Monday, December 18, 2017

Meno's paradox

Ask a philosopher, especially an epistemologist, what knowledge is, and she’ll probably answer that it is justified belief. Of course, she knows that the problem here just starts, for what does “justified” mean and when is a belief justified, and moreover, what is a belief? But I think that in order to get an idea of what I am talking about here this preliminary definition will do. Even then the definition is questionable. For example, once in a blog I discussed the Gettier problem, which says that we can have a true belief that is not justified. Here I want to consider another question. It was raised by Meno in his dialogue with Socrates. They are talking about what virtue is, but Meno wonders whether we can ever know it. Here is what he says and what Socrates replies:
“MENO: ... How will you enquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know?
SOCRATES: I know, Meno, what you mean ... You argue that a man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.” (1)
In other words: We cannot look for what we already know, for we know it already, so what to look for? However, when we don’t know what a thing is, we don’t know what to look for. So trying to acquire knowledge is an impossible task. This problematic situation is called Meno’s problem or Meno’s paradox. Of course, it cannot be right. Much has already been written about it and here I cannot go into that, but I want to explain how I see the solution, which is quite simple to my mind.
Let’s first look at Socrates’s solution. Socrates thinks that all our knowledge is inborn but that we are unconscious of most of it. The trick is then to make this hidden knowledge conscious. In order to substantiate his view Socrates takes one of Meno’s slaves and asks him some difficult mathematical questions, which the slave successfully answers. Since the questions were about a new subject and since therefore the slave couldn’t have found the answers by himself – so Meno and Socrates suppose –, it must have been so, so Socrates states, that he, Socrates, brought the inborn knowledge that the slave actually already had to the surface. However, what actually happens is that Socrates steers the slave’s thinking. In fact he reveals what Socrates already knew. By the way the questions are asked the slave acquires new knowledge. It is as if the slave studies a textbook on mathematics and when he has finished it, passes the examination and is then a learned mathematician.
Nevertheless, Socrates’s method is not pointless. Actually it is the right method applied in the wrong way. The difference between us and the slave is, that the slave is questioned by another person and doesn’t need to think out the problem he is questioned about and doesn’t need to think up the questions. That’s why it is as if he reads a textbook. However, our situation is different, for the problem is ours. Once we have a problem we are already halfway to new knowledge, for usually we want a solution, for practical reasons or for scientific reasons or who knows why. John is at a railway station in an unknown town and wants to go home. When does the next train leave and from which platform? An astronomer has discovered an irregularity in the trajectory of a planet. How come? In other words, when you have a problem and want to solve it, you do like Socrates: You ask questions. But you don’t ask them to another person but you ask them to yourself. Once having asked your question(s), you devise intelligent solutions and you test them. If a solution applies or works, you have new knowledge. You have read on a table where and when your train leaves, and the next time you are there, you don’t need to look it up anymore. The astronomer thinks that the trajectory of the planet is disturbed by an unknown planet, which is later discovered by him. So we acquire new knowledge. Some knowledge is new for you, but not new as such (for someone had made the train table). Other knowledge is really new, for before the astronomer had discovered the new planet nobody knew about its existence.
Actually Meno’s problem as formulated by him is a false problem. He formulated as a static problem what in fact is a dynamic problem. You cannot know how the opposite bank of the river looks like, when you are on this side. However, you can ask yourself how to come over there and look for solutions: build a bridge, rent a boat, learn to swim. That’s how science works and that’s how we get knowledge. Science and knowledge is not about the right answers but about the right questions. That’s what Meno learned from Socrates and what we can learn from Socrates. As for this, Socrates’s question asking is okay. What Socrates didn’t see is that he had not to ask his questions to another person but to himself. But is it not what he actually does in his dialogues all the time, even if he asks them sometimes to others?

 (1) Quoted from Benjamin Jowett’s translation of Plato’s Meno on

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