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The Perplexity in Learning or Knowing

Write about the role of “perplexity” in learning or knowing (80a-d, 84a-c).

To summarize the two selected sections of Plato’s Meno, Meno begins by saying that Socrates has “baffled” him about what being good really means, and that he has “got no idea how to answer the question. And yet, damn it, [he’s] talked about ‘being a good man’ thousands of times” (80b). Then, in the next section, Socrates explains to Meno that baffling his slave by proposing a difficult geometry question was not intended to mistreat or mislead him, but rather guide him to the true answer.

The combination of these two passages leads to the “perplexity” in learning or knowing. In the geometry question, Meno’s slave thought he knew the answer, but with a few simple questions posed by Socrates, he was thrown into confusion and doubted what he previously thought he had known. So by baffling the slave, Socrates helped him realize, what he did not know, thus what he needed to learn.    This is also echoed in Meno’s Paradox, “that it’s impossible to try to find out about anything – either what you know or what you don’t know” (80e). Exemplifying the first part of the paradox, the slave thought he knew the answer so there was no point in trying to find out anything more about the problem at hand. And for the second part of the paradox, before Socrates’ perplexed him with probing questions, he had no idea that there was anything wrong with his answer or there was a different method of obtaining the correct answer. Through perplexity he was able to dismiss what he thought he knew and get out of the paradox to learn the true answer.

I find that most students have a similar experience with the confusion of knowing and learning in science classes, specifically chemistry. In every chemistry class I have taken, the professor teaches students some property or rule that the students are expected to master. Then students fall under the assumption that they know the property and are content with the explanation given of why that property is true. But as students move on to later semesters and more advanced material, they get confused very quickly. I have had professors directly tell the class that a rule we have learned is actually untrue, or that the explanation is not as simple as we thought. This is often perplexing and, more recently, I thought I knew everything there was to know about significant figures, which are essentially rounding rules for numbers. But on my first day of analytical chemistry class, the professor told me the rules I had known from previous classes were false and I was confused so I had to learn how to arrive at the correct answer. In conclusion, chemistry students are constantly thrown into the perplexity of believing they know something, then entering a state of confusion in order to reveal what they do not know, so they learn something new, like Meno’s slave and Socrates.


Works Cited

Plato, Protagoras and Meno, Penguin, 2006. Trans. Beresford.

The Acquisition of Knowledge

In Meno, Meno starts a conversation with Socrates about what it means to be “good,” which morphs into a discussion of larger themes pertaining to wisdom and the acquisition of knowledge. At one point Meno gets fed up with Socrates always refuting his points and turns to what Socrates refers to as the “quibbler’s argument,” “that it’s impossible to try to find out about anything – either what you know or what you don’t know. ‘You can’t try to find out about something you know about, because you know about it, in which case there’s no point trying to find out about it; and you can’t try to find out about something you don’t know about, either, because then you don’t even know what it is you’re trying to find out about” (pg. 100-101, 80e). This argument is more commonly known as “Meno’s Paradox,” and essentially states that you can’t acquire new knowledge either because you already know said information, or you don’t know enough information to know how to get more.

Socrates found this argument to simply be a way for lazy individuals to avoid working on their own and found that “as long as you’re adventurous and don’t get tired of trying to find out about things,” you will always be able to acquire new knowledge because he believes that the acquisition of new knowledge is actually just a form of “remembering” (102, 82d).

We encounter and overcome this paradox in our everyday life by doing exactly what Socrates says, we continue to be “adventurous,” and rather than assuming that we aren’t able to garner more information due to a lack of a place to start, we find a starting point and build from there.

For example, if we wanted to learn about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, we could begin by finding an introductory book on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and build or research from there. Although it might be difficult to start finding information, there are always ways around the blockage.

A better example may be solving for a derivative or integral in calculus. Someone may hear the terms derivative or integral and really want to know what they are but neglect to try to find out because they have no idea where to start looking, however, if you took the time to learn algebra and geometry prior to learning calculus you would have a solid base and initial set of information that then allows you to learn about the derivative and the integral.

To overcome the challenge of not being able to acquire new knowledge we simply acquire general knowledge through reading, school, experience, or even just speaking with others, and from their we build our research around a targeted topic.

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?”

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