One paradox in the Meno is familiar :

A person cannot look for (zitein) what he knows or for what he doesn't know. He would not look for what he knows, for he knows it already and one who has the knowledge would have no need to look for it. And he would not look for what he doesn't know, for then he doesn't know what he is to look for (Plato, Meno 80C). (M. Welbourne tr.)

But there's another paradox that gets less attention. That is, how can Socrates claim that we have knowledge even though he says we cannot gain it?

  • I have revised the question in order, as I hope, to bring out its point more clearly. I have not changed the important issue you raise.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 18, 2018 at 17:28
  • See Scott (page 90) : "I can find no text to show conclusively that Socrates thought knowledge attainable; and, while he does say in the Apology that no one actually has divine wisdom, he does not actually deny that humans might acquire it, or say that it would be impious to make the attempt." Mar 18, 2018 at 17:49
  • Reminds me of Rumsfeld's known unknowns.
    – user4894
    Mar 18, 2018 at 18:20
  • I was not referring to the historical Socrates' views, which nobody knows. The Platonic Socrates of the Meno raises the possibility at 201d that true belief with the addition of a logos is knowledge. This is more than merely not denying that humans might acquire knowledge. And the Platonic Socrates in the Republic seems quite strong on the idea that knowledge, via acquaintance with the Forms, is possible and realistic for the few.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 18, 2018 at 18:27
  • Meno, 98a of course : correct belief becomes knowledge when 'tethered by working out the reason' (WKC Guthrie, adapted) ... ἕως ἄν τις αὐτὰς δήσῃ αἰτίας λογισμῷ.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Mar 18, 2018 at 19:41

1 Answer 1


In the Meno a slave-boy solves a problem in geometry merely, Socrates claims, as a result of question and answer aided by a drawing in the sand. No information - knowledge - was imparted to the boy yet at the end of the question and answer session he has geometrical knowledge. He has it but he did not gain or acquire it, for he received no instruction.

Socrates seeks to explain the situation via his idea or doctrine of recollection or anamnesis :

The slave-boy of the Meno, ignorant of geometry, succeeds in establishing the truth of a fairly difficult theorem with no other aid than the figures inscribed in the sand at his feet and the assistance of intelligent questioning. Here is a fact. How is it to be explained? Since the boy had never been taught, but only questioned, does it not imply that he had some recollection of a truth seen before he entered human form, a truth locked and forgotten in the recesses of personal memory? ( R. E. Allen, 'Anamnesis in Plato's "Meno and Phaedo"', The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Sep., 1959), pp. 166.)

So the quick answer to the paradox is that we have knowledge, not by gaining it but by recollecting it. Though the theory of Forms is not explicitly present in the Meno there seems to be an assumption that the boy has in a previous existence had acquaintance with the relevant geometrical Forms and this acquaintance is gradually renewed under the promptings of diagrams and questions and answers.

It is a moot point whether Socrates really does not impart information through his questions but one's immediate impression is that the theory of recollection is total fantasy. Yet it marks the site of a significant problem. If, as seems likely, the boy inferred the truth of the theorem and didn't 'recollect' it at all, must he not have had innate resources that enabled him to make the right inferences ?

The current possibility here is nativism, the notion that people have some innate ideas. Mental functions and capacities, perhaps even knowledge of universal grammar, do not appear to be learned. Kant attributed certain categories as intrinsic to the human mind - brought to experience and not derived from it. Could the same be true of certain mental functions and capacities ?

Evolutionary psychology, along with common sense, gives credibility to at least some form(s) of nativism. It appears to answer, or to be en route to answer, how we can have knowledge without gaining it.

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