The Theory of Recollection

The Meno begins a little differently than previous dialogues devoted to a search for a definition. Meno does not make an assertion. Rather, he asks Socrates how human beings acquire virtue. Socrates replies, as one might expect, that it is necessary first to get straight on what virtue is. Meno tries to answer, but unlike interlocutors in previous dialogues, he has considerable trouble providing the right sort of answer to the "What is it?" question. Eventually he argues that the question is unanswerable. To disarm the argument, Socrates introduces what has come to be called the Theory of Recollection.

The Theory of Recollection is not what one would expect from the Socrates of the early dialogues. This suggests that Plato is doing something new.

Plato does not explicitly call attention to the fact, but he appears to have has his character introduce the Theory of Recollection as a possible solution to a problem that he noticed when was thinking about Socrates and his love of wisdom. The suggestion in the early dialogues is that a human being can transform himself so that he possesses practical wisdom about ethical matters if he eliminates his confusion about virtue. Further, the suggestion is that a human being eliminates his confusion about virtue by eliminating inconsistency in belief. This method assumes that the problem is always false belief, never the absence of knowledge, that the knowledge itself is present in the soul all along, and, morevoer, that it is not eliminated in the elimination of inconsistency.

The Theory of Recollection provides an explanation. Some knowledge is innate. It is not acquired in experience. Instead, this knowledge is an essential part of the human soul. It cannot be lost. It can only be obscured by the confusion produced by the false beliefs acquired in experience.

Given the Theory of Recollection, the method Socrates uses in the love of wisdom is not as problematic as it first seemed. The elmination of inconsistency cannot eliminate the knowledge that Socrates presupposes. This knowledge is an essential part of reason and the human psychology.

The Two Theses in the Theory of Recollection

The Theory of Recollection consists of two philosophical theses: an epistemological thesis and an ontological thesis.

The epistemological thesis is a form of rationalism. According to the thesis, knowledge is an essential part of reason. Since reason is an essential part of the soul, this knowledge that be eliminated. It is a structural feature of the human soul.

The ontological thesis is about the existence of the soul and the body. According to the thesis, the soul is a persistent object whose existence is not contingent on the body. The soul exists before entering a body and will exist after leaving it.

The Theory of Recollection consists in both theses, but it seems possible to accept them independently.

Serious Problems Remain

The Theory of Recollection does not solve all the problems for Socrates' the love of wisdom.

Knowledge of the definitions alone is not enough. If the virtues are defined in terms of the appropriate, then even if the lover of wisdom has innate knowledge of what the virtues are, there is still the question of how he knows what is appropriate in the particular situations he encounters as he lives out his life. He needs this knowledge to act.

Socrates, in the Protagoras, suggests that all desire and hence all motivation in human beings is a matter of a belief or judgement about the good. If knowledge of the good is not innate, the lover of wisdom might know what the virtues are, know what is appropriate in the situation, but lack the desire to do it because he does not believe the good life is the virtuous life.

Further, the Theory of Recollection itself requires argument. The epistemological and ontological theses are clearly questionable.

The Rationalist Tradition

In the Meno, Socrats introduces the Theory of Recollection as something suggested by "priests and priestesses." But it is important to see that the theory is part of the prior rationalist tradition. If some knowledge is innate, then this knowledge is not formed and maintained in the exercise of the cognition that constitutes "experience."

In this way, the Theory of Recollection is perhaps the most extreme example of the enlightenment assumption (reflected in the Milesian revolution, in Parmenides, in Democritus and the atomists, and in Socrates' love of wisdom) that to know the truth about things the key is clear thinking as opposed to uncritical reliance on tradition and experience.

"Socrates' method of elenctic dialectic turns on consistency as the crucial feature to be preserved. Not only is inconsistency treated as a criterion for lack of knowledge or wisdom, it also seems to be assumed that the progressive elimination of inconsistency will lead to knowledge or wisdom. This presupposes that deep down we do have a basic knowledge at least of what matters, that we are just very confused, because we have also acquired lots of false beliefs incompatible with this basic knowledge. I take it that in Plato this assumption at times takes the form of the doctrine of recollection, whereas in Stoicism it is supposed to be captured by the theory of common notions and the common sense based on them. Unable to get rid of these notions and the knowledge of the world they embody, the only way to become consistent is to eliminate the false beliefs which stand in the way of wisdom." (Michael Frede, "On the Stoic Conception of the Good," 83.)

"Plato, for instance in the Phaedo or in the Timaeus, suggests a view which would explain the state Socrates seems to presuppose, namely a state in which in some sense we confusedly already know the right answers to the important questions. On this view, when reason or the soul, which pre-exists, enters the body upon birth, it does so already disposing of the knowledge of the Forms, though it gets confused by its union with the body, a confusion it only recovers from to some degree mainly through sustained philosophical effort, recollecting the truths it had known before entering the body. But it is only when it is released from the body, freed from the disturbances involved in its union with the body, and free to pursue its own concerns, rather than having to concern itself with the needs of the body, or other concerns it only has made its own, that it again has unhindered access to the truth." (Michael Frede, "Introduction" in Rationality in Greek Thought, 10.)

"As to Plato, it would seem that he thinks that a state of knowledge is the natural state of reason, that what needs to be explained is not how it manages to acquire this knowledge, but rather how and why it lost this natural state, how and why the knowledge it somehow has is latent, inoperative." (Michael Frede, "Introduction" in Rationality in Greek Thought, 14.)

(Perseus Digital Library: Plato, Meno)