Four Platonic Theories

Socrates Introduces Theories

Raphael's The School of Athens, 1509-1511,
fresco (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)

Plato, the School of Athens

Plato points to the heavens and holds a copy of the Timaeus, a late dialogue that was influential in the development of science. In the dialogue, on the previous day, Socrates described "the best state and the character of its citizens" (Timaeus 17c). Now it is time for Timaeus to speak. It is agreed that he will begin with "the origin of the cosmos and end with the nature of man" (Timaeus 27a).

The middle Platonic dialogues continue the new phase in Plato's attempt to understand the love of wisdom that showed itself in the Gorgias. Socrates still leads the conversations, but he no longer is primarily a counterpuncher who asks leading questions about virtue and related matters, without advancing views of his own, as is his practice in the early dialogues.

In the middle dialogues, Socrates introduces four Platonic theories:

• Theory of Recollection
• Theory of Forms
• Tripartite Theory of the Soul
• Theory of Justice

These "theories," as they now are traditionally called, solve problems Plato uncovered in his effort to understand the significance of Socrates' life in the love of wisdom.

The Theory of Recollection

Socrates discusses the Theory of Recollection in the Meno and the Phaedo.

The Meno opens with the following question. "Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue (ἀρετή) can be taught, or is acquired by practice, not teaching? Or if neither by practice nor by learning, whether it comes to mankind by nature or in some other way?"

This opening is a departure from the practice in the early dialogues. Meno has had some training with Gorgias. Whereas Euthyphro makes an assertion about a difficult subject, Meno asks a question that is difficult to answer. In his reply, Socrates jokes that Meno must be from a place where wisdom abounds because in Athens (where the conversation takes place) no one knows what virtue is, let alone how it is acquired. He says that he too shares in this lack of wisdom and that he has never come across anyone who knows what virtue is.

Meno thinks this cannot be right, that surely Socrates would have learned what virtue is from Gorgias when he visited Athens. Socrates replies that maybe Gorgias did know, but since he is not present, Meno should say what virtue is so that Socrates need no longer say that he has never come across anyone who knows what virtue is. Meno jumps at the chance to instruct Socrates, but unlike interlocutors in previous dialogues devoted to a search for a definition, Meno has considerable trouble providing an answer of the right form to the "What is virtue?" question. Further, Meno eventually argues that the question is unanswerable.

In response to Meno's argument that the "What is virtue?" question is unanswerable, Socrates introduces what has become to be known as the Theory of Recollection.

  "Without anyone having taught him, and only through questions, he will understand, recovering the knowledge (ἐπιστήμην) out of himself?
  Yes, Socrates.
  And is not this recovery of knowledge, in himself and by himself, recollection?
  Certainly, Socrates" (Meno 85d).

  "When people are questioned, if you put the questions well, they answer correctly of themselves about everything; and yet if they had not within them some knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) and right reason (ὀρθὸς λόγος), they could not do this (Phaedo 73a).

  "We say there is such a thing as equality (ἴσον). I do not mean one piece of wood equal to another, or one stone to another, or anything of that sort, but something beyond that--the equal itself (αὐτὸ τὸ ἴσον). Shall we say there is such a thing, or not?
  We shall say that there is most decidedly Socrates.
  And do we know (ἐπιστάμεθα) what it is?
  Whence did we come upon the knowledge (ἐπιστήμην) of it? Was it not from the things we were just speaking of, by seeing equal pieces of wood or stones or other things, on the occasion of them that equal was in thought (ἐνενοήσαμεν), it being different from them? ... It is on the occasion of those equals, different as they are from that equal, that you have thought and come upon knowledge of it?
  That is perfectly true" (Phaedo 74a).

  "Then before we began to see or hear or use the other senses we must somewhere have gained a knowledge (ἐπιστήμην) of the equal itself, if we were to compare with it the equals which we perceive by the senses, and see that all such things yearn to be like the equal itself but fall short of it.
  That follows necessarily from what we have said before, Socrates.
  And we saw and heard and had the other senses as soon as we were born?
  But, we say, we must have acquired a knowledge of equality before we had these senses?
  Then it appears that we must have acquired it before we were born.
  It does.
  Now if we had acquired that knowledge before we were born, and were born with it, we knew before we were born and at the moment of birth not only the equal and the greater and the less, but all thing such as these? For our present argument is no more concerned with the equal than with the beautiful itself and the good and the just and the holy, and, in short, with all those things which we stamp with the what it is itself (τὸ αὐτὸ ὃ ἔστι) in our dialectic process of questions and answers; so that we must necessarily have acquired knowledge of all these before our birth.
  That is true, Socrates" (Phaedo 75b).
Socrates introduces the theory in connection with a proof in geometry. He asks one of Meno's slaves questions about how to double the area of a square (ABCD). The slave has not been taught geometry (and so has not been taught the construction that shows that the square BEHD is double the area of the square ABCD), but he finds his way to the answer with the help of Socrates' questioning. Socrates concludes that this episode of questioning and answering depends on what he calls "recollection," and he takes the slave's success in finding the answer about the square to show that the "What is virtue?" question is not unanswerable and that he and Meno should therefore try to answer to this question.

The Two Theses in the Theory

Socrates does not identify theses within the Theory of Recollection, but it is illuminating to see it as consisting in two theses: an epistemological thesis and an ontological thesis.

The epistemological thesis is about reason. According to the epistemological thesis, reason includes some knowledge and thus is more than the ability to form beliefs. Further, this knowledge cannot be eliminated by eliminating the inconsistency among beliefs.

The epistemological thesis characterizes reason as a distinctive form of thinking. Reason includes the possession of certain concepts, and the possession of these concepts is a matter of having knowledge of consequence and incompatibility. This knowledge underlies the ability to draw certain conclusions. For example, someone with the concept of a human being knows what it is to be human and hence that being mortal is a consequence of being human.

The ontological thesis is about the existence of the soul and its relation to the body. According to the thesis, the soul is a persistent object whose existence is not contingent on the body. The soul exists before entering a body and will continue to exist after leaving the body.

The Beginning of an Explanation

Plato does not call attention to the fact, but the Theory of Recollection is the beginning of a solution to one of the puzzles about the love of wisdom that surfaces in the early dialogues as Plato tries to understand Socrates. The suggestion in the early dialogues is that a human being can transform himself so that he possesses knowledge necessary for the good life if he eliminates his confusion about what is good and bad. The idea seems to be that a human being eliminates his confusion by eliminating inconsistency in his beliefs. This method assumes that the problem is false belief rather than the absence of knowledge, that the knowledge is somehow present in the soul, and that this knowledge is not eliminated in the elimination of inconsistency.

• false belief about ethical matters stands in the way of wisdom
• eliminating inconsistency eliminates false beliefs
• the question-and-answer method eliminates inconsistency

The Theory of Recollection suggests an interesting way to make sense of these assumptions. It suggests that some knowledge belongs to reason, that this knowledge is not acquired in experience, and that although this knowledge cannot be lost, it can be obscured by false beliefs acquired in experience. When the soul enters the body, because this event is traumatic, the soul forgets itself and its interests. Further, in its confusion, the soul takes on the concerns of the body and in the process acquires false beliefs about what is good and what is bad.

More Explanation is Necessary

Although the Theory of Recollection provides the beginning of a way to make sense of Socrates and his love of wisdom, it also leaves some questions without clear answers.

In neither the Meno nor the Phaedo does Socrates set out very clearly the knowledge that belongs to reason. The example he gives in the Meno involves geometrical concepts, but it is doubtful he has this knowledge in mind when, in the Apology, he talks about "wisdom and truth and the best state of the soul." The same is true for the knowledge of equality he mentions in connection with the Theory of Recollection in the Phaedo. So without a more explicit discussion of the knowledge that belongs to reason, the problem remains: it is not clear how being forced into contradiction leaves one with the knowledge necessary for a good life.

Moreover, although it is clear that the ontological thesis is a substantive thesis whose truth is not obvious and requires argument, the same is true of the epistemological thesis. It seems plausible to think that human beings form beliefs in various ways and that one of the ways in which they form beliefs is in reasoning, but it is not obvious that human beings have reason and the knowledge that belongs to reason in the way epistemological thesis maintains.

Finally, there is no explanation of how the knowledge that belongs to reason becomes "obscured" by false beliefs. An explanation of why human beings form these beliefs is necessary.

Perseus Digital Library:

Plato, Meno, Phaedo

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ἀνάμνησις, anamnēsis, noun, "calling to mind"
ἐννοέω, ennoeō, verb, "reflect upon, consider"
ἐριστικός, eristikos, adjective, "involving a contest"

"Socrates' method of elenctic [ἐλεγκτικός] dialectic turns on consistency as the crucial feature to be preserved. Not only is inconsistency treated as a criterion for lack of knowledge or wisdom, it also seems to be assumed that the progressive elimination of inconsistency will lead to knowledge or wisdom. This presupposes that deep down we do have a basic knowledge at least of what matters, that we are just very confused, because we have also acquired lots of false beliefs incompatible with this basic knowledge. I take it that in Plato this assumption at times takes the form of the doctrine of recollection.... Unable to get rid of these notions and the knowledge of the world they embody, the only way to become consistent is to eliminate the false beliefs which stand in the way of wisdom" (Michael Frede, "On the Stoic Conception of the Good," 83. Topics in Stoic Philosophy, ??-??). "[Plato seems to think] that a state of knowledge is the natural state of reason, that what needs to be explained is not how it manages to acquire this knowledge, but rather how and why it lost this natural state, [that is to say,] how and why the knowledge it somehow has is latent, inoperative [in guiding the way we live our lives]" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," 14. Rationality in Greek Thought, 1-28).

"Plato, for instance in the Phaedo [(75b)] or in the Timaeus [(43a, 44a)], suggests a view which would explain the state Socrates seems to presuppose [in his questioning to eliminate inconsistency], namely a state in which in some sense we confusedly already know the right answers to the important questions. On this view, when reason or the soul, which pre-exists, enters the body upon birth, it does so already disposing of the knowledge of the Forms, though it gets confused by its union with the body, a confusion it only recovers from to some degree mainly through sustained philosophical effort, recollecting the truths it had known before entering the body. But it is only when it is released from the body, freed from the disturbances involved in its union with the body, and free to pursue its own concerns, rather than having to concern itself with the needs of the body, or other concerns it only has made its own, that it again has unhindered access to the truth" (Michael Frede, "Introduction," 10. Rationality in Greek Thought, 1-28).

"[R]eason, in the first instance, is not conceived of as an ability to reason, to argue, to make inferences from what we perceive; it rather, in the first instance, is conceived of as being a matter of having a certain basic knowledge about the world, which then can serve as the starting point for inferences. ... Thus, to be rational is not solely, and not even primarily, a matter of being able to reason, to make inferences; it, to begin with, is a matter of having the appropriate knowledge about the world. Correspondingly, the perfection of reason does not consist primarily in one's becoming better and better in one's ability to reason correctly; to be perfectly rational rather is to be wise..., and this involves, first of all, an articulate understanding of, or knowledge about, the world" (Michael Frede, "The Stoic Conception of Reason," 54. Hellenistic Philosophy: Volume II, 50-63. Athens: International Center for Greek Philosophy, 1994).

move on go back