Socrates is Like a Torpedo Fish

Meno's Argument that the Search for Definitions is Impossible

Torpedo torpedo
Torpedo torpedo, Linnaeus 1758.
Native to the Mediterranean Sea. Can emit electric shocks.
"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 bewitching me with your spells and incantations, 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" (Meno 79e).

Argument

  "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, 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 (ἐριστικὸν) argument you are introducing--that, forsooth, a man cannot inquire (ζητεῖν) 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" (Meno 80d).

"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" (Meno 81b).
1.  A man either knows or does not know what virtue is.
2.  If he knows what virtue is, he cannot inquirer into what virtue is.
3.  If he does not know what virtue is, he cannot inquire into what virtue it.
----
4.  He cannot inquire into what virtue is.


Explanation

1. Either someone knows or does not know. There is no other possibility.

2. In his restatement of Meno's argument, Socrates say that a man "cannot inquire about what he knows, because he knows it, and in that case is in no need of inquiry."

3. Meno puts the point this way.

"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, that you hit upon it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know"? Socrates restates this premise as follows: "nor again can he inquire about what he does not know, since he does not know about what he is to inquire."


Evaluation

1. The argument is valid. The conclusion cannot be false if the premises are true.

2. Socrates denies the conclusion, but it is a little unclear which premise he denies.

Socrates can seem to deny (2) in that he suggests that asking and trying to answer questions about virtue is a way of trying to remember something. The suggestion, in this case, is that by clearing away false beliefs, the questioning helps one remember (or "recollect") something one knows but is having trouble bringing to mind. This interpretation fits with the suggestion in the early dialogues that the problem is false belief, not the lack of knowledge.

Socrates can also seem to deny (3) in that he suggests that the soul has knowledge before it enters the body but that when it enters the body this knowledge becomes true opinion because the soul acquires false beliefs that stand in the way of correctly answering questions.

  "What do you think, Meno? Was there any opinion that he did not give as an answer of his own thought?
  No, they were all his own.
  But you see, he did not know, as we were saying a while since.
  That is true.
  Yet he had in him these opinions, had he not?
  Yes.
  So that he who does not know about any matters, whatever they be, may have true opinions on such matters, about which he knows nothing?
  Apparently.
  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 understand, recovering the knowledge out of himself?
  Yes.
"And is not this recovery of knowledge (ἐπιστήμην), in himself and by himself, recollection?" What does this mean? Is knowledge lost but later found? Or does true belief become knowledge once confusion is eliminated?   And is not this recovery of knowledge, in himself and by himself, recollection?
  Certainly.
  And must he not have either once acquired or always had the knowledge he now has?
  Yes.
  Now if he always had it, he was always in a state of knowing; 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.
Socrates first asks when the slave acquired the "knowledge," but now he is asking when he acquired the "opinions."   And has he these opinions (δόξας), 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?
  Apparently.
  And this must have been the time when he was not a human being?
  Yes.
  So if in both of these periods--when he was and was not a human being--he has had true opinions (ἀληθεῖς δόξαι) in him which have only to be awakened by questioning to What is the "cognizance" he has throughout all time? Is it knowledge? Or is it true opinion? become knowledge (ἐπιστῆμαι), his soul must have had this cognizance (μεμαθηκυῖα) throughout all time? For clearly he has always either been or not been a human being.
  Evidently.
  And if the truth of all things that are is always in our soul, 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" (Meno 85b).

Further, Socrates says that inquiring into what we do not know makes us better.

"Most of the points I have made in support of my argument are not such as I can confidently assert; but that the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better and braver and less helpless than the notion that there is not even a possibility of discovering what we do not know, nor any duty of inquiring after it—this is a point for which I am determined to do battle, so far as I am able, both in word and deed" (Meno 86b).




Perseus Digital Library:
Plato, Meno

Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon:
ζητεῖν, zētein, verb, "to search, or inquire into"



go back go back