Into the Void

Throughout the dialogue, Meno and Socrates talk about a certain problem: how can you look for virtue when you don’t know what it is? This paradox is later broadly expanded so it asks, “How can you try to find about something if you don’t know what it is, and if you did happen to come across it, how would you know that it’s the thing you’re looking for if you didn’t know what it was in the beginning?”

This inquiry can be broken down into 2 parts. If you know what you’re looking for, there’s no need to inquire, or look for it. However, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, inquiry is impossible due to the reasons given above. So, inquiry is unneeded or impossible.

Socrates has several responses and hypothesis to answer. He claims that because the soul might be immortal unlike the body, it knows everything from past lives, so it’s merely learning is merely recollection. He proves this with the example with the slave and teaching him about the square and diagonals. Since it’s recollection of old knowledge, you know what you’re looking for. (80d-86c)

Another response that Socrates has to answer the paradox with is by proposing a possible answer one can get to a true answer without knowing it. The argument after this goes on to a convoluted sub-argument over the fact whether virtue can be considered knowledge, therefore can be taught or not. Since there can be something good that’s not knowledge (like happiness for example), virtue can be not a type of knowledge. Socrates also suggests that virtue can only be it if there’s wisdom included, but that point is seem as doubtful by the fact that there aren’t teachers for virtues. So, in order to explain the paradox, virtue can’t be taught and it’s not knowledge; he gives an example of great fathers and terrible sons.

Now, for my own personal thoughts on this argument and dialogue, I was kind of confused because at first read, what Socrates was suggesting seemed kind of obvious and seemed to invite lots of examples and loopholes as answers. However, he does have a good point; if you don’t know what you’re looking, you don’t know it when you find it.

However, I feel that even though if Socrates did make a lot of good points, there are some things I don’t understand. Even if we don’t know about something, when we come across that unknown object, wouldn’t we still have enough information about the object we’re missing that we can identify it and know what it is? For example, physic’s so-called “God Particle.” Scientists know what it is and can do, so when we come across it, shouldn’t we know it? Unless we don’t know anything about it at all or we don’t even know the existence of such thing.

Another way one can overcome this in daily life is by classifying everything else in their lives, and when this new existence comes, if it’s unlike the others, then the person could conclude that it is something we don’t know. So, like the dialogue concludes, we know what we know, and we don’t know what we don’t know. Now, either that seems incredibly obvious to me, or maybe I’m not getting it, but nowadays, we have tools and other background knowledge to describe something we don’t know that we can find out what it is. Like if I don’t know what a word is, then I can look up the definition of a word I’m looking for, and find the word itself.

It’s kind of confusing.


Leave a Reply