Three Platonic Theories

The Theory of Recollection

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 ideal state and its citizens." Now it is time for Timaeus to speak. It is agreed that he will begin with "the birth of the world and end with the nature of man."


The middle Platonic dialogues continue the new phase in Plato's attempt to understand Socrates that showed itself in the Gorgias. The character 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

Given that Plato is trying to understand Socrates, it is plausible to think that he has the character Socrates introduce these "theories," as they are traditionally called, as possible solutions to problems Plato uncovered in his effort to understand 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 subject that is not easy to know about, 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. He says that surely Socrates would have learned what virtue is from Gorgias when he visited Athens. Socrates says that maybe Gorgias did know, but that since he is not present, Meno should say what virtue is so that Socrates will meet with the good fortune of no longer having to say that he has never come across anyone who knows what virtue is. Meno tries to enlighten 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 what it is?
  Certainly.
  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 (ἐπιστήμην) 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 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?
  Certainly.
  But, we say, we must have acquired a knowledge of equality before we had these senses?
  Yes.
  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 the square BEHD is double the area of that the square ABCD), but he finds his way to the answer with the help of Socrates' questioning. Socrates suggests that this episode of questioning and answering is an instance of the more general phenomenon of "recollection," and he takes the attendant's success in finding the proof to show that the "What is virtue?" question is not unanswerable and that Meno should answer and not resort to sophistical argument.

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 a form of what is sometimes called rationalism. According to the epistemological thesis, some knowledge is an essential part of reason and the soul. This knowledge cannot be eliminated from reason and the soul by eliminating the inconsistency among beliefs. It is a structural feature of reason. It is part of what it is to have reason.

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 epistemological thesis characterizes reason as a distinctive form of thinking. Reason consists in the possession of certain concepts, and the possession of these concepts consists is a matter of having knowledge of consequence and incompatibility. This knowledge underlies the ability to reason. Consider the concept of a human being. Someone with this concept knows what it is to be human and thus that being mortal follows as a consequence of being human.

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 present in the soul all along, and that this knowledge is not eliminated in the elimination of 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. The suggestion is that when the soul enters the body, because this event is traumatic, the soul forgets itself and its interests. 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.

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 Socrates 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 fundamental problem remains: it is not clear how being forced into contradiction leaves one with the knowledge necessary for the good life.




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, edited by K. Ierodiakonou (Oxford University Press, 1999).

"[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 (Oxford University Press, 1996), 1-28).

"Plato, for instance in the Phaedo or in the Timaeus, suggests a view which would explain the state Socrates seems to presuppose, 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 (Oxford University Press, 1996), 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, edited by K.J. Boudouris (Athens), 50-63).



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