"One excellent argument [for the recollection theory] is that when people are questioned, they state the truth about everything for themselves - and yet unless knowledge and a correct account were present within them, they would be unable to do this." (Plato Phaedo 73a.)  
Discuss.

 

The "Recollection Theory"is Plato's hypothesis that all knowledge that has ever been known and will ever be known is already pre-existent in your memory.   Plato's arguments in support of the "Recollection Theory,"both here in the Phaedo and in the earlier Meno, can by no standard of sound reasoning be classified as "excellent".   The reasoning presupposes far too many unmentioned premises -- that are mostly wrong.   The actual quote that is the essay title is from the mouth of Cebes who is supposedly just providing a brief conversational summary of the argument more fully developed in the Meno.   In the Phaedo text that follows the quote, Socrates (Plato) goes into some detail to support the summary provided by Cebes, and in the process provides the first arguments for his Theory of Forms.

Although the statement quoted above, was made by Cebes in the Phaedo, it almost certainly (the relative chronology of the two dialogues is not completely clear-cut) refers to a scene in the Meno dialogue where Socrates draws upon one of Meno's slaves (a boy) in order to demonstrate his Theory of Recollection.  

The Pythagorean Theorem was perhaps one of the greatest mathematical accomplishments of ancient Greece.   The scene in the Meno assumes that the slave-boy has no geometrical background whatsoever -- although as we will see, he is in fact granted some elementary mathematical knowledge.   With a series of simple geometrical diagrams in the sand and some highly leading questions, Socrates leads him to make basic deductive conclusions at each step in the proof.   In essence, according to Plato's theory, the boy is able to prove the very theorem which had puzzled Pythagoras.   Consequently, as the boy could not have acquired the knowledge of how to prove this theorem during his lifetime on earth (it is assumed), the only way that he could have done this proof is to have had the knowledge of it available to him before he was born.   Plato/Socrates concludes that therefore the boy is not learning something new, but rather recollecting knowledge that he already had from a previous existence.

The standard interpretation of this scene in the Meno, is that it is a demonstration by Plato that the slave has an innate (non-empirically gained) knowledge of Euclidean geometry -- and hence must have "recollected"the knowledge he supposedly is demonstrating from a prior familiarity with the geometrical Forms involved.

Yet, if the scene is read with a focus on the different conversational roles played by Socrates and the slave boy, it becomes clear that Socrates is leading the slave in an exercise in deductive reasoning.   (See the Appendix for the complete excerpt from the Meno Dialogue.)   The slave's participation is clearly minimal.   He contributes no data to the reasoning.  

                      [SOCRATES: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?]

BOY: I do.

                      [SOCRATES: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?]

BOY: Certainly.

             [Note that it is obvious here that Plato is beginning this exercise by granting that the boy knows what a square is.   So, contrary to Plato's theory, one cannot conclude that any of the properties of the square that are subsequently deduced by logical reasoning must have been "recollected".]

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Certainly.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: There are.

BOY: Yes.

                      [SOCRATES: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.]

BOY: Four, Socrates.  

                      [The most elementary of basic arithmetic.]

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Of eight feet.

BOY: Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Certainly.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: True.

BOY: Certainly.

BOY: No, indeed.

BOY: Four times as much.

BOY: True.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Certainly.

BOY: Yes; I think so.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: It ought.

BOY: Three feet.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: That is evident.

BOY: Nine.

BOY: Eight.

BOY: No.

                      [SOCRATES: But from what line? -- tell me exactly; and if you would rather not reckon, try and show me the line.]

                      [Note that this is the first geometrical question that Socrates has asked where he has not already provided the answer.]

BOY: Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.

 

Observe that Socrates/Plato does not argue that the boy's initial familiarity with the geometrical shape of the square is what he is "recollecting".   He argues to Meno, at the conclusion of this scene, that it is those elements that are logically deducible from that basic presupposed familiarity with the square that are what is being "recollected."But as you can see from this focus on the boy's responses, he contributes nothing to the discussion beyond basic arithmetic.   Except for the presupposed familiarity with the basic properties of the square, he contributes no geometrical knowledge to the discussion.   His involvement is limited to agreement with the logical deductions that Socrates is drawing from the given properties of the square.   And remember, this is a fictional dialogue construction, so there is no need to hypothesize that the slave-boy is in fact doing any reasoning here.   There is therefore nothing here the slave needs to "recollect"as the "answer"he is providing to the questions that Socrates asks.   What he is supposedly "recollecting"is inherent in the data already presented to him by Socrates.   The "knowledge and correct account"that the boy supposedly displays is clearly nothing more than elementary deductive logic (with some common elementary arithmetic), as carefully guided by Socrates.   The boy does not have to "see"(or "recollect") the equality of areas that Socrates marks on the ground.   As noted, the boy already starts with the knowledge that the first figure is a square, and that a square has four equal sides.   Everything else that Socrates draws out of the dialogue, is deducible from that fundamental premise.  

In the Phaedo, as he expands on his argument for the "recollection theory", the example that Socrates (Plato) employs to carry his reasoning is the "form"of equality.   The argument for the recollection theory in the Phaedo is, therefore, totally dependent on the as yet unsupported presumption that there are "Forms", and that one "recognizes"a form when one sees an example of it.   In the discussion between Socrates and Simmias, the existence of the "Form of Equal,"is taken as obvious and neither supported nor challenged.   Plato's reasoning between the "recollection theory"and the existence of Forms is totally circular -- each depending on the presumption of the other.  

The Phaedo argument from the example of "equality"has many other inadequacies.   Not least of which is the presumption that "equality"is something that we recognize without being taught the meaning of the word.   The basic argument is that we recognize a property of a particular by its resemblance to the Form.   We recognize that two sticks are roughly equal in length because we recognize that the equality of the two sticks roughly resembles the Form of perfect equality.   Plato then reasons that since we are able to use our senses from birth to perceive and understand the environment, we must have gained our familiarity with the Forms before birth.   In other words, we do not learn what "equality"means, we recollect a prior learning of what the Form of Equal is.

What Plato fails to do in his argument in either the Meno or the Phaedo is provide any suggestion of how the soul "learns"what it supposedly "recollects"(the Forms, according to the Phaedo) in the first place, even granting the hypothesis that it gains its familiarity with the Forms in the "other world".   One has to provide the missing reasoning and interpolate that the soul, before birth, must somehow "encounter"the Form that is to be later recalled to mind.   This would be consistent with the then extant tendency to view "knowledge"in the manner of "familiarity"(knowledge of) rather than in the modern context of "propositions"(knowledge that).  

Interestingly, in the Meno Socrates draws a clear distinction between knowledge and true opinion (when, for example discussing the benefits of the various ways of knowing the way to Larisa).   This is a distinction that he more completely develops in the Theaetetus.   For Plato, knowledge is clearly more than just true opinion.   It is true opinion supported by some form of "account".   But by this distinction, the theory of recollection described in the Meno and Phaedo would generate just true opinion, not knowledge -- it involves no "account".

To draw upon the often problematic "analytic / synthetic"dichotomy -- Plato's recollection theory is conceivable only for analytic answers -- answers that are inherent (logically deducible from) the data already available.   That two sticks (with lengths already in hand) are equal is determined from the meaning of the word "equal".   As Pythagoras demonstrated, the Pythagorean Theorem is logically deducible from the fundamental properties of a square and the simple premises of Euclidean geometry.   The recollection theory is totally incompatible with synthetic answers -- answers that are dependent on further investigation of the world around us.

In an early part of the argument, Plato mentions the statue of Simmias in the context of demonstrating what he means by "recollecting"something previously encountered.   The statue recalls to mind the image of Simmias, but only if the statue is recognized as that of Simmias.   (Or as someone else, but only if the statue is recognized as similar to that someone else.)   But of course, Plato cannot possibly return to that example in the context of someone who has never previously encountered Simmias (or that someone else) in this life.   For it is quite obvious that the statue of Simmias could not "recall to mind"an image of anyone, if the person doing the recalling has not already encountered in this life the image that is to be recalled to mind.

Since all of mathematics (particularly the basic arithmetic and geometry of Plato's time) is a deductively reasoned edifice drawn from a small set of premises, mathematical examples (the geometrical properties of a square in the Meno, and the arithemetic properties of equal in the Phaedo) are the only possible ones Plato could have employed to support his theory of recollection.   The more empirically supported alternative that it is an ability to reason, rather than preexisting knowledge (a "recollection") of the answer, that is innate within each of us is not addressed -- either in the Meno, or in the Phaedo.

Appendix

The following is the portion of the Meno Dialogue where Socrates engages Meno's slave boy in an exercise intended to demonstrate that the boy does in fact have "knowledge" of things he could not have experienced.   The excerpt is from Plato's Meno.   (Translated with an introduction by Benjamin Jowett, Downloaded July 15, 2007 from the University of Adelaide eBooks library, URL=http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/)

SOCRATES: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?

BOY: I do.

SOCRATES: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: A square may be of any size?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in the other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet?

BOY: There are.

SOCRATES: Then the square is of twice two feet?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.

BOY: Four, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like this the lines equal?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And of how many feet will that be?

BOY: Of eight feet.

SOCRATES: And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the side of that double square: this is two feet -- what will that be?

BOY: Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

. . .

SOCRATES: Tell me, boy, do you assert that a double space comes from a double line? Remember that I am not speaking of an oblong, but of a figure equal every way, and twice the size of this -- that is to say of eight feet; and I want to know whether you still say that a double square comes from double line?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: But does not this line become doubled if we add another such line here?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And four such lines will make a space containing eight feet?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: Let us describe such a figure: Would you not say that this is the figure of eight feet?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And are there not these four divisions in the figure, each of which is equal to the figure of four feet?

BOY: True.

SOCRATES: And is not that four times four?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And four times is not double?

BOY: No, indeed.

SOCRATES: But how much?

BOY: Four times as much.

SOCRATES: Therefore the double line, boy, has given a space, not twice, but four times as much.

BOY: True.

SOCRATES: Four times four are sixteen -- are they not?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: What line would give you a space of eight feet, as this gives one of sixteen feet; -- do you see?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And the space of four feet is made from this half line?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: Good; and is not a space of eight feet twice the size of this, and half the size of the other?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Such a space, then, will be made out of a line greater than this one, and less than that one?

BOY: Yes; I think so.

SOCRATES: Very good; I like to hear you say what you think. And now tell me, is not this a line of two feet and that of four?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: Then the line which forms the side of eight feet ought to be more than this line of two feet, and less than the other of four feet?

BOY: It ought.

SOCRATES: Try and see if you can tell me how much it will be.

BOY: Three feet.

SOCRATES: Then if we add a half to this line of two, that will be the line of three. Here are two and there is one; and on the other side, here are two also and there is one: and that makes the figure of which you speak?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: But if there are three feet this way and three feet that way, the whole space will be three times three feet?

BOY: That is evident.

SOCRATES: And how much are three times three feet?

BOY: Nine.

SOCRATES: And how much is the double of four?

BOY: Eight.

SOCRATES: Then the figure of eight is not made out of a line of three?

BOY: No.

SOCRATES: But from what line? -- tell me exactly; and if you would rather not reckon, try and show me the line.

BOY: Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.

SOCRATES: Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is the side of a figure of eight feet: but then he thought that he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has a difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows.

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