Overcoming the Unknown

In Plato’s dialogue Meno, a young, baffled Meno challenges Socrate’s logic and stance on knowledge by posing his famous paradox which describes the impracticality of searching for something you have no knowledge of as well as the issue of recognizing that you have found it when you do not even know what “it” is. Socrates simply dismisses this paradox as a quibbler’s argument, instead, offering up his theory on learning as “remembering” and something to do with our immortal souls(81d). Whether or not this is the case, Meno’s Paradox doesn’t seem to cause anyone any grief in the real-world pursuit of knowledge. Further into Plato’s Meno and Protagoras we are provided hints as to why this is.

“How silly of us not to realize that it isn’t always knowledge that’s guiding people when they do things well and succeed in their affairs”(96c).

Knowledge isn’t the be-all and end-all of education or learning, it can’t be. Knowledge, whether it is known or unknown, is just useless fact if you lack the skills to apply it. “Isn’t it clear that what we desperately need is, for a start, some kind of measuring ability?”(357b). Throughout Meno and Protagoras Plato refers to this ability to operate knowledge as “knowledge of measurement”, “opinion”, and just plain old “good sense”. What Plato describes is a discerning ability, the ability to say yes or no, to accept or question, and to piece the different components of knowledge into something functional— something similar to judgement. By exercising our judgement or “good sense” we are easily able to overcome Meno’s Paradox and fearlessly navigate the unknown.

“Even with a blindfold on, Meno, anyone could tell just from talking to you that you are beautiful.”(76b)

Even if we are just stumbling around in the dark as long as our feet remain firmly planted in what is familiar we can feel around for edges and use our judgement to piece together an outline of what we are searching for. Scientists do it all the time. They define something by defining its surroundings, where it will fit, then study it by studying its surroundings and how it fits(eg. Higgs Boson Particle). Using “good sense” and the trusty “guess and check method”(very much the same concept behind a baby’s shape sorter toy, see image below) you will often find what you were searching for, or didn’t even know you were searching for and then recognize “it”as what you were searching for because it fits.



2 responses to “Overcoming the Unknown

  1. Hi Trieste,

    I also agree with your stance on Meno’s Paradox. Although it’s a good question, I think his paradox is a little flawed. If people can’t find what they don’t know, how do we attain more knowledge and information from our world? Scientific breakthroughs happen everyday, and I’m sure the scientists didn’t start off knowing what they were researching. One hundred years ago, no one thought we would be able to fly, yet now we have hundreds of thousands of flights going on every day. If it is true that we can’t find what we don’t know, how were we able to figure out how to make airplanes?

    I really like the analogy you made, the “feet remain firmly planted in what is familiar we can feel around for edges and use our judgement to piece together an outline of what we are searching for” one. I think it is a great way of explaining what my point is. I also think that the point you made about knowledge is really interesting, how having knowledge alone isn’t enough. I never thought about knowledge’s limitations in that way.

    Philosophy and science seem to be polar opposites on paper, but how do you see their relationship? Do you think they’re opposites? Or would you say that they’re partners? I would love to know!


  2. Thats a really great question! I had never considered the relationship between science and philosophy but now that you ask, I would say they are the same thing. The way I see it, both fields are about the study and practice of inquiry. In both science and philosophy people start by asking big questions then probing possible solutions until they fall apart or prove to be true solutions. This seems to be the idea behind two very common methods of inquiry in their respective fields, if we were to narrow it down, the Socratic method and the scientific method. They even sound similar. Both methods begin with a question and neither method even really prioritizes finding “the solution” over the actual process of inquiry. I think most of the time these methods result in more questions than solutions and it is funny how rather than “baffling” and discouraging people these additional questions prompt more inquiry. It is really a testament to the emptiness of Meno’s Paradox in the real world.

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