In my preceding post I referred to David Bostock’s Plato’s Phaedo. I quoted his claim that in the Meno version of the recollection argument ‘Plato had himself drawn the conclusion that we never did learn it [i.e. that we never learned what we know now, J.T.], but must have had the knowledge always, i.e. for all the time that there has been (Meno 85d).’
I remarked: ‘This did not make sense to me, for it not only contradicts Socrates’ not-knowing, but the ‘recollection argument’ in the Meno, as far as I remembered it, allows Socrates to point out that we have knowledge that we could not have derived from our present-life’s experience, i.e. we must have brought it into this life from our existence before we were born, but nothing more.’
I looked up Meno 85d and found that in that paragraph Socrates maintains that we must either have acquired knowledge we now have, or always possessed it. And so I asked how it happened to Bostock that he turned Socrates’ ‘And this knowledge he must either have acquired (ȇ oun elaben pote) or always possessed (ȇ aei eichen)’ into the claim that ‘in the Meno Plato had himself drawn the conclusion that we never did learn it, but must have had the knowledge always, i.e. for all the time that there has been (Meno 85d)’. I speculated: ‘My only explanation is that he opened his Oxford text and his eyes got fixed on aei eichen, ‘always possessed’, and he did not register the preceding ȇ oun elaben pote ‘either have acquired’.’ My speculation was too rash, Bostock got just his reference wrong; he must have based his claim on Meno 86a-b.
In the preceding few days I was preoccupied with sending the ‘information’ about my forthcoming protest in Prague (see my preceding post) to Czech academics. I sent the ‘information’ to all academics at the Faculty of Arts (filozofická fakulta) at Charles University, and since I intend to send it to as many Czech academics as possible, I looked up other faculties. The first on the list was the Catholic Theological Faculty. I could get no access to any emails: ‘They obviously don’t want to be disturbed by emails in their contemplation of the divine,’ I thought. And so I tried the Protestant Theological Faculty, then the Hussite Theological Faculty. The same problem. The same explanation? And so I went on to the Faculty of Law, then the First Faculty of Medicine.
The same problem, but the same explanation obviously did not apply. Was my ‘information’ so noxious that the Rector of the University (to whom I sent the ‘information’ before I began sending it to other academics) decided that the academics at Charles university must be protected against it? I tried the Philosophy Institute at the Czech Academy of Sciences. Its Members were ‘unprotected’, and so I spent the whole of yesterday sending my ‘information’ to them. Towards the evening I had just about enough of it, read a bit of Jeffrey Archer’s Cometh the Hour and spent some time with a textbook of German (my son is learning German at school and many times I am embarrassed by his questions). This morning I have realised I could not resume my task of informing Czech academics about my forthcoming protest; I need some time with Plato to recover from that tedious task.
Just as a matter of interest, I have now looked at the English version of the Charles University website. The same problem. I know nothing about computers, and so I ask, could a clever technician disable just my laptop from accessing any emails of academics at Charles University? If not, I wonder how long the Czech academics at that renowned university will tolerate their emails having been made inaccessible.
And since I was not quite sure whether I did not do injustice to David Bostock, I decided to reread the Meno. I have got as far as 86c, and realised – as I had realised many times before – that it is very perilous to talk about any dialogue without reading it afresh, not just a bit of it, but the whole of it.
I immediately trespass against this principle, for, as I have just said, in my present reading I have got only as far as Meno 86c. But that’s enough for my being able to shed more light on Bostock’s claim and on my rash remark concerning it.
Let me return to the discussion Socrates and Meno had about Meno’s slave who, prompted by Socrates’ questions, ‘recollected’ the solution of a mathematic-geometrical problem with which Socrates confronted him. I am resuming the discussion at 86a6.
Socrates: ‘And if there have been always true thoughts in him, both at the time when he was and was not a man (Ei oun hon t’an ȇi chronon kai hon an mȇ ȇi anthrȏpos, enesontai autȏi alȇtheis doxai), which only need to be awakened into knowledge by putting questions to him (hai erȏtȇsei epegertheisai epistȇmai gignontai), his soul must have always possessed this knowledge (ar’ oun ton aei chronon memathȇkuia estai hȇ psuchȇ autou), for he always was or was not a man (dȇlon gar hoti ton panta chronon estin ȇ ouk estin anthrȏpos)? – Meno: ‘Obviously (Phainetai ‘It appears so’).’
At this point I must take issue with Jowett’s translation, for he put the question mark where is a full stop, and a coma where in the original stands a question mark. But more importantly, his ‘always possessed’ (86a8) does not do justice to memathȇkuia. So let me attempt to rephrase 86a8-9 ar’ oun ton aei chronon memathȇkuia estai hȇ psuchȇ autou; ‘isn’t it so that his soul will always be in a state of having learnt [what it knows]?’ (In the Ancient Greek the semicolon stands for the question mark.)
Soc. ‘And if the truth of all things always existed in the soul (Oukoun ei aei hȇ alȇtheia hȇmin tȏn ontȏn estin en tȇi psuchȇi), then the soul is immortal (athanatos hȇ psuchȇ eiȇ). Wherefore be of good cheer, and try to recollect what you do not know, or rather what you do not remember (hȏste tharrounta chrȇ ho mȇ tunchaneis epistamenos nun – touto d’ estin ho mȇ memnȇmenos – epicheirein zȇtein kai anamimnȇiskesthai).’ (86b1-4)
I must again interrupt Jowett’s rendering of Socrates. Socrates’ words at 86b1-4 are just one sentence in the original, and the sentence ends with a question mark.
Meno: ‘I feel, somehow, that I like what you are saying (Eu moi dokeis legein, ȏ Sȏkrates, ouk oid’ hopȏs).’ – Soc. ‘And I, Meno, like what I am saying (Kai gar egȏ emoi, ȏ Menȏn). Some things I have said of which I am not altogether confident (kai ta men ge alla ouk an panu huper tou logou diischurisaimȇn ‘and the other things I have said I would not affirm with confidence’). But that we shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire (hoti d’ oiomenoi dein zȇtein ha mȇ tis oiden beltious an eimen kai andrikȏteroi kai hȇtton argoi), than we would if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know (ȇ ei oioimetha ha mȇ epistametha mȇde dunaton einai heurein mȇde dein zȇtein); – that is a theme upon which I am ready to fight, in word and deed, to the utmost of my power (peri toutou panu an diamachoimȇn, ei hoios te eiȇn, kai logȏi kai ergȏi).’ (86a6-c2, tr. B. Jowett)
So must I withdraw the remark I had made concerning Bostock’s claim concerning the recollection argument, that ‘Plato in the Meno had himself drawn the conclusion that we never did learn what we know now, but must have had the knowledge always, i.e. for all the time that there has been’? I remarked that Bostock’s claim not only contradicts Socrates’ not-knowing, but that the ‘recollection argument’ in the Meno allows Socrates to point out that we have knowledge we could not have derived from our present-life’s experience, i.e. we must have brought it into this life from our existence before we were born, but nothing more? I think my remark holds even face to face with Meno 86a6-c2.