Meno, first half
S. asserts, and Meno agrees, that we don’t know anything about an F if we don’t know at all what F is. [This
seems to be less than obvious, but more plausible if we emphasize know. This feature reappears in the puzzle.]
S. thinks of knowledge as essential to morality. It certainly seems necessary to morality, but S. thinks it
sufficient as well. In the Protagoras, the argument that knowing A is a better action than B, that is having the
measuring craft, makes it the case that we will do A.]
But in the first part of Meno the emphasis is on explanation, so the knowledge required seems to be theoretical
– an account of what F is. We might think the knowledge required is essentially practical and might not require
knowledge of the nature of the moral properties. This question is treated in the second half. S. needs to show
that these two types of knowledge are connected.
The earlier dialogues (including Euthyphro and Protagoras) what an account would be is taken for granted, but
Meno requires more. The discussion brings out that an account must be in terms a) not in dispute and b)
already understood by the questioner.
That this is not yet enough is indicated by the fact that none of three accounts that S. offers as an example –
two for shape, one for color – are adequate. But it is progress.
Meno believes there are accounts of the essential nature of many F’s, but he has doubts that there are accounts
in the case of the moral properties. The virtues in his view are essentially heterogeneous – they can only be
given by list. Nothing in the nature of language or concepts requires that there be, for each meaningful word,
an essential nature (Wittgenstein’s example was game). But Meno believes that he, like Gorgias, can give
‘confident answers’ on significant matter. But how can he be confident that a chat eristic should be on the list
of virtues without a criterion? (It is a kind of pragmatic inconsistency: he could just give up being so confident,
but he would rather not. We could think of the same problem arising for a city – which are to be the civic
virtues, what is to be the civic list, why be confident we could not do better?)
But accounts seem to resist discovery. Why? Meno proposes this, without complete sincerity:
1. Unless we know what F is, we cannot say anything about F.
2. If we cannot say anything about F, then we cannot distinguish F from other unknowns.
3. If we cannot distinguish instances of F, we cannot inquire about the nature of F.
4. Knowing what F is requires a Socratic account, and we don not have such accounts.
So, we cannot inquire about F. (That’s why Meno can’t find an answer.)
This is too much of a paradox, relying on the appearance of know at each place. But it would be enough to
begin inquire if I believe these are F’s and in fact they are. That is, to begin true belief is necessary, not
What remains a problem is how at the beginning we can take any of our beliefs to be true. This is the point of
the recollection argument.
If the argument works as S. thinks, then the slave had true beliefs that he was able to summon up under
questioning. These were not taught to him. S. does not claim that this particular instance rises to the level of
knowledge, but rather that if the slave kept at this sort of thing his knowledge would be as good as anyone’s.
The solution to the puzzle, then, is that we can inquire with confidence because we have already some true
beliefs, and these may come out if we ask the right questions. That solution, so stated, does not mention
recollection. Recollection is supposed to explain the further question, how is it possible to already have true
[S. makes three claims: 1) we have already true beliefs; 2) true beliefs come from recollection; and 3) we should
then be confident we can inquire. He then says he will stand firmly behind 3) but may have doubts about the
other two. But how could he hold 3) without 1)? So if he has doubts it is about recollection itself.] We see
recollection again in the Phaedo.
[In the first half, S. is at pains to distinguish having recollected from having been taught. In the second half,
however, he includes recollection as a way of being taught. This makes a difference in the second argument in
the second half.]
For further reference: a feature of the refutation of the third argument “to desire find things and have the power
to get them”.
Beginning at 77b where the definition is first stated
– each occurrence of the word ‘desire’ down to 78 translates the noun form of the Greek verb epithumein
– after ‘those that are miserable are unhappy?’ there is a switch. We have, in order ‘wish’, ‘want’, ‘desire’, ‘want’,
and ‘desire’. The middle ‘desire’ is epithumein, but the rest are boulesthai, accurately translated as wish. So
when he concludes “were you not just saying that virtue is to desire good things and have the power to get
them,’ that occurrence of the English desire is actually boulesthai, wish. So it is not exactly what he was saying if
desire and wish mean something different. Does it make a difference? (Apparently not to our translator.)
Meno does not note this, but it is very odd. If desire and wish are to be interchangeable, then we would expect
them to occur randomly. But what actually happens is the ‘desire’ is used in the first statement and then used
consistently down to the central – that no one wishes to be worse off. Thereafter, the term is wish. What could
If it has any point, it would have to be the suggestion that while no one could wish to be miserable, it might
somehow be the case that someone could desire to be miserable. Meno says nothing, Socrates says nothing,
but Plato may be saying something.
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