Plato (427–347 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved February 20, 2019, from

11. Meno

Meno is a dialogue of the simplest form and structure. It consists of a conversation between Socrates and Meno, a young Thessalian nobleman under the spell of the rhetorician Gorgias, interrupted only by a passage in which Socrates quizzes Meno’s slave, and then later by a brief intervention in the proceedings on the part of Anytus, Meno’s host and one of Socrates’ accusers at his trial. The dialogue divides into three sections: an unsuccessful attempt to define what virtue is, which makes the formal requirements of a good definition its chief focus; a demonstration in the face of Meno’s doubts that successful inquiry is none the less possible in principle; and an investigation into the secondary question of whether virtue can be taught, pursued initially by use of a method of hypothesis borrowed from mathematics. Although the ethical subject matter of the discussion is thoroughly Socratic, the character and extent of its preoccupation with methodology and (in the second section) epistemology and psychology are not. Nor is Meno’s use of mathematical procedures to cast light on philosophical method; this is not confined to the third section. Definitions of the mathematical notion of shape are used in the first section to illustrate for example the principle that a definition should be couched in terms that the interlocutor agrees are already known. And the demonstration of an elenchus with a positive outcome which occupies the second is achieved with a geometrical example.

It looks as though Plato has come to see in the analogy with mathematics hope for more constructive results in philosophy than the Socratic elenchus generally achieved in earlier dialogues. This is a moral which the second and third sections of Meno make particularly inviting to draw. In the second Socrates is represented as setting Meno’s untutored slave boy a geometrical problem (to determine the length of the side of a square twice the size of a given square) and scrutinizing his answers by the usual elenctic method. The boy begins by thinking he has the answer. After a couple of mistaken attempts at it he is persuaded of his ignorance. So far so Socratic. But then with the help of a further construction he works out the right answer, and so achieves true opinion, which it is suggested could be converted into knowledge if he were to go through the exercise often. The tacit implication is that if elenchus can reach a successful outcome in mathematics, it ought to be capable of it in ethics too.

None the less, and perhaps significantly, Socrates does not press or indeed even articulate that point; direct engagement with the original problem of what virtue is in fact abandoned at this juncture, and the discussion turns to the issue of its teachability, and to the method of hypothesis. Here the idea is that instead of investigating the truth of proposition p directly ‘you hit upon another proposition h (’the hypothesis’), such that p is true if and only if h is true, and then investigate the truth of h, undertaking to determine what would follow (quite apart from p) if h were true and, alternatively, if it were false’ (Gregory Vlastos’ formulation (1991)). After illustrating this procedure with an exceedingly obscure geometrical example, Socrates makes a lucid application of it to the ethical problem before them, and offers the Socratic thesis that virtue is knowledge as the hypothesis from which the teachability of virtue can be derived. The subsequent examination of this hypothesis comes to conclusions commentators have found frustratingly ambiguous. But the survival and development of the hypothetical method in Phaedo and Republic are enough to show Plato’s conviction of its philosophical potential.

The slave boy episode is originally introduced by Socrates as a proof of something much more than the possibility of successful inquiry. The suggestion is that the best explanation of that possibility is provided by the doctrine of the immortality of the soul, a Pythagorean belief which makes the first of its many appearances in Plato’s dialogues in Meno (see Psychē; Pythagoras §2; Pythagoreanism §3). More specifically, the idea as Socrates presents it is that the soul pre-exists the body, in a condition involving conscious possession of knowledge. On entry into the body it forgets what it knows, although it retains it as latent memory. Discovery of the sort of a priori knowledge characteristic of mathematics and (as Plato supposes) ethics is a matter of recollecting latent memory. This is just what happens to the slave boy: Socrates does not impart knowledge to him; he works it out for himself by recovering it from within. Once again, although the Socrates of Meno does not in the end subscribe to belief in learning as recollection of innate knowledge, it is embraced without equivocation in Phaedo, as also in the later Phaedrus. But what exactly is recollected? Phaedo will say: knowledge of Forms. Meno by contrast offers no clues. The introduction of the theory of Forms is reserved for Symposium.

Citing this article:
Schofield, Malcolm. Meno. Plato (427–347 BC), 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A088-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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