In Plato’s dialogue, Meno, Socrates is asked a paradoxical question about what virtue is by Meno. “How will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know? ” Socrates retorts that if you already know what you are searching for, then you do not have to search.
Alternatively, if you do not know what you are looking for, the search is indeed futile. However, Socrates attempts to explain to Meno why it is that he will be able to find what virtue is by introducing the idea that knowledge is inherent in the individual as it is passed along through the soul. When Meno demands proof of this concept, Socrates provides an example of a slave boy using “inherent knowledge” to calculate the length of a square needed to double it’s own area.
This experiment shows Meno that virtue, along with other knowledge, can indeed be discovered through the inherent knowledge in one’s soul, and only has to be “remembered” to become of use. When Meno proposes his argument to Socrates that a search for what you do not know is impossible, he is reasoning that if one does not know what it is they are trying to find, one will never know if they have found it. Meno seeks to understand how an individual can find new knowledge if they have no clue how to find it or how to comprehend the discovery of it.
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Socrates acknowledges Meno’s argument and states that “man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire” (Meno, Plato). Meno believes that this proves his own argument, but Socrates proposes an alternate way to attain knowledge. Socrates speaks of “priests and priestesses” who “say that the soul of man is immortal” (Meno, Plato).
Also, he says the soul has kept all the knowledge from previous “lives” that it has had, and therefore knowledge is obtained through recollection instead of learning. Socrates attempts to prove his theory by providing an example with one of Meno’s slaves. His experiment is simple. Socrates calls over a slave boy and asks him about squares. The boy knows has some knowledge of the properties of squares including the fact that they have four equal sides, they can be divided in half, and the area is equal to the side multiplied by the other side.
However, when Socrates asks the boy to determine the length of a side necessary to double the area of a 2x2 foot square, the boy mistakenly says 4 feet (which would yield a square 4 times too large). The slave proposes a length of three feet, but is wrong again. Here Socrates makes a note of the “torpedo’s touch” (Meno, Plato) or “aporia” (Aporia, Burbules), which means that the boy knows that he does not know.
Socrates states that this state of mind is better than believing false knowledge, because one will know that there is knowledge to seek. Socrates maintains that throughout the experiment he was never teaching the slave, but only asking of his opinions. Therefore, the knowledge that the slave called upon must have already been inherent if he had not learned it before (since slaves had little education the boy was the perfect example for Socrates to demonstrate this “inborn knowledge. ) Socrates makes his argument clear: if the slave had no knowledge of what is was he was searching for (the length of the side), and the information was not taught to the boy, then the information must have already been inherent in the boy’s soul. Here is Socrates’ argument in Premise/Conclusion form: P: Slave isn’t taught. P: Slave has no prior knowledge. P: Immortal soul contains knowledge. C: Knowledge must come from one’s immortal soul. P: You do not know what you are trying to find. P: You are not taught what you are trying to find.
P: Your soul contains inherent knowledge. C: You can find what you are searching for through recollection of the knowledge “stored” in your soul. Socrates’ proofs are meant to enforce his views that knowledge such as virtue must be searched for, “that a man should enquire about that which he does not know” (Meno, Plato). Citations: Burbules, Nicholas C. "Aporias, Webs, and Passages: Doubt as an Opportunity to Learn. " Curriculum Inquiry 30. 2 (2000): n. pag. Aporia. 2000. Web. 12 Sept. 2012. . Plato, and R. S. Bluck. Meno. Cambridge [Eng. : University, 1961. N. pag. Print.
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