I’m not sure what dragged me into reading some of Plato’s Socratic dialogues, but that’s where I find myself. My copy of the Meno is one that I had as a high school student. I recall hearing the idea that “all learning is recollection” back in high school. I thought it was rubbish then. Today, I have a much more reasoned explanation for my continuing dismissal of the theory and one that touches on my ideas about literature.
The question, I think, is whether Socrates (or Plato speaking through Socrates) really believed his own argument. Could he? Let’s recap the argument. Socrates twice (in the Meno and Phaedo) claimed that the mind does not actually learn anything. Instead, it simply recollects what it had already know from some previous life.
It doesn’t take a thinker of Socratic status to see the problem with this line of thought. If all of my knowledge is simply a recollection from a previous life, then how did the knowledge get into my mind during the previous life? And even if we were accept the idea for a moment, how can we account for something learned in the present life that could not have been known in a previous one. For example, the knowledge of using a personal computer cannot plausibly be something I’m recalling from a previous life. I don’t believe it, and I’d suggest that Socrates didn’t believe it either.
In the Meno, Socrates is asked by Meno whether virtue is learned or naturally acquired. In typical Socratic fashion, the conversation does not lead to a straight-forward conclusion. But along the way, Socrates employs one of Meno’s slaves in a piece of geometry questioning, arguing strongly that the results prove that knowledge is not learned but recalled. The problem is, as it was when I was in high school, that the argument Socrates presents is far from convincing.
Was Socrates really that careless? Stupid? I hardly think so. I believe he was intentionally using irony and overstatement in claiming that he had proved the idea of knowledge being all recollection. In doing this, he calls into question Meno’s competence in even dealing with the overall question.
All of this helps to emphasize the importance of literary studies. When a reader does not understand literary tropes and tactics, all reading becomes linear and literal. Recognizing the tools of the literary artist, however, we can at least understand the subtleties of the writer and, sometimes, avoid serious misreading.