Review of Metaphysics 28 (2):289 - 310 (1974)


AS SOME PHILOSOPHERS KNOW, the paradox about inquiry at 80d-e of Plato’s Meno is more than a tedious sophism. Plato is one such philosopher. The puzzle is an obstacle to his project of discovering definitions, and is introduced as such. And it is met with an elaborate response: the theory of recollection, explicitly presented as an answer to the obstacle. But then what of the famous conversation in which Socrates coaxes a geometrical theorem from a slave boy Is the theory not designed to explain the boy’s ability to respond to the coaxing? It is, certainly, but that is not its only purpose. The structure of the passage is this: the theory is there to disarm the paradox, and the conversation is there to support the theory. To see this structure is to understand a notorious and otherwise troubling fact, that Plato is so very quick to take the slave’s behavior—which he might have tried to explain in some other way-to be clear evidence for recollection. The reason why he so takes it is that the paradox has led him to think that only if recollection occurs is fruitful inquiry possible—and he is very anxious indeed to be assured that it is possible. He would not have been so enticed by explanations of the boy’s behavior which did not also seem to him to dispose of the puzzle. Here now is Plato’s setting of the paradox

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