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All You Wanted to Know About Plato on Meno’s Paradox, and Other Gems

Interview by Richard Marshall.

Socrates adds (not as something he believes, but so as to construct a dilemma that challenges the very possibility of inquiry) that neither can one inquire into e.g. virtue if one does know what it is, since in that case the inquiry is already over. (Inquiry is a systematic attempt to acquire knowledge one doesn’t have.) Since, for any object x (e.g. virtue), one either does or doesn’t know what it is, and since both options preclude inquiry, all inquiry is impossible.

Lately several commentators have argued that Plato’s conception of knowledge and belief differs from ‘ours’, and/or that that episteme (which is often translated as ‘knowledge’: hence ‘epistemology’) isn’t knowledge as we think of it and that doxa (which is often translated as ‘belief’: hence ‘doxastic’) isn’t belief as we conceive of it. It’s then argued that, though Plato denies that there is either episteme of sensibles or doxa about forms, he isn’t thereby denying that there’s knowledge of sensibles or beliefs about forms, and so his views aren’t as implausible as they might seem to be.’

Gail Judith Fine’s main interest is in ancient philosophy, but she is also is interested in the rationalists and empiricists, and in epistemology and metaphysics. In recent years, she has taught courses on the rationalists, on conflicting appearances, ancient skepticism, and Plato’s metaphysics and epistemology. She received Cornell’s Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching in 1992. In 1998-1999 she was a Fellow at the Cornell Society for the Humanities. She is currently working on a cluster of issues centered in ancient epistemology, especially in Plato, Aristotle, and Sextus Empiricus. Here she discusses Meno’s paradox, what it is and how Plato answers it, how others such as Aristotle, Plutarch, Stoics and others handle it, ‘stepping stones’ and ‘matching’ approaches to foreknowledge, the distinction between objectual and propositional inquiry, Sextus and why she thinks Pyrrhonian suspension of belief doesn’t mean they suspend all belief, Plato’s ‘Two Worlds’ theory of belief, and how Plato’s views on knowledge and belief intersect or not with contemporary thinking. This is a good case for thinking we’re just footnotes…

3:AM: What made you become a philosopher?

Gail Judith Fine: In high school (and for a long time before that), I wanted to be a writer of fiction and poetry. I had a wonderful English teacher in high school, and we used to meet outside of class to discuss poetry I’d written. She eventually told me I’d never be a successful poet: that my writing wasn’t sensitive enough to e.g. style, metaphor, or imagery. She thought I was more interested in ideas. But she knew that I also cared about the quality of writing, so she suggested I read Plato, as someone who was good on both ideas and style; and I’ve been hooked ever since. I also had a friend who was a year older than I was and who went off to college (to major in philosophy) when I was a high-school senior; when he came home during vacations, we sometimes discussed what he was reading in class. I especially remember our discussing Quine. So I was already interested in philosophy (both ancient and modern) when I began college.

In my first year there, at the University of Michigan, Elizabeth Beardsley was a visiting professor and I took her Honors Intro. She was an inspiring teacher, and she encouraged me to continue studying philosophy. I also had the good fortune to study with many other excellent teachers there, including Jaegwon Kim, William Alston, and Nicholas White, as well as Christopher Kirwan, R.M. Hare, and J.O. Urmson (the last three as visitors from Oxford). I did my graduate work at Harvard, fulfilling a long-standing dream to work with G.E.L. Owen, whose work had greatly impressed me. Terry Irwin was also there then, and I’ve been talking about philosophy (and other things) with him ever since. I spent a year of my time in graduate school at Oxford, working primarily with John Ackrill, from whom I also learned a lot.

3:AM: One of the big topics you’ve brooded on is the Meno paradox which raises the question as to whether inquiry is possible or not. So first, how do you understand what the paradox says?

GJF: The paradox arises in the Meno because they are inquiring what virtue is, but they don’t know what it is. Meno, frustrated by his inability to say what it is, wonders how one can inquire about something if one doesn’t know what it is. He raises what Gary Matthews (in his book Socratic Perplexity) calls the targeting objection: one can’t inquire unless one has a target to aim at and that, in turn, requires knowing what one is inquiring into – the very thing, it seems, that Meno and Socrates don’t know. Socrates adds (not as something he believes, but so as to construct a dilemma that challenges the very possibility of inquiry) that neither can one inquire into e.g. virtue if one does know what it is, since in that case the inquiry is already over. (Inquiry is a systematic attempt to acquire knowledge one doesn’t have.) Since, for any object x (e.g. virtue), one either does or doesn’t know what it is, and since both options preclude inquiry, all inquiry is impossible.

To understand what’s at issue here requires, among other things, figuring out how knowing and not knowing are being understood. On one view, knowing is having complete knowledge, and not knowing is being in a cognitive blank. On this view of knowing and not knowing, it’s true that whether one knows or doesn’t know what something is, one can’t inquire about it. For if one has complete knowledge about something, there’s nothing left to inquire into about it. But if one’s in a cognitive blank about it, one doesn’t have a clue about how to begin an inquiry into it. Nonetheless, one can avoid the conclusion (that inquiry is impossible) since, on this conception of knowing and not knowing, they aren’t exhaustive options. There are also intermediate cognitive conditions, such as partial knowledge, and true belief; and, if one has and relies on either of them, one can inquire, using them as a springboard (to use David Charles’ term, in his Aristotle on Meaning and Essence) in an effort to acquire knowledge one lacks. For example, one might have an identifying description of virtue, and use it in an effort to discover its real essence.

On another view, the contrast between knowing and not knowing is exhaustive (either one knows or one doesn’t know x: p v not-p). On this view, if one can’t inquire into x whether or not one knows what it is, inquiry is impossible. However, on this interpretation of knowing and not knowing, neither knowing nor not knowing what x is precludes inquiring about x. I might know what virtue is, in the sense of knowing its real essence, and use that to discover other properties it has. Or suppose I don’t know what it is. Even so, I might have true beliefs about what it is (having true beliefs falls short of knowing); and if I have and rely on them, I can inquire. For example, I might believe (but not know) that virtue is beneficial and good, and that certain sorts of actions or people are virtuous; I can use those true beliefs to guide my inquiry into the real essence of virtue.

Turning from objects like virtue to propositions (e.g. ‘Virtue is good and beneficial’): suppose that I know that some proposition p is true, where that means I have the true belief that p is true and I can explain why it is true. (This is how Plato understands knowledge in Meno 98a.). Then I can’t inquire whether p is true; but I can inquire about p in the extended sense that I can ask what its implications are. Or I might understand what p means, without knowing whether, or even believing that, it is true; this will allow me to inquire whether it’s true. So, whether I do or don’t know whether p is true, I can inquire about p.

At least, that’s my take on the paradox.

3:AM: So how does Plato reply to the paradox? Which of the various foreknowledge principles he puts on the table do you think he accepts?

GJF: Plato replies by arguing that one doesn’t need to have any knowledge, of anything, to inquire – as he understands knowledge, and if we restrict ourselves to how we are in this life. For even if we don’t have any knowledge in this life, we have and tend to rely on relevant true beliefs; and that’s sufficient for inquiry. For example, Meno and Socrates have (what they take to be) the true belief that virtue is good and beneficial; they also have some true beliefs about what sorts of actions and people are virtuous. They use these as a springboard in their effort to acquire knowledge of what virtue is (its real essence). So, though don’t know anything about virtue, they can inquire into it. Nor do they rely on knowledge of something other than virtue; Socrates doesn’t claim to have any knowledge.

Since Plato doesn’t think one needs to have knowledge (in this life) in order to inquire, he doesn’t accept any foreknowledge principle for inquiry. However, he thinks we can inquire, and make progress in inquiry, in this life only because we had knowledge in a prior life. This is part of his theory of recollection, which none of the other philosophers I discuss (except Plutarch) accepts since, among other things, none of them thinks we pre-exist. So they reject this part of Plato’s reply. (Plutarch, however, thinks that only Plato has a satisfactory reply, precisely because only he, among those he discusses, accepts the theory of recollection.) But that’s compatible with these other philosophers (Aristotle, the Stoics and Epicureans, and Sextus – Plutarch discusses Aristotle, and the Stoics and Epicureans, but not Sextus) accepting the other part of his reply, namely, that having and relying on relevant true beliefs is sufficient for inquiry; knowledge isn’t needed. They just reject his explanation of what makes that possible.

3:AM: Although Plato’s Meno is a key text in this, you don’t end with looking at what Socrates and Meno have to say with the puzzle but you extend out to many other philosophers who have engaged with the issue – Epicureans, Stoics, Aristotle and Sextus. Do they change the problem in any way or are they all agreeing with the Platonic set-up and just dispute or develop the conclusion he draws?

GJF: Aristotle and Plutarch are the only other ancient philosophers I discus who explicitly mention the Meno. However, the Stoics, Epicureans, and Sextus all consider a problem that recalls Meno’s paradox, though the contexts in which they do so differ. For example, when Aristotle mentions the paradox in the Meno at the end of Ch. 1 of the Posterior Analytics, he is wondering whether deduction can give us new knowledge. He might also have the paradox in mind at the beginning of Ch. 1 (though he doesn’t mention the Meno there) when he says that one needs prior gnosis (cognition) for inquiry. It’s sometimes thought that in doing so, he’s saying that one needs prior knowledge, in which case he might seem to reject the horn of the paradox that says that if one knows, one can’t inquire. (This reading is favoured by e.g. David Bronstein, in his book Aristotle on Learning). However, even if the gnosis he requires counts as knowledge as Aristotle understands it (though I don’t think it does: rather, he uses the term more broadly), still, it falls short of knowledge as Plato understands it. Aristotle agrees with Plato that knowledge isn’t necessary for inquiry (or at least for certain sorts of inquiries), as Plato understands knowledge.

The Epicureans and Stoics argue that inquiry requires us to have prolepses (or preconceptions: concepts one must grasp prior to inquiry). There’s dispute about what these are; but on one view, they are outline (rather than full) accounts of basic real kinds and, in having them, we have knowledge of those kinds. If this is right, then the Epicureans think we need knowledge in order to inquire. Again, however, even if that’s so as they understand knowledge, it’s not so as Plato understands knowledge; for the conditions for having prolepses are weaker than are the conditions for having knowledge as Plato understands it.

According to Sextus, some people (probably he has in mind dogmatists such as Stoics and Epicureans) raised a puzzle – one that sounds like Meno’s paradox – as a challenge to the Sceptics’ ability to inquiry. Sceptics are well known for disclaiming knowledge and belief. But, the dogmatists argue, one can inquire only if one has and relies on knowledge or belief. Hence, the Sceptics aren’t in a position to inquire. Yet the Sceptics, by their very name, are claiming to be inquirers (in Sextus’ day, the Greek term ‘skeptikos’ meant ‘inquirer’). If they can’t inquire, they aren’t genuine Sceptics.

Part of Sextus’ reply is ad hominem: it’s the dogmatists who can’t inquire. For they think they know all the answers; but then there’s nothing left for them to inquire into. But he also explains how Sceptics can inquire, by arguing that one doesn’t need knowledge or belief. For, though Sceptics don’t claim to know or believe the propositions whose truth they inquire into, they accept their non-doxastic appearances (that is, they are guided by how things seem to them to be, though they suspend judgment as to whether things are as they seem to be); and that’s sufficient for inquiry.

Sextus is unfair to his dogmatic opponents: even if they think they have some knowledge, they don’t think they know all the answers; and they inquire in order to acquire the knowledge they think they lack. As to the Sceptics, they are right to say that one doesn’t need to know or believe that p is true in order to inquire whether it is. But the dogmatists can reply that one needs to have some knowledge or beliefs to inquire. Hence if the Sceptics disclaim all knowledge and belief, they can’t inquire. (Of course, even if they claim to lack all knowledge and belief, they might nonetheless have some.) In fact, I don’t think Sceptics do disavow all beliefs (though the dogmatists assume otherwise), though, that said, neither do I think they appeal to the beliefs they allow themselves in order to defend their ability to inquire. Rather, as I’ve said, they rely on their non-doxastic appearances. But whether one could inquire solely on the basis of non-doxastic appearances, without having any knowledge or belief is a difficult question.

3:AM: What’s the ‘stepping stone’ version of a foreknowledge principle? It contrasts with the ‘matching’ version – so what’s are these terms of art about?

GJF: This terminology is due to Lesley Brown, in her review, in the Philosophical Review, of Dominic Scott’s book, Plato’s Meno. A stepping stone version says that, to inquire into some object x, one needs to know something other than x to get one started (or: to inquire whether a given proposition p is true, one needs to know a q that is suitably related to p). A matching version says that, to inquire, one needs to know x (or p) itself. This sounds paradoxical, but it can be made more plausible. For example, perhaps one knows x under one description but not under another; or knows some things about x but not others. However, if we understand the matching version in this way, it collapses into a stepping stone version: I use the things I know about x to inquire about other things about x that I don’t know. For example, perhaps I know who John is but not where he is; or I might know that he’s a philosopher, but not what his speciality is.

3:AM: So which of your thinkers are ‘stepping stoners’, and which are ‘matchers’?

GJF: Again, a lot depends on how we understand knowledge. As I’ve said, since Plato doesn’t think we need any knowledge for inquiry (in this life), he doesn’t accept any foreknowledge principle for inquiry (for us as we are in this life). The Stoics and Epicureans may accept a stepping-stone version as they understand knowledge; but they have weaker criteria for knowledge than Plato does. They don’t accept a foreknowledge principle, as Plato understands knowledge. The Stoics, for example, distinguish levels of knowledge – mere katalepsis (usually translated ‘apprehension’) and episteme (usually translated ‘knowledge’); and, though they accept a stepping stone version of foreknowledge in the sense of mere katalepsis, they don’t require episteme. But katalepsis falls short of knowledge as Plato conceives of it.

3:AM: A distinction you make in terms of types of inquiry is one between objectual and propositional inquiry. Can you sketch for us what this distinction is about, and why it’s important to the Meno? Does it make the distinction between the stepping stone and matching versions more complex?

GJF: In propositional inquiry, we ask whether a given proposition is true; in objectual inquiry, we inquire about an object. These are sometimes taken to be exclusive, and commentators then wonder which one Plato’s is talking about. But the two sorts of inquiry are closer to one another than they are often taken to be. For example, if I’m inquiring whether x is F, that’s objectual insofar as it’s about an object, x. But it’s also propositional, since I’m asking: ‘Is x F?’; and the answer to my question will be a proposition (‘x is [or isn’t] F’). In my view, Plato is concerned with objectual inquiry, especially but not only about forms. But he thinks answers to it are propositional: we inquire, and hope to discover whether, the form of F is thus and so. He doesn’t think we can know objects without knowing propositions about them: knowing a form just is knowing that certain propositions are true of it. To know the form of beauty just is to know that it is thus and so.

3:AM: Do we have to have a view on knowledge to run the foreknowledge responses, or will varieties of belief work just as well, either true beliefs or false beliefs that are roughly right?

GJF: We certainly have to have a view about knowledge in order to decide whether some version of foreknowledge is necessary for inquiry or whether some philosopher or other thinks it is. Roughly, the more demanding our conception of knowledge is, the less plausible foreknowledge is; the weaker our conception of knowledge is, the more plausible foreknowledge is. But so long as knowledge goes beyond mere true belief, foreknowledge is implausible, since having and relying on relevant true beliefs is sufficient for inquiry. A stepping-stone version of prior true belief seems reasonable, though perhaps we should accept only an even weaker view: a stepping-stone version of roughly-accurate beliefs.

3:AM: An alternative view on the best state for starting an inquiry might be thought to be a Pyrrhonian suspension of belief? Is this the kind of move Sextus makes?

GJF: That’s what those who think Sceptics take themselves to be able to inquire despite lacking all beliefs think. But, as I’ve said, I don’t think they disavow all beliefs. In criticizing their opponents, they focus on the matching version of foreknowledge and say that if one already knows, or even believes, that p is true, one can’t inquire whether it is.

3:AM: Is there some compromise to be reached between the dogmatic and the sceptical approach?

GJF: That depends on how one understands these two approaches. If one thinks dogmatists think they have all the answers, and that Sceptics think no answers can be found, then there are plenty of alternatives: though whether one wants to count any of them as a compromise is another question. But, as I’ve said, the Stoics, for example, don’t think they have all the answers. Nor do Pyrrhonian Sceptics claim that no answers can be found: that would be as dogmatic as thinking that all the answers have all been found. So they have some common ground in that they all agree that one can inquire whether p is true, or about some object x, even if one lacks knowledge (in Plato’s strong sense) of whether p is true or about x.

3:AM: Broadening out a little, you’ve written about Plato’s ideas about belief and knowledge not just in the Meno but elsewhere. In The Phaedo you’ve looked at the claim that he holds a ‘Two Worlds Theory’ of belief and knowledge about sensibles and forms. Could you first sketch out what this two Worlds Theory claims and whether you think Plato actually held it?

GJF: I recently published a paper on the ‘Two Worlds Theory’ in the Phaedo; I’ve also written about that issue in connection with the Republic. The theory has been described in different, non-equivalent ways. On one familiar understanding of it, it says there’s knowledge but not belief about forms (there’s of course a lot of dispute about what these are, but it’ll do for present purposes to say that they are basic explanatory unobservable properties, e.g. the form of beauty, or justice), and belief but not knowledge about sensibles (these are observable or perceivable particulars and properties, such as the Parthenon, and redness, or the particular redness of a given apple, say). In my view, the Phaedo and Republic reject this view. They both countenance knowledge of sensibles and beliefs about forms. For example, in Republic 520c Plato says that it’s because philosopher-rulers have knowledge of forms that they are especially well qualified to rule. (Some, however, think he means only that their knowledge of forms gives them better beliefs about sensibles.) And at 506c he claims to have beliefs but not knowledge of the form of the good. Nor does his extended argument at the end of Bk. 5 preclude knowledge of sensibles or beliefs about forms, though it is often thought to do so.

3:AM: Arising out of your consideration of the Phaedo is the question as to whether we can only know when we are discarnate according to Plato. How do you answer that question?

GJF: The Phaedo is often taken to say that we can have knowledge only when we are discarnate. However, I think the Phaedo recognizes levels of knowledge. And, though he thinks we can attain the highest level of knowledge only when we are discarnate, he thinks we can have lower levels of knowledge while incarnate. The reason we can’t attain the highest level of knowledge while incarnate is that we can’t then wholly escape the influence of the body (and so of perception and of certain desires that take us away from thinking properly); and that prevents us from understanding fully what forms are, which one must do in order to have the highest level of knowledge, which in the Phaedo he calls phronesis (wisdom). However, we can train ourselves, while incarnate, to distance ourselves from the body enough to be able to acquire some knowledge.

3:AM: And as a take home from this, can you summarise what you think Plato’s understanding of belief and knowledge amounts to and how it intersects (if it does) on contemporary philosophical understanding and debates?

GJF: Lately several commentators have argued that Plato’s conception of knowledge and belief differs from ‘ours’, and/or that that episteme (which is often translated as ‘knowledge’: hence ‘epistemology’) isn’t knowledge as we think of it and that doxa (which is often translated as ‘belief’: hence ‘doxastic’) isn’t belief as we conceive of it. It’s then argued that, though Plato denies that there is either episteme of sensibles or doxa about forms, he isn’t thereby denying that there’s knowledge of sensibles or beliefs about forms, and so his views aren’t as implausible as they might seem to be.

There are two claims here: one is that Plato doesn’t use the term episteme for a cognitive condition we can have about sensibles, or doxa for a cognitive condition we can have about forms. The other is that Plato doesn’t allow either knowledge of sensibles or beliefs about forms. These are different claims since, among other things, Plato might in principle allow knowledge of sensibles and beliefs about forms without using episteme or doxa to indicate this; he could indicate this in other ways.
It’s easy to show that he uses episteme for a cognitive condition he thinks we can have about sensibles; and that he uses doxa for a cognitive condition we can have about forms. (He does the first in, for example, discussing the theory of recollection in the Phaedo; and I mentioned above that he does the second in Rep. 506c. There are other such passages too.) So the crucial question is whether, in doing so, he means to say that we can have knowledge of sensibles and beliefs about forms or whether, even if he doesn’t, he indicates that that’s his view in other terms.

In my view, those who argue that episteme isn’t knowledge and that doxa isn’t belief have an overly narrow view of how ‘we’ understand knowledge and belief. They take one narrow understanding of these notions (usually, that knowledge is justified true belief, where the conditions on justification are very weak) – out of many available conceptions of them – and then say that’s not Plato’s understanding of them. But it’s not as though all contemporary epistemologists understand knowledge and belief in the exactly the same way; and if we have a broad enough conception of knowledge and belief, then Plato is talking about them. Admittedly, he has a more demanding conception of knowledge than is common in many quarters today. For example, he doesn’t think that perceiving that something is so is sufficient for knowing that it is so; as we’ve seen, he thinks that, to know something, one must be able to explain why it’s so. Nor does he think that any old reason for believing what is in fact a true belief is sufficient for knowledge.

Some commentators think this (and other things Plato says about episteme) implies that he isn’t talking about knowledge but about e.g. understanding, which is sometimes taken to be quite a different phenomenon from knowledge (another controversial claim!), or about a kind of knowledge rather than about knowledge as such. But even contemporary philosophers disagree about how restrictive we should be about what counts as knowledge. Do we want to say that those with a restrictive account aren’t talking about knowledge, or are talking about only one kind of knowledge? Why not say instead that they disagree about the scope of, or criteria for, knowledge, in some one sense of the term? Similarly, belief is understood in different ways. It’s been argued lately that doxa, as Plato conceives of it, isn’t belief, because he thinks we can have a doxa only if it’s relatively stable and backed by some evidence. But that’s a recognizably modern conception of belief, though it’s not the only one.

3:AM: And finally, are there five books other than your own that you could recommend to readers here at 3:AM that would take us further into your philosophical world?

GJF: For me, nothing compares to Plato’s dialogues; so for one of my five books I’d choose a volume containing his collected works.

But if I had to choose just a few of them, so as to leave room for other authors, I’d single out the Meno, Republic, and Theaetetus. The Meno and Theaetetus are superb introductions to many of the still-central issues in epistemology: not only are they written in an engaging style, but they also manage to be both broad and deep. The Republic also discusses central issues in epistemology, and it connects them to questions in metaphysics, ethics, and politics in a way the Meno and Theaetetus don’t. (These last two dialogues glance at such connections, but they are more explicitly developed in the Republic.)

Two other authors I’ve especially grappled with in my work on epistemology are Descartes (especially the Meditations, along with the Objections and Replies) and Sextus Outlines of Pyrrhonism.

So I’ll choose them as numbers 4 and 5. It’s often been argued that Sextus and Descartes consider very different versions of scepticism. (I put it this way because, while Sextus is a sceptic, Descartes considers scepticism only to reject it.) But just as I think Plato’s epistemological views are closer to some contemporary ones than they are sometimes taken to be, so I think Descartes and Sextus are closer on some issues than they are sometimes taken to be. If historians of philosophy are to be divided into those who focus on discontinuities and those who focus on continuities, I belong in the latter camp.

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First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, April 17th, 2017.