Selected Passages from Plato's Dialogues

The Theory of Recollection

The character Socrates presents the Theory of Recollection in the Meno and the Phaedo.

Meno 79e

γοητεύεις με καὶ φαρμάττεις καὶ ἀτεχνῶς κατεπᾴδεις. "bewitching me and using spells and without art enchanting"

γοητεύω, goēteuō, verb, "bewitch, beguile"

κατεπᾴδω, katepadō, verb, "subdue by song"

φαρμάσσω, pharmassō, verb, "enchant by potions"

"I am at a loss," in the state of ἀπορία.
Socrates, I used to be told, before I began to meet you, that yours was just a case of being in doubt yourself and making others doubt also: and so now I find you are merely bewitching and using spells and enchanting me, which have reduced me to utter perplexity. And if I am indeed to have my jest, I consider that both in your appearance and in other respects you are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it, and something of the sort is what I find you have done to me now. For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed, and I am at a loss what answer to give you. And yet on countless occasions I have made abundant speeches on virtue to various people--and very good speeches they were, so I thought--but now I cannot say one word as to what it is. You are well advised, I consider, in not voyaging or taking a trip away from home; for if you went on like this as a stranger in any other city you would very likely be taken up for a wizard.

Notes on the Text

Meno, at the outset of the dialogue, has asked Socrates how virtue is acquired. Socrates says that he does not know what virtue is, let alone how it is acquired. Meno asks Socrates whether he met with Gorgias when he was in town and whether he thought Gorgias knew what it is. Socrates says that he cannot remember, and he invites Meno himself to say what it is. Meno thinks he will have no trouble saying, but he has trouble defending his views. He says, in the quoted passage, that Socrates has used magic to reduce him to perplexity about virtue.

Meno 80d

  Why, on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all? Pray, what sort of thing, amongst those that you know not, will you treat us to as the object of your search? Or even supposing, at the best, 1. Either I know or I do not know.
2. If I know, then I cannot inquire.
3. If I do not know, then I cannot inquire.
4. I cannot inquire.

'forsooth' is an archaic adverb used in derision to express disbelief. The translator uses it to translate the particle ἄρα. Greek uses words to express what in spoken English is expressed by changes in tone. (Symth 2771, 2796.)
that you hit upon it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?
  I understand the point you would make, Meno. Do you see what a captious argument you are introducing--that, forsooth, a man cannot inquire either about what he knows or about what he does not know? For he cannot inquire about what he knows, because he knows it, and in that case is in no need of inquiry; nor again can he inquire about what he does not know, since he does not know about what he is to inquire.
  Now does it seem to you to be a good argument, Socrates?
  It does not.

Notes on the Text

Meno gives an argument against the search for definitions. Socrates will reject it.

Meno 81b

It is not completely clear which premise Socrates means to deny when he introduces the Theory of Recollection.

One possibility is that it is (2).

The suggestion, in this case, is that asking and trying to answer questions about virtue is like trying to remember something. By clearing away false beliefs about the matter, the questioning helps someone remember (or "recollect") something he knows but is having trouble bringing to mind.
"They say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time comes to an end, which is called dying, and at another is born again, but never perishes. ... Seeing then that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew before about virtue and other things."

Notes on the Text

In response to Meno's argument against the search for definitions. Socrates introduces what has come be known as the Theory of Recollection. Socrates discusses the theory again in the Phaedo.

Meno 85b

  What do you think, Meno[, about the demonstration with your slave]? Was there an opinion this boy gave that was not his own? of his own thought?
  No, they were all his own.
  But he did not know the answer, as we said a little while ago.
  That is true.
  Yet he had in him these opinions, had he not?
  So that he who does not know about any matters, whatever they be, may have true "true opinions" (ἀληθεῖς δόξαι) opinions on such matters, about which he knows nothing?
  And at this moment those opinions have just been stirred up in him, like a dream; but if he were repeatedly asked these same questions in a variety of forms, you know he will have in the end as exact an understanding of them as anyone.
  So it seems.
  Without anyone having taught him, and only through questions put to him, he will "knowledge" (ἐπιστήμη) understand, having recovered the knowledge out of himself?
  And is not this recovery of knowledge, in himself and by himself, recollection?
  And must he not have either once acquired or always had the knowledge he now has?
  Now if he always had it, he was always knowledgeable; and if he acquired it all some time, he could not have acquired it in this life. Or has someone taught him geometry? You see, he can do the same as this with all geometry and every branch of knowledge. Now, can anyone have taught him all this? You ought surely to know, especially as he was born and bred in your house.
  Well, I know that no one has ever taught him.
  And has he these opinions, or has he not?
  He must have them, Socrates, evidently.
  And if he did not acquire them in this present life, is it not obvious at once that he had them and learnt them during some other time?
  And this must have been the time when he was not a human being?
  So if in both of these periods--when he was and was not a human being--he has had true opinions in him which have only to be awakened by questioning to become knowledge, his soul is in the state of having learned throughout all time? For clearly he has always either been or not been a human being.
  And if the truth about the things that are is always in our soul, Immortality does not follow. Even soul is "in the state of having learned throughout all time" that it exists, it need not exist eternally and thus be immortal. then the soul must be immortal; so that you should take heart and, whatever you do not happen to know at present--that is, what you do not remember--you must endeavor to search out and recollect?
  What you say commends itself to me, Socrates, I know not how.

Notes on the Text

Socrates gives a demonstration to disarm what Socrates calls the "captious" argument that Meno gives (in 80d) to show the "what is virtue?" question is unanswerable.

The demonstration, as Socrates seems to understand it, shows that although we may not be able to remember the right answer, we have it all along as an essential part of having reason. (In the lecture notes, this is what I call the Epistemological Thesis in the Theory of Recollection.)

It is a little puzzling which premise in Meno's argument Socrates means to reject.

We can understand this by asking what we possess when we possess the right answer.

Knowledge and true belief seem to be the two possibilities. If we have knowledge we are having trouble remembering, the remembering does not change the epistemic status of what we have. If we have true belief, it does. It changes the true belief into knowledge.

Phaedo 72e

  [I]f it is true, said Cebes, as you are fond of saying, Socrates, that our learning is nothing else than recollection, then this would be an additional argument that we must necessarily have learned in some previous time what we now remember. But this is impossible if our soul did not exist somewhere before being born in this human form; and so by this argument also it appears that the soul is immortal.
  But, Cebes, said Simmias, what were the proofs of this? Remind me; for I do not recollect very well just now.
  Briefly, Simmias, a very good proof is this: 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 "knowledge (ἐπιστήμη) and right reason (ὀρθὸς λόγος)" and right reason, they could not do this. And that this is so is shown most clearly if you take them to mathematical diagrams or anything of that sort.

Notes on the Text

Socrates' primary interlocutors in the Phaedo are Cebes and Simmias.

Cebes repeats a lesson from the Meno, that the Theory of Recollection implies the soul exists before it enters the body and thus that it appears that the soul is immortal.

Phaedo 74a

  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, "the equal itself (αὐτὸ τὸ ἴσον)" but something beyond that--the equal itself. 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, it being different from them? ... It is on the occasion of "in thought (ἐνενοήσαμεν)" those equals, different as they are from that equal, that you have thought and come upon knowledge of it?
  That is perfectly true.

Notes on the Text

We can talk about two pieces of wood being equal in length, but we can also talk about equality or what Socrates calls the "equal itself." We can say, for example, that equality is transitive (that a is equal to c if a is equal to b and b is equal to c).

What is it to know equality or the equal itself?

Presumably it is it to know such things as that equality is transitive.

"Whence did we come upon the knowledge of it?"

The question, it seems, is how did we become aware that we know the equal itself.

The answer is that we become aware that we know the equal itself by reflecting on thoughts such as these two pieces of wood are equal in length.

Phaedo 75b

  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 such things? For our present argument is no more concerned with the equal than with the beautiful and the good and the just and the holy, and, in short, with all those things on which we stamp '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.

Notes on the Text

There is an argument here.

Since the equal itself figures in thoughts such as this is equal to that, we must have knowledge of this forms before we have the thoughts. We can have such thoughts from the moment we are born. So we must have gotten knowledge of this form before we were born.

Aristotle will deny the premise. He agrees that some knowledge is essential to reason, but he thinks that human beings are not born with reason but develop it as they become adults.

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