Meno’s Paradox

Philosophy Blog 1
In Plato’s Meno, Socrates holds a dialogue with Meno, a young wealthy man who will become a general. The topic of discussion is how to obtain virtue. Virtue in ancient Greece refers not to morality but rather to skills and traits necessary to satisfy a particular role in society. For example, a farmer would have virtues of knowledge about the crops he grows and marketing skills in order to be successful in farming. The dialogue begins as Meno asks Socrates about whether virtue can taught. Socrates then claims that he does not know what virtue is or how it is obtained (71b). Meno is confused by his answer and claims that Gorgias has taught him virtue. Socrates rebukes him and repeats that he cannot learn what virtue is. This leads up to Meno’s famous paradox, in which he asks Socrates how he can learn anything if he does not know what he is searching for. If he already knew what he is searching for, then he wouldn’t need to search for it because he already knows about it (80e). Socrates responds with his theory that the soul recollects memories from previous lives when exposed to experiences in this life (81d). While this theory seems strange to many people, it has sparked many philosophical arguments over the nature of teaching and learning.
Meno’s paradox questions how knowledge is obtained and how can we know if something is right if we have never experienced it. We may ask our friends to show us how they interpret it, but they might be wrong and misleading. One way to overcome this paradox is by thinking about truths in our own lives. Rene Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am” and this means that the act of thinking means that the individual is at least sure of his own existence. From here, the individual can begin searching for virtues that arise from his reactions and experiences from his life. Also, relearning something that was taught previously in this life is also part of the education process. If I were to relearn how to play a trombone, it does not mean that I knew how to play a trombone in a previous life. Meno’s paradox does not consider the act of forgetting and so it is possible to search for something that one knows but has forgotten due to the lack of certain memories.

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