It is thought that Meno's paradox is of critical importance both within Plato's thought and within the whole history of ideas. It's major importance is that for the first time on record, the possibility of achieving knowledge from the mind's own resources rather than from experience is articulated, demonstrated and seen as raising important philosophical questions.
Meno's paradox states:
`Why on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all? Pray, what sort of a thing, amongst those things that you know will you treat us to as the object of your search? Or even supposing, at the best that you it upon it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know?'
The paradox arises due to a number of assumptions concerning knowledge, inquiry and definition made by both Socrates and Meno. The assumptions of Socrates are:
If we do not know what F is, we do not know anything about F.
If we cannot define F, we do not know what F is.
The assumptions of Meno are:
If we do not know anything about F, we cannot distinguish F from other things we do not know
If we cannot distinguish F from other things we do not know, we cannot inquire about F.
Hence if we do not know what F is we cannot inquire about F.
If we take these assumptions and put them together we find ourselves with the paradox. We start with F, which we want to inquire about. According to Meno, if we want to inquire about F, we need to know what F is. Socrates says though, that in order to know what F is, we must be able to define it, and if we cannot define it, we will not know what F is and will know nothing about F. Back to Meno's assumptions - if we know nothing about F, we cannot distinguish F from other things we do not know and so if we do not know what F is we cannot inquire about F - thus we have Meno's Paradox. If we apply this to the question of virtue, which is being considered in the Meno, neither Socrates nor Meno can define virtue, and so they do not know what virtue is, therefore they can not inquire about virtue.
Socrates attempts to solve this paradox with his theory of recollection. He begins by speaking of the soul of man as being immortal - that it dies and is reborn, again and again. He goes on to say `seeing that the soul is immortal and has been born many times, and has beheld all things both in this world and in the nether realms, she has acquired knowledge of all and everything; so that it is no wonder that she should be able to recollect all that she knew about other things. For as all nature is akin, and the soul has learned all things, there is no reason why we should not, by remembering but one single thing - an act which men call learning - discover everything else.'
To illustrate this theory Socrates asks Meno to call over one of his slaves and he presents him with a geometrical problem. Socrates shows...