Theories in the Middle Dialogues

Socrates Does More Than Ask Questions

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 influential in the development of science.

In the dialogue, Socrates and his interlocutors have been engaged in discussion. The previous day Socrates described "the best state and the character of its citizens" (Timaeus 17c). Now it is time for Timaeus to speak, and 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 mark a new phase in Plato's attempt to understand Socrates. The character Socrates still leads the conversations, but he is now different in certain ways. No longer is he 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, seem to address issues Plato uncovered in his effort to think through what Socrates seemed to say about the good life.

The Theory of Recollection

In the Meno and the Phaedo, Socrates discusses the Theory of Recollection.

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?"

In his reply, Socrates jokes that Meno must be from a place where wisdom abounds because in Athens 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. (Gorgias would tell his audience that there was no question he could not answer (Gorgias 447c).) Socrates jokes that he does not have a good memory and asks Meno to remind him what Gorgias said or to say himself what virtue is. Meno jumps at the chance to instruct Socrates, but unlike the interlocutors in previous dialogues devoted to a search for a definition, Meno has considerable trouble providing an answer of the right form. Eventually he argues that Socrates' "What is virtue?" 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 to be equal. 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 it, the thing that is?
  Whence did we come upon the knowledge 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 things 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 thing itself that is (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).

Aristotle accepts the epistemological thesis but rejects the ontological thesis. He is in agreement with Plato that some concepts are essential to reason, and he thinks that human beings develop reason as they become adults.
Socrates introduces this 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 thinks that this episode of asking and answering questions demonstrates the existence of 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 possible to see it as consisting in two theses: an epistemological thesis and an ontological thesis.

The epistemological thesis is about reason. Reason, according to the thesis, includes knowledge of consequence and incompatibility. This knowledge underlies the ability to make certain inferences in reasoning. Meno's slave makes such inferences in his answers to Socrates' questions.

The faculty of reason, in this way, includes knowledge on which reasoning depends. This knowledge is essential to reason and the process of forming and revising beliefs.

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 in death.

The Epistemological Thesis

The epistemological thesis in the Theory of Recollection suggests the beginning of a solution to one of puzzles about Socrates and the love of wisdom that emerges in the early dialogues.

Socrates, in these dialogues, seems to think that human beings are confused about what piety and the other virtues of character are. He seems to think that the way to eliminate this confusion is to eliminate the inconsistency in their beliefs. This assumes that their problem is the presence of false beliefs, not the absence of true beliefs about what the virtues are. The true beliefs are in the soul and cannot be lost when they eliminate the inconsistency in their beliefs.

The Theory of Recollection suggests a way to begin to make sense of these assumptions.

According to the epistemological thesis, some knowledge belongs essentially to reason. It cannot be lost, but it can be hard to bring to mind (as Socrates' inquiry with Meno's slave demonstrates) because they are obscured by false beliefs we acquire in experience.

The knowledge that belong essentially to reason we can call concepts. Socrates suggests that the concept of virtue is what Meno should try to "recollect" to answer the "what is virtue?" question.

We might think too that the concept of piety and the other virtues of character Socrates asks about are also essentially part of reason and that Socrates is trying to help his interlocutors "recollect" these concepts when he asks them what the virtues of character are.

This, though, does not answer all the questions we had about the search for definitions.

Socrates, it seems, as Plato portrayed him, was thinking that if we knew what courage is, we would know what is good and bad in situations that can inspire fear, but this knowledge does not appear to be part of the concept of courage. The concept of courage, it seems, is that courage is what is appropriate with respect to situations that can inspire fear. An interlocutor might "recollect" this to answer Socrates' "what is courage?" question, but he still needs to know what is appropriate in these situations to have the wisdom he needs to live the good life.

The Ontological Thesis

The ontological thesis suggests the beginning of an explanation for why most human beings are not lovers of wisdom but instead live their lives in terms of pleasure and pain.

As part of his explanation for why he is not afraid to die, Socrates explains that lovers of knowledge make a discovery about themselves and about human beings more generally. They come to think that "some sort of track is leading us, together with our reason, astray in our inquiry, that as long as we possess the body, and our soul is contaminated by such an evil, we will never adequately gain what we desire-and that, we say, is truth" (Phaedo 66b).

"The love of wisdom (φιλοσοφία) sees that the most dreadful thing about the imprisonment in the body is the fact that it is caused by the lusts of the flesh, so that the prisoner is the chief assistant in his imprisonment. ... The soul of the true lover of wisdom ... abstains from pleasures and desires and pains and fears, so far as it can, reckoning that when one feels intense pleasure or fear, pain or desire, one incurs harm from them not merely to the extent that might be supposed—by being ill, for example, or spending money to satisfy one’s desires—but one incurs the greatest and most extreme of all evils. ... The evil is that the soul of every man, when intensely pleased or pained at something, is forced to suppose that whatever affects it in this way is most clear and real, when it is not so; and such objects are especially things seen... that in this experience the soul is most thoroughly bound fast by the body... that each pleasure and pain fastens it to the body with a sort of rivet, pins it there, and makes it corporeal, so that the soul takes for real whatever the body declares to be so. For because it has the same beliefs and enjoys the same things, the body it is compelled to the same ways and the same sustenance, and can never depart in purity to the other world, but must always go away contaminated with the body; and so it sinks quickly into another body again and grows into it, like seed that is sown. Therefore it has no part in the communion with the divine and pure and absolute. ... This, Cebes, is the reason why the true lovers of knowledge are temperate and brave .... For the soul of the lover of wisdom would not reason as others do, and would not think it right that the love of wisdom should set it free and that then when set free it should give itself again into bondage to pleasure and pain and engage in futile toil.... No, his soul believes that it must gain peace from these emotions, must follow reason and abide always in it, beholding that which is true and divine and not a matter of opinion (τὸ ἀληθὲς καὶ τὸ θεῖον καὶ τὸ ἀδόξαστον), and making that its only food; and in this way it believes it must live, while life endures, and then at death pass on to that which is akin to itself and of like nature, and be free from human ills" (Phaedo 82e). This "track" lovers of knowledge discover is a way of thinking that exists because "we possess the body." They come to think that their "soul is contaminated" by their body insofar as it "fills us up with lusts and desires and fears and with all sorts of fancies and foolishness" (Phaedo 66b, 66c). Because lovers of knowledge come to think this about "the body and its desires (τὸ σῶμα καὶ αἱ τούτου ἐπιθυμίαι)" (Phaedo 66c), they change their way of life completely.

Life after the Discovery

As a result of their discovery of what has befallen them, lovers of knowledge resolve not to "consort with or have dealings with the body other than what is absolutely necessary" and to "abstain from all bodily desires, and stand firm without surrendering to them" because they "believe that their actions must not oppose the love wisdom" (Phaedo 67a, 82c, 82d).

They think that when the love of wisdom takes "possession of the soul" (Phaedo 82d), it is imprisoned by the body and that the "ignorance" this imprisonment causes is reinforced through the satisfaction of "desire, so that the captive himself" aids in "his imprisonment" (Phaedo 82e). "[T]he soul of the true lover of wisdom [the lover of knowledge who practices the love of wisdom correctly] abstains from pleasures and desires and pains and fears, so far as it can, reckoning that when one feels intense pleasure or fear, pain or desire, one incurs harm from them not merely to the extent that might be supposed—by being ill, for example, or spending money to satisfy one’s desires—but one incurs the greatest and most extreme of all evils" (Phaedo 83b).

Life before the Discovery

When someone follows the "track," he acquire beliefs that lead him to live a life proper to the body but not to himself. "The soul of every man, when intensely pleased or pained at something," Socrates explains, "is forced to suppose that whatever affects it in this way is most clear and real, when it is not so; and such objects are especially things seen" (Phaedo 83c). He says that "in this experience [of pleasure and pain] the soul is most thoroughly bound fast by the body," that "each pleasure and pain fastens it to the body with a sort of rivet, pins it there, and makes it corporeal, so that the soul takes for real whatever the body declares to be so," and that as result, because the soul has come to have "the same beliefs as the body and enjoys the same things," it is forced to have "the same ways and the same sustenance" (Phaedo 83d).

Because the soul follows the "track" in connection with its experiences of pleasure and pain, it acquires false beliefs. It comes to believe of the objects involved in these experiences (the things that give the pleasure or pain) that they are "most clear and real," when in fact, according to Socrates, they are not. Moreover, because the soul attributes a value to these experiences they do not possess, it acquires false beliefs about what is good and bad and so has "the same ways and the same sustenance" as the body. Because the soul has these false beliefs, it seeks to have the kinds of pleasures and avoid the kinds of pains it experienced previously. In this way, before the love of wisdom takes possession of the soul, the lover of knowledge lives a life proper to his body but not his soul and hence does not live the good life as he has come to understand this life.

More Explanation is Necessary

The suggestion is that the soul forgets its good when it enters the body and lives a life appropriate to the body. Plato makes Socrates say that because he has discovered what happened, he tries to live a life proper to his soul. This would explain why the historical Socrates lived in the unusually ascetic way he did and why most people instead organize their lives around getting pleasure and avoiding pain, but it also raises several questions. We need to know

• what are the objects Socrates calls "most clear and real"
• how are these objects part of the good life

It is also necessary to know

• how someone becomes a lover of knowledge

The change involves giving up what Socrates, in the Protagoras, suggests is a defining feature of the lives people ordinarily live. They live as though pleasure is the good. The lover of knowledge does not. This, though, does not explain how this change of mind happens and thus how someone comes to think he should make knowledge the center of his life.

Finally, we need to understand

• how experience of pleasure and pain "bind" the soul to the body
• how asceticism "unbinds" the soul from the body

The suggestion seems to be that experiences of pleasure and pain produce beliefs that tie the soul to the body, but beliefs seem to be states we form and retract on the basis of evidence.

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,] "...the knowledge it somehow has is latent, inoperative..."

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).

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