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Innateness in ancient philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A136-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2002
Retrieved July 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

The idea that knowledge exists latently in the mind, independently of sense experience, is put forward in three of Plato’s dialogues: the Meno, the Phaedo and the Phaedrus. The claim is that the human soul exists before it enters a body, and that in its pre-existent state it knows certain things, which it forgets at birth. What we call ‘learning’ during our mortal lives is in fact nothing but the recollection of pre-existent knowledge. In a particularly famous passage in the dialogue the Meno, the character Socrates sets an uneducated slave boy a geometrical puzzle. After asking a series of questions, he elicits the correct answer from the boy, which he claims existed in him all along, merely needing to be aroused by the process of recollection. Aristotle dismisses recollection quite brusquely and tries to explain human learning by appeal to sense perception. In post-Aristotelian philosophy, it unclear how far any theory of innateness was accepted. Most probably, the Stoics thought that in some sense moral concepts and beliefs arise from human nature, though they did not endorse a theory of pre-existence or recollection.

Citing this article:
Scott, Dominic. Innateness in ancient philosophy, 2002, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A136-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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