Knowing and Knowledge in Meno

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Knowing and Knowledge in Meno

Plato’s early and middle dialogues usually establish Socrates’ figure as a critical philosopher, who is conscious of his ignorance, relies on hypotheses and craves knowledge. Socrates is presented as one who seldom claims to know and his interlocutors are usually presented as pretending to know. On the other hand, when he explicitly claims to know he does it in an apologetic manner, emphasizing that what he claims to know is but little.

More often than not, the opinion has been accepted by many of Plato’s readers that the explicit manner in which Plato presents Socrates and other interlocutors is the correct one. Therefore, admitting ignorance is thought to be purely Socratic, although in Plato’s writings, as in other sources, there is much evidence that other philosophers in his period admitted ignorance too. For instance, claiming ignorance is also exemlified in the saying, attributed to Protagoras, that in regard to the gods we cannot say anything that is certain, both because man’s life is short, and because the subject is too difficult.

As a rule, what Socrates claimed to know was neglected or when not neglected it was explained as Plato’s thoughts, especially the theory of knowledge as recollection (see section b below). A closer look at Socrates in Meno, as Plato describes him, reveals that what Socrates contends to know is significant and it bears great importance for the inquiry, sometimes even overshadowing his ignorance.

In this article, I will examine the things that Socrates claims to know and the significance it bears to what he investigates in the dialogue, and more important, on what he doesn’t investigate. Although the conclusions that arise in this work do not suggest a ‘Platonist’ interpretation, nor do they lead to the conclusions of Aristophanes and Nietzcshe, who both saw in the Socratic enterprise nothing more than futile quibbling.

One can identify four things that Socrates claims to know in Meno: a) Knowledge of virtue itself must come before knowledge of its qualities (71b); b) Knowledge is innate in the eternal soul, and therefore learning resembles recollection (85b-86c); c) If virtue is some sort of knowledge, it must come from teaching (86d); and d) Knowledge and true (or correct) opinion are different kind of things (98b).

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