The Impossibility of Learning

September 30, 2004

The Impossibility of Learning

Plato begins the Meno by asking the question, “can virtue be taught?” (59). The question is being asked to Socrates, who responds – in part – “I blame myself for my complete ignorance about virtue” (60). And so begins the dialogue of Socrates, as he works through rational thoughts, or Socratic dialogue, to answer the question, and in doing so looks at the paradox of learning, and attempts to resolve this paradox through a theory of recollection. In this essay we shall look at what this paradox is, how – if at all – recollection occurs, and finally if virtue can be taught.

We are introduced to the paradox of learning when Meno poses the question, “How will you look for it, Socrates, when you don not know at all what it is?” (70). Socrates understands what Meno is asking, and responds, “He cannot search for what he knows – since he knows it, there is no need to search – nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for” (70). This response from Socrates highlights the paradox of learning. In essence, what Socrates is questioning Meno is, how will they find virtue, if they don’t know what it is. If left at this point, one could easily conclude by this question, that learning may be impossible.

In order to resolve this paradox, Socrates introduces the reader to the theory (or doctrine) of recollection. He explains:

As the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned; so it is no way surprising that it can recollect the things it knew before, both about virtue and other things. (71)

The argument used by Socrates is that recalling something is equal to learning that very thing. He appears to be suggesting that one actually knows things, before one learns these things, and only learns these when something is triggered and it is recalled. One flaw with this thought, is that Socrates does not address how one obtains the learning to begin with, so that it may be triggered, and subsequently, recalled. Socrates further suggests that finding knowledge within oneself is recollection; something that is agreed to by Meno.

Socrates demonstrates the theory of recollection in the exercise with one of Meno’s attendants. Through a series of questions, Socrates displays that the attendant (said to be uneducated) has knowledge of geometry. The discussions over the drawing of the squares and the size of these is led by Socrates, with responses given by the attendant – suggesting that he may know geometry, without having learned it. Socrates asks Meno that if the attendant has not learned geometry – something Meno confirms – then how would this boy attendant know the answers. Socrates asks that “[i]f he has not acquired them in his present life, is it not clear that he had them and had learned them at some other time?” (78). By other time, Socrates is referring to the soul, and it’s journeys through mortal life and life in the underworld.

This concept of recalling something learned from a past life is further explained by Socrates by suggesting that a person who has true opinions, which when they are then stirred by questioning, would then become knowledge (78).

In reading the text, one could suggest that the way in which the questions were asked may have provided the answers to the attendant indirectly, and by answering these the way the boy did, that it appeared the correct answers were given.

Following the initial display with the attendant, Socrates asks the boy to tell him the size of the line needed for an eight-foot figure that has been drawn. At this point the boy has no idea – “By Zeus, Socrates, I do not know” – and it is here that Socrates explains the limits on the recollection theory.

You realize, Meno, what point he has reached in his recollection. At first he did not know what the basic line of the eight-foot square was; even now he does not yet know, but then he thought he knew, and answered confidently as if he did know, and he did not think himself at a loss, but now he does think himself at a loss, and as he does not know, neither does he think he knows. (75)

Socrates reiterates his belief that knowledge relates to virtue, which relates to excellence, which then relates to happiness when he states that “all the soul undertakes and endures, if directed by wisdom, ends in happiness, but if directed by ignorance, it ends in the opposite” (80). He further states that “[t]his argument shows that virtue, being beneficial, must be a kind of wisdom” (81). Simply put, virtue equates with wisdom. This leads us to address the question on whether virtue can be taught.

Meno and Socrates agree (temporarily) that “if virtue is knowledge, it can be taught” (81). Immediately after this statement, Socrates suggests that perhaps this conclusion is not correct, and then proceeds to explain that if virtue was knowledge, and this could be taught – and it was a good thing to be taught – then a number of people within the city surely would have educated their sons in virtue. The question which Socrates is trying to answer is who would be in a position to teach these qualities to their sons. Socrates laments on this when he asks, “if on the contrary there are no teachers or learns of something, we should be right to assume that the subject cannot be taught” (82). He then proceeds to explain that in his search for teachers of virtue, he has not been able to find any.

One conclusion that is drawn from the dialogues is that if one were to learn something that would it be best to learn this from a person skilled in the task (an example was used to suggest that if Meno was to become a good physician, that he should learn from the physicians). Socrates goes on to say that sometimes people who teach various crafts, will share their knowledge by charging a fee for this service. Anytus agrees that this is the case, and through his response – “By Zeus, I do, and also very ignorant” (83) – suggests that it is appropriate for teachers to do this. It is during this dialogue – primarily between Socrates and Anytus – when Socrates asks who Meno should be sent to learn this virtue, that he suggests that sophists may be able to share their knowledge on virtue. Anytus response suggests that he does not think highly of these sophists who “clearly cause the ruin and corruption of their followers” (83).

Socrates provides the example of Protagoras who “made more money from this knowledge of his” (83) than other sculptors, and that in the forty years of Protagoras imparting his knowledge none of his pupils left in a worse moral condition than he received them. Anytus suggests that there is no need for anyone to learn from a sophist, as any “Athenian gentleman he may meet … will make him a better man than the sophist would” (85). Socrates questions this statement and asks if these gentlemen had become virtuous automatically, and if they were able to teach others something that they have never learned. Anytus responds that he believes that each gentlemen would have learned from other gentlemen before them, suggesting that this is something that could be taught by fathers to their sons.

However, Socrates explains during this dialogue, that historically this has not been the case. One example used is that of Themistocles, and how he taught his son – Cleophantus – to be an excellent horseman and javelin expert. Socrates then asks, “[s]o one could not blame the poor natural talents of the son for his failure in virtue” (86), which suggests that Cleophantus was not very virtuous, and while he was able to learn many skills from his father, virtue was not one of them. Socrates cites a number of other examples where fathers were unable to teach their sons about virtue, but were able to impart their knowledge on a variety of other skills.

Socrates argues that it would be unlikely that a father would deliberately choose not to educate a son in the values of virtue, especially if the father was considered to be virtuous, and therefore a possible teacher of this. This argument has foundations in the examples that he provides in his dialogue with Anytus, and is concluded by Socrates making the assertion that “virtue can certainly not be taught” (87).

Socrates quotes the poet Theognis when explaining to Meno the confusion that surrounds the question on whether virtue can be taught. In one part of a poem, he supports the hypothesis that virtue can be taught:

Eat and drink with these men, and keep their company. Please those whose power is great, for you will learn goodness from the good. If you mingle with bad men you will loose what wit you possess. (87-8)

Socrates then quotes Theognis again, this time supporting the hypothesis that virtue cannot be taught:

‘If this could be done,’ he says, ‘and intelligence could be instilled,’ somehow those who could do this ‘would collect large and numerous fees,’ and further: ‘Never would a bad son be born of a good father, for he would be persuaded by wise words, but you will never make a bad man good by teaching.’ (88)

In deciding if virtue can be taught, we are once again introduced to the concept of true opinions. Socrates reminds Meno of the story of the statues of Daedalus, a series of animated statues that, if not tied down, would run away, as a way of explaining that true opinions are recollection. Here Socrates states that “true opinions, as long as they remain, are a fine thing and all they do is good, but they are not willing to remain long, and they escape from a man’s mind, so that they are not worth much until one ties them down by [giving] an account of the reason why.” He further asserts that “after they are tied down, in the first place, they become knowledge, and then they remain in place. That is why knowledge is prized higher than correct opinion, and knowledge differs from correct opinion in being tied down” (90).

The view that is shared by Socrates as he finishes this dialogue, that “virtue appears to be present in those of us who may possess it as a gift from the gods” (92), supports the conclusion that virtue is not something that is taught, and further supports the claim that the theory of recollection provides the ability for men to “learn” about virtue when questioned correctly, without having specific information shared with them on the subject.

In this paper we reviewed the paradox of learning, and discussed how this could be seen, by some, to suggest that learning is not possible. We partly resolved this issue by discussing the theory of recollection, and demonstrated that when asked the right questions, it is possible to know something having learned that subject. Finally, we discussed the question of whether virtue could be taught, and discover that as it is something that we all have within our souls, that it can be recalled if placed in the correct environment.



Plato. Meno. (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2002), pp. 58 – 92.