiculous and moved on to much more sober philosophers. Now much wiser about Plato I wonder if there could be perhaps better choices made about what to teach of his. You yourself on this podcast start with Socrates, then the Euphedemus, great choices, but then mention on this particular podcast you start your undergrad students on Meno's Paradox.

Peter Adamson's picture

Introducing Greek philosophy

Hi Paul -- Well, I do teach Meno's paradox but I don't actually start with it, I start with some Socrates and do either Apology or Euthyphro. More importantly, though, I do the Meno without yet mentioning Forms (so much as I do on the podcast I actually emphasize that you can understand a good deal of what Plato is up to without invoking Forms). That course at King's is an introduction to Greek philosophy, though, not to philosophy or history of philosophy in general, and it's only 10 weeks so we do get to Forms pretty fast!

Edward's picture

A different reading of the Solution to the Paradox?

Hi Peter,

More often than not, with your podcast not being an exception, Recollection theory is cited as the solution to Meno's paradox which is then demonstrated with the slave boy. Whilst it does seem Recollection theory explains how we can inquire into that which we know absolutely nothing about, (as we already knew it before), I was wondering what you make of the idea that actually it is the questioning of the slave boy which does most of the work.

So the situation is that we can't inquire into something we have no knowledge of. The slave boy has no prior knowledge of geometry and so shouldn't be able to inquire into it. Yet he is able to arrive at the correct answer without being taught. So inquiry is possible with no knowledge, because true beliefs about something are enough to enable inquiry to begin. (The slave boy had no knowledge of geometry, but manny beliefs about them; some true and others false.) This reading seems equally effective at refuting the paradox, and doesn't rely on a contentious story about souls. Socrates clearly thinks that through inquiry rational people will make progress in the right direction, disregarding false beliefs and keeping hold of the true ones. So the elenctic method disarms the paradox, and Recollection theory justifies our tendency to recognise our true beliefs?

I read these ideas in 'Gail Fine: Inquiry in the Meno' and was interested in your thoughts.

Peter Adamson's picture

True Belief as a solution

Yes, that's a very good presentation of the Fine solution, I think. One problem that immediately arises is coordinating the Meno story with the Phaedo, which seems to put beyond doubt that Plato took the recollection idea to relate to contentious claims about souls (in that dialogue, these claims are the whole point). But leaving that aside, I tend to think that even within the Meno there is a problem with the idea that true beliefs are enough: this is that Plato is worried precisely about how we can get to something as strong as knowledge, and he would I think be just as worried about how to get there from true belief as from ignorance. The problem is how we get derive knowledge from a situation where there is as yet no knowledge. If we take that as the problem Fine's solution doesn't really help. I like Dominic Scott on this, see his book on the Meno which came out a few years ago.


Luisa Costa Gomes's picture

Interchangeable roles?

I wonder what would happen in the Ménon, if the slave had led Socrates through the geommetrical dialogue and not the other way around...

Peter Adamson's picture

Switching roles

I would say this question opens up numerous interesting issues. Most notably, Socrates must presumably be in possession of some kind of understanding (superior to that of the slave boy) that puts him in a position to ask the questions that will help them advance. So plausibly they couldn't, as you suggest, switch roles and still succeed. You might wonder whether one needs to know about a topic oneself, in order to lead a successful Socratic inquiry into that topic. But Socrates repeatedly says he does _not_ know himself about the topics he is interested in (virtue, etc.). This is a disanalogy with the math case, where he presumably knows the right answer that the slave boy will reach before they start talking; if this is a necessary condition for productive elenchus, then we have a problem. Plato was very interested in this problem, I think, and thought hard about the conditions that would need to be fulfilled in order for Socratic elenchus to succeed (this may be why he shows Socrates talking to characters we know became bad apples later on).

Luisa Costa Gomes's picture

ongoing investigation

What I think is too often forgotten is that Socrates is leading an ongoing investigation. And the "systemic" difficulties of the Parmenides and other aporetic dialogues are as necessary as the Republic, bumps on the way. In the Meno what we tackle is that moral questions are different from geommetrical questions. The differences being submitted to an ongoing investigation...By switching roles in the Meno we would probably fall back into the Paradoxe of Enquiry (that frightens and appalls common sense and philosophers alike)...you have to know something to know at least how to become conscious of what you know, but if you actually don´t know it, you just don´t know where to start, unless you are led by someone who at least has a general knowledge of what it is to know (what is the meaning of "knowing").

Peter Adamson's picture


Yes, exactly. Indeed the slave boy scene could be (and has been taken to be) a depiction of the idea that, recollection or no recollection, the possibility of knowledge depends on finding someone else who already knows what you want to know. Thus if we did not have Socrates to lead the discussion we would, as you say, be back in the initial position of total ignorance envisioned in the paradox.