What is the paradox of inquiry in the Meno?
Does Plato have a good solution to it?


In Plato's dialogue "Meno,"Socrates and Meno are inquiring into the definition of virtue.   At this point in the dialogue, Socrates has successfully refuted all the definitions that Meno has so far attempted.   Here, in this exchange, Meno challenges the intelligibility of Socrates'entire endeavour:

Socrates:     . . .     So with virtue now. I don't know what it is. You may have known before you came into contact with me, but now you look as if you don't. Nevertheless I am ready to carry out, together with you, a joint investigation and inquiry into what it is.

Meno:   But how will you look for something when you don't in the least know what it is? How on earth are you going to set up something you don't know as the object of your search? To put it another way, even if you come right up against it, how will you know that what you have found is the thing you didn't know?

Socrates: I know what you mean. Do you realize that what you are bringing up is the trick argument that a man cannot try to discover either what he knows or what he does not know? He would not seek what he knows, for since he knows it there is no need of the inquiry, nor what he does not know, for in that case he does not even know what he is to look for.
                         Plato: Meno (80d-ff)

This brief passage contains what is popularly known as the "paradox of inquiry"or "Meno's paradox".   But in point of fact there are two different problems identified here.   One, the more obvious linguistic puzzle, is recognized by Plato/Socrates as a trick.   The other, the one that Plato attempts to respond to, is the deeper puzzle of inquiry.

To restate the argument for the linguistic "trick" paradox:

1.  Implicit premise : Either you know what you're looking for or you don't know what you're looking for.

2.  If you know what you're looking for, inquiry is unnecessary.

3.  If you don't know what you're looking for, inquiry is impossible.

4.  Hence, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible.

The paradox resides in the equivocation on the meaning of "you know what you're looking for".   This phrase can be understood as either "you know the question you want answered", or "you know the answer to the question".   Step 2 of the argument is valid only on the second understanding -- "if you know the answer to the question, inquiry is unnecessary".   Step 3 of the argument is valid only on the first understanding -- "if you don't know the question you want answered, inquiry is impossible".   But of course, it is quite common to have the converse of these two propositions -- "if you don't know the answer to the question, inquiry is necessary" and "if you know the question you want answered, inquiry is possible".   Hence the implicit premise does not in fact bisect the possibilities.   The conclusion is therefore invalid because it commits the fallacy of equivocation.  

Plato does not even attempt to analyze or respond to this "trick"puzzle, however, as he is more concerned with a deeper interpretation of Meno's challenge.   To understand the deeper interpretation of the paradox of inquiry, consider the case of the lazy anatomy student.   The instructor asks him to point out the Organ of Zuckerkandl.   Having not done his homework, the poor student has no idea what this might be, where to look for it, or even if it is real and not fictional.   (It appears in a Star Trek novel, and perhaps our student is also a sci-fi fan. But in fact, the Organ of Zukerkandl is real.   It is a chromaffin body derived from neural crest located at the bifurcation of the aorta or at the origin of the inferior mesenteric artery.)   Our student has no success criteria by which to judge whether or not he has found what he is looking for.   He can make a silly wild assed guess (a "swag").   But he will never know, himself, whether his swag is successful or wildly off the mark.   Someone else must tell him.

In the dialogue quoted above, Socrates has admitted that he has no idea what "virtue"is.   Moreover, he claims that Meno doesn't either.   He has placed himself in the position of the lazy student without an instructor.   Meno's challenge is that if indeed Socrates is in this position, then Socrates has no criteria by which to recognize whether or not he has found the right answer (the meaning of "virtue"), even if he does in fact stumble across it.

Plato's response to this challenge is his theory of knowledge as recollection.   In order to explain his Theory of Recollection, Socrates engages one of Meno's slaves in dialogue.   By showing that the slave can display "knowledge" of things he could never have learned (how to double the area of a square), Plato attempts to demonstrate that all nature is interconnected.   If one learns one point, he argues, it is possible to "recollect"all of the rest (Meno 81d).   Drawing upon the then common view of knowledge as familiarity, Plato is arguing that he can recognize as familiar ("recollect") the answer he seeks, once he encounters it.   He suggests that by discussing what we do know about virtue, and exploring all the questions and alternatives that might occur to us, we can discover through reflection that some answers are more familiar than others -- we can "recollect" what we have previously known in an earlier life.

Yet, as a response to Meno's challenge, Plato's theory of knowledge as recollection has a couple of serious flaws.   Firstly, if the scene is read with a focus on the different conversational roles played by Socrates and the slave, it becomes clear that Socrates is leading the slave in an exercise in deductive reasoning.   The slave's participation is clearly minimal.   He contributes no data to the reasoning.   There is nothing here for the slave to "recollect", as the "answer" he is supposedly "recollecting" is inherent in the data already presented to him by Socrates.   The "knowledge and correct account"that the slave supposedly displays is clearly nothing more than elementary deductive logic, as carefully guided by Socrates.   Since all of mathematics (particularly the 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 (available for "recollection"), that is innate within each of us is not addressed -- either here in the Meno, or in the Phaedo where the recollection theory also appears.

Secondly, to draw upon the often problematic "analytic (a priori) / synthetic (a posteriori)" dichotomy -- Plato's recollection theory is conceivable only for analytic answers -- answers that are inherent in (logically deducible from) the data already available.   The Pythagorean Theorem (for any right-triangle, the square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides), is logically deducible from the properties of a square and the axioms of Euclidean geometry.   That two sticks (with lengths already in hand) are equal is determined from the meaning of the word "equal".   Only answers obtainable by reasoning are available for recollection.  

The recollection theory is totally incompatible with synthetic answers -- answers that are dependent on further investigation of the world around us.   In   the Phaedo, where Plato employs the recollection theory in a "proof"of the soul's immortality, he 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 of course, Plato cannot possibly draw upon any such example in the context of someone who has never previously encountered Simmias in this life.   For it is quite obvious that the statue of Simmias could not "recall to mind"an image if Simmias, if the person in question has not already somehow learned what Simmias looks like.   Plato claims that in this life, we "recollect"what the soul has already learned.   What Plato also fails to do in either the Meno or the Phaedo is suggest how the soul "learns"about the things it is going to "recollect"in the first place.   And of course, the entire argument is based on the presupposition that the soul is immortal -- something that Plato does not take up until the later Phaedo.   Here in the Meno, it is adopted as an unchallenged premise.   (In the Phaedo, it is the theory of recollection that is adopted as an unchallenged premise -- making the reasoning quite circular.)

Hence one must conclude that Plato's Theory of Recollection is not a good solution to the deeper understanding of Meno's "paradox of inquiry".   Even if one grants Plato's unchallenged premise that the soul has somehow gained familiarity with some things in an earlier "life", it is difficult to understand how the soul could "recollect" the answers to contingent questions like "who is this statue of?" If one has no familiarity in this life with Simmias, the statue may recall to mind some other person with whom we are familiar, but it could not recall to mind the image of Simmias.   When it comes to such fundamental linguistic questions as "What is Virtue?" however, what is far more obvious to any empiricist (like, for example, Aristotle), is that the mind (soul) gains its familiarity with such concepts in this life (rather than before birth) as it learns the language used to talk about them.

Interestingly, Meno's "paradox of inquiry" remains with us today, and still without a satisfactory resolution.   It is an ongoing concern of health, science, business, investing, inventing, information technology, risk analysis, threat analysis, national security, and many more.   "You don't know what you don't know!!" If you have no success criteria for the question you want answered, you'll never figure out a way to answer it, or recognize the answer if you stumble across it.  

"You know what you know and you don't know what you don't know.   That is knowledge." -- Confucius

"The central dilemma in journalism is that you don't know what you don't know." -- Bob Woodward

"Reports that say something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know." -- Donald Rumsfield, United States Secretary of Defence as quoted in Reuters, Monday Dec 1st, 2003

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