The bountiful mind: memory, cognition and knowledge acquisition in Plato’s Meno
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The Meno has traditionally been viewed as "one of Plato's earliest and most noteworthy forays into epistemology." In this dialogue, and in the course of a discussion between Socrates and his young interlocutor, Meno, about the nature of virtue and whether it can be taught, “Meno raises an epistemological question unprecedented in the Socratic dialogues.” This question - or rather, dilemma - has come to be known in the philosophical literature as Meno’s Paradox of Inquiry, due its apparently containing an easy-to-detect equivocation of the word ‘know’. Immediately after the paradox, and in an apparent response to it, Socrates recounts a myth: a story told by priests and priestesses about the pre-natal existence and immortality of the soul. From this this myth, Socrates concocts the infamous theory of recollection – a theory according to which the soul has acquired knowledge of everything before it was born, while in a disincarnate state. According to the traditional reading of Meno’s paradox, this theory constitutes Plato’s response to it. The traditional reading has come under fire in recent years by advocates of the epistemological reading (ERM), who argue that the theory of recollection is not Plato’s intended response to the paradox. Instead, they suggest, Plato’s distinction between true belief and knowledge – which appears towards the end of the dialogue – is sufficient for solving the paradox; and as such, it ought to be read as Plato’s response to it. In this thesis, I argue against ERM’s claim that a mere epistemological distinction is all it takes to solve the paradox. To do so, I explore the metaphysics of change in Plato’s ontology. From this, I appeal to our everyday notion of ‘memory’ in order to show that Meno’s paradox, in fact, contains a hidden-premise, which when laid bare, reveals two distinct challenges contained within the argument: a superficial one, and a deeper one. I argue that although it appears at first blush as though the former could easily be dismissed as an equivocation, to which the epistemological distinction between belief and knowledge could provide an answer, the latter cannot. This is because the deeper challenge threatens the very preconditions of knowledge itself – that is to say, it renders cognition impossible – and, as such, it cancels out any effort to provide an epistemological response to the superficial challenge. Hence, unless the deeper-level challenge is satisfactorily disarmed, both challenges remain unanswered. I argue that although the major motivation for the theory of recollection in the Meno is indeed to provide an answer to scepticism about knowledge, nevertheless, it ought to be understood, first, as a theory of cognition – i.e. as a theory about the preconditions and atomic building blocks of knowledge – and not a theory of knowledge per se. This answer comes in the form of a radical theory of the mind and cognition – one that stands in stark opposition to our common-sense views about the mind: a view from which, Plato believed, the paradox arises. Drawing on recent debates between Nativists and Empiricists in the Cognitive Sciences, I argue that it was a great achievement of Plato’s to grasp that our common-sense view about the mind, and its concomitant process of learning, language acquisition and knowledge acquisition, might in fact be at the very root of scepticism about our ability to engage in meaningful philosophical practice, and our ability to acquire objective knowledge – especially, objective moral knowledge. The Meno’s paradox, then – so I contend - is not a puzzle whose solution rests upon merely pointing to an epistemological distinction between true belief and knowledge, as advocates of ERM have suggested. Rather, it is a puzzle about cognition. More precisely, it is a puzzle that targets the rudimentary cognitive stages of initial cognition and truth-recognition - one whose solution entails offering an account of the mind that would make these elementary cognitive processes possible. Accordingly, Plato’s theory of recollection in the Meno ought to be read as an attempt to map the structure of the mind, and as such, to provide an account of cognition. In doing so, he intended to put forward a view about the preconditions of knowledge – the sort of preconditions without which language acquisition and knowledge acquisition would simply not be possible. With this theory, Plato has the beginnings of an argument against the kind of relativism and scepticism prevalent at his time. As such, a correct interpretation of the so-called paradox of inquiry (and Plato’s proposed solution to it via the theory of recollection) should approach it as a puzzle about mind and cognition – and not solely as an epistemological one, as it has previously been treated.