Platos Meno

.. nce proven otherwise: the quality of life in our society rests on the application of the empirical findings made by science. If the gathering of these empirical findings cannot be called learning and the existence of these findings in our minds cannot be classified as knowledge, then what can? Drafting, for example, is a skill that one must learn in school from a teacher. In order to put these drafting skills to use, one needs to use knowledge acquired from the teacher. Another example would be the physical gathering of genetic material, a process as complex as its name suggests.

The successful execution of this process is achieved under controlled laboratory conditions by technicians who need to under and follow certain steps in a certain order so as to facilitate an accurate DNA fingerprint. The very concept of DNA, let alone the process of genetic fingerprinting, is one that is the result of our accumulation of vast amounts of empirical, scientific knowledge. Socrates may well have been able to teach a slave boy basic geometric proofs using representative drawings in the sand, but the teaching of any other subject stemming from the acquisition of empirical data would have required the passing on of knowledge that could not possibly have been recalled by the boy. The boy would have had no way of recognising the answer even if Socrates had devised a method of “mental midwifery” for such a subject. The fact is, no matter what method Socrates used, there is no way that such a topic can be taught by means of the Socratic elenchus.

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The traditional interpretation of the conversation between Socrates and the slave boy (81e-86c) states that the conversation expounds Plato’s belief that knowledge can be recollected. The validity of this point is put into question by the suggestion of a very different position: that Socrates’ blatantly leading questions, while superficially exemplifying a Socratic dialectic, actually display an example of sophistry. The kinds of responses Socrates elicits are merely factual and come about from empirical demonstration rather than from rational means. The slave boy is only marginally perceptive; not only is he not trying to seek truth, he always responds affirmatively. These concerns overlap and are better explained by recalling the text of the experiment with the slave boy. In the scene (81e-86c), Socrates draws one of Meno’s slaves out from the gathered crowd. He then proceeds to demonstrate the Theory of Recollection (and ultimately the erisitic paradox) by showing that all nature is interconnected such that if one learns one point, it is possible to recover all of the rest.

Yet, if the dialectic is reread in light of sophistic procedures and the narrowly focused content, the scene offers a new point: with Socrates part edited out, the dialectic demonstrates sophistry. If one reads all of the slave boys lines, one sees that the slave boy never disagrees. The answers Socrates elicits are specific, data-oriented (“eight,” “four,” “double,” etc.) and are factual. He seeks dimensions and measurements, and while the example is a theorem, Socrates reduces theorizing to a practical answer-giving exercise based on empirical drawings in the sand. As a result, Socrates demonstrates the limits of sophistry: because we now perceive the dialectic as being questionable in intent, we must also look at Platos belief that all knowledge can be recollected in a questioning light.

Recollection is the reminiscence of prior and personal experience. When Socrates attempts to demonstrate the Theory of Recollection, he says to Meno of the slave boy, “Observe, Meno, the stage he has reached on the path of recollection. At the beginning he did not know the side of the square of eight feet. Nor indeed does he know it now, but then he thought he knew it and answered boldly, as was appropriate he felt no perplexity. Now however he does feel perplexed.

Not only does he not know the answer; he doesnt even think he knows.” (84a-b). This sentence touches on the eristic paradox, but it also contains an important irony typically overlooked; this irony of the section is illustrative of sophistry. Socrates has as his subject a slave boy. The “confident answer” to which Socrates refers is the same kind of confidence a primary school student would have when he or she affirmatively responds to leading questions about geometric proofs. Not only is there no personal interest on the part of the boy, and hence no recollection, but there is such an emphasis on empirical demonstration of technical characteristics that those whom Socrates is “persuading” are too set in sophistic ways to see the problems inherent therein.

It is possible that the slave boy realizes that he doesn’t know, which clears his mind of any predisposition that would hinder true learning. His state is one in which he may now be persuaded; as such, Socrates can now “lead” to questions which, when repeated, define the search for knowledge. Indeed, the mark of sophistry, as demonstrated by the experiment, is that the form is present in the material, not in the boy. A slave to Meno, the boy is also a slave to the material. Thus, the boy actually illustrates the limitation of sophistry: because sophists do not have cleared minds, they ask the kinds of questions that presuppose specific answers.

Despite his ostensibly narrow views of what knowledge is and how it can be acquired, Plato must be given considerable credit for disguising Socratic dialectic as Sophistic practice, giving us yet another interpretation of the experiment with the slave boy. However, Plato still makes the mistake of discrediting any experience or empirical data as not having the form of what he defines as knowledge; he claims that true knowledge can be obtained only through questioning and merely thinking. The experiment, too, tests the faith of the reader: in order to believe Socrates assertions regarding the experiment, one must believe in the reincarnate existence of knowledge in the human mind. Socrates attempts to show that, if one masters one point, recalling the remaining points is then possible. Platos rejection of empiricism is the result of the eristic paradox, which in essence, says that we never actually learn anything this, in turn, accounts for Platos belief in the ante-natal existence of knowledge. However, this concept of knowledge both the eristic paradox and the concept of pre-natal knowledge are disproved by simple examination of the application of acquired empirical knowledge in our society.

Thus, both the eristic paradox and the concept of pre-natal knowledge are ultimately flawed.


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