Book II of Plato’s Republic includes a conversation between Glaucon and Socrates, in an attempt to the get to the heart of what justice/injustice is. To accomplish this, Socrates leads Glaucon down the concept of a city, and tangents off into explaining things that a city needs not only to be healthy, but luxurious as well(373b).
On explaining the role of guardians in a city, Socrates go Continue reading
The passage by Plato about the conversation between Meno and Socrates commences with a sentence that distinguishes teaching from practice and experience. Although these have different meanings, they are not contrary ideas as the passage seems to suggest. That’s not to say that these are the same or always used together. Both teaching and experience can serve the purpose of learning independently of one another. For example, a child’s mother may tell him that the skinny limbs on a tree will break easily. This is one way for the child to learn this fact. Another way, of course, would be to physically snap the thin branch of a tree and learn from experience. In this case, experience is different from practice and the two words are not interchangeable.
Sometimes, the two methods are used in congruence with one another, and often in these situations practice and experience are closely related. An example of this would be learning to shoot a soccer ball. The coach teaches the players to strike the ball with their laces, how to aim, and how to exert the proper amount of power. The players then practice applying these skills, and in this way, gain experience.
All of this is also assuming that teaching involves a third party. A person could teach themselves the notes and keys on a piano and practice reading music and playing songs to gain experience and through that teach, practice, experience, and learn to play piano all at once.
Overall Socrates offers a very narrow definition of the words teaching, practice, and experience and then treats them as true and factual and applies them to his arguments. Looking at wider or more flexible definitions for his words calls into question Socrates’ proceeding arguments.
From Meno, we encounter towards the middle of the piece a point in which Meno is angry at Socrates because they have come to an impasse as to what “being good” really is. Meno proceeds to feel baffled and makes the claim that it cannot be possible to find out what it is to “be good” because he has no idea what being good really is (80e). This is Meno’s paradox; he feels that he cannot find out “good” because he doesn’t even know what to look for.
Socrates puts things into perspective by making a claim that souls are immortal, and they cycle through life, therefore all the experiences of every person before you culminates in the soul, therefore it is possible that we have learned, in a past life, what being good is, and it is not so much a process of learning, but a process of remembering (81c).
In our own lives, this paradox is encountered. Whether it’s a student who tries to understand calculus, a musician trying to learn a song, or a sprinter who works to drop time in their events, there is a common feature among all these examples: the process of discovery. Just as Socrates put it with his example involving Meno’s slave (84a), it is not learning, because we already know what to do, in a sense. We just have to remember what to do, a process of trial-and-error, where the error makes us eager to discover how to get the task accomplished. Work problems in calculus until it sticks, find ways to move your fingers on the instrument smoothly so to make the music sound seamless, and focus on details in your races in order to grow.
We often are found in similar situations as Meno to which a solution is feasible, but it is something that requires some thought. Deep down, there’s a basic idea on how to accomplish the task, but it really requires a some failure in order to bring us to answers.
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.
Plato, Protagoras and Meno, Penguin, 2006. Trans. Beresford.
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?”