The Socratic doctrine of recollection is an attempt to explain how dialectic (the Socratic method of doing philosophy) is possible – to explain how the question "what is virtue?" may be asked and answered.
In the dialogue, Meno’s inability to answer Socrates" question, "what is virtue?" perplexes Meno to a point where he no longer believes that this question can be answered. Meno attempted to give four definitions of virtue, all of which were examined by Socrates and proven incorrect. Meno then challenges the method by which Socrates is using to recall the definition of virtue.
Men. And how will you inquire into a thing, Socrates, when you are wholly ignorant of what it is? What sort of thing among those you don’t know will you set u as the object of your inquiry? Even if you happen to bump right into it, how will you know that it is the thing you did not know? (p. 163)
Meno thinks that the definition of virtue cannot be asked or answered using the Socratic method. Since Meno thinks that they will not find the definition of virtue through further inquiry, Socrates must explain how it is possible for them to come up with the answer using the method Socrates is using, dialectic. Before Socrates can continue with the question "what is virtue?" he must first explain how dialectic is possible through the doctrine of recollection and show that by using it they can achieve an answer.
Socrates then explains his doctrine of recollection to Meno. Once he has explained this he can inquire into what virtue is and remember the answer.
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Soc. Seeing then that the soul is immortal, and has been born many times, and has beheld all things in this world and the world beyond, there is nothing it has not learnt: so it is not surprising that it can be reminded of virtue and other things which it knew before. (p. 163-164)
Socrates says that the soul is immortal. The body lives and dies but the soul goes to the world beyond when the body dies. The soul has beheld all things either in this world or the other therefore there is nothing it has not learnt. So all knowledge is in the soul and when the soul travels back to our world everything is forgotten. Knowledge therefore must be recollected.
Socrates has a process by which he attempts to reach knowledge. By using dialectic, or inquiry, one can be reminded of or recall the knowledge they already had inside of them. "For learning and inquiry are then wholly recollection." (p. 164) Once Socrates explains this doctrine to Meno he can show him that he already knows what virtue is, he only needs to recall it.
Meno questions the doctrine saying, "but what do you mean by saying that we do not learn, that we call learning is recollection?" (p. 164) and Socrates proves it using the slave boy. Socrates asks the slave boy questions about a part of geometry which the slave boy had not learnt before. Originally the boy answers confidently, as if he knew the answer, which he does not. Socrates said that "he is now better off with respect to the whole thing which he did not know." (p. 168) Before he thought he knew the answer and was wrong, and now he does not know the answer and does not assume that he does. This makes him better off now because, "in his present condition of ignorance, he will gladly inquire into the matter." (p. 168)
The present condition of ignorance is identical to the perplexity Meno had felt before after giving answers and knowing they were wrong. Meno had stated before that he himself had spoken about virtue in the same manner and now he does not even know what virtue is. Like the boy Meno is also in the state of ignorance or perplexity.
Through further inquiry with the boy, he finally recollects the side of the doubling figure. The boy was "recovering knowledge out of himself" (p. 171), and if he is doing this, then he must have already known the answer. This proves that the knowledge was already in him it just needed to be stirred up by questioning. Since Socrates considered Meno to be in the same position as the slave boy, he thinks that Meno can recollect the definition of virtue if questioned about it.
Socrates says that the question can be both asked and answered because they can find the answer since the soul knows everything.
Soc. Now, if the truth of things is always in our soul, the soul is immortal. So it is right to try boldly to inquire into and recollect what you do not happen to know at presentЧthat is, what you do not remember. (p. 171)
Since the soul already knows everything, they can answer the question because through inquiry they can recollect the knowledge.
The question of virtue perplexed Meno before and made him not want to pursue the answer. After proving recollection to Meno Socrates says this:
Soc. "we shall be better men, more courageous and less idle, if we think we ought to inquire into what we do not know, instead of thinking that because we cannot find what we do not know we ought not seek it " that I would do battle for, so far as possible in word and deed. (p. 171)
Socrates says, just because it is difficult get the knowledge does not mean that we should not seek it, rather that they will be better men if they do seek it.
At this point Meno agrees with Socrates that there must be inquiry about what one does not know despite perplexity. He agrees to the process, dialectic, that Socrates uses to explain how a question may be asked and answered because the doctrine shows that one can only obtain the knowledge through recollection. Inquiry aims specifically at this recollection.
Soc. Then since we are agreed that there must be inquiry about what one does not know, shall we together undertake to investigate what virtue is? (p. 171)
Now that Socrates has explained how the question may be asked and answered using inquiry they can now move on and attempt to define virtue using inquiry.
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