Kim Slawson
19990518 1700
Philosophy of Mind
Assignment #1

A Separatist Piece

In Meno, Plato implies a separation between the soul and the body. His argument revolves around a slave boy whose lack of having been taught geometry does not hinder him from deducing the Pythagorean Theorem. His reasoning is that since the boy had never had instruction in geometry or heard of the Pythagorean Theorem, and yet was able to conclude that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the two sides (i.e., a2+b2=c2), the boy must have always known the Pythagorean Theorem and everything else that is supposedly "taught" as well.

I question not the proposed separation of body and soul, but rather the proposition of knowledge that is innate and not learned or realized through experience. It does, however, follow that if the existence of such knowledge is disproved, Plato's use of it to hypothesize the disjunction of body and soul is challenged. I invite the motivated reader to extend my precepts to respond to Plato's view that the body and soul are necessarily separate.

It is my belief that the processes we call teaching and learning are inextricably tied to each other. Where there is learning there must be teaching. Furthermore, teaching can be done by a third party "giving" the learner knowledge, by the learner himself reasoning through a problem based on prior knowledge, or by the learner's environment providing the learner new insight or perspective. Thus, while it may appear that a student who gains knowledge by reading a book does not have a teacher, the book has presented new ideas (which incidentally, if they are to be understood, must be somewhat based upon the reader's past experiences) that enabled the student to reevaluate his view of the world, incorporating new knowledge. In this manner, the book has "taught" the student something new, and the student has "learned" information that gives him a new world-view.

In the case of Socrates and the slave boy, the slave boy does not (as Plato insists) intuitively know that the Pythagorean Theorem is true; Socrates has instead cleverly taught it to him by leading him with a series of directed questions. Therefore, Socrates stimulated the boy with questions that led him to deduce the Pythagorean Theorem (assuming prior knowledge of squares, triangles, and the property of length). Had Socrates not done so, it is unlikely that the boy would know of the Theorem's existence. Socrates might argue that the boy would not realize he knew the Theorem; I say this is functionally equivalent to the boy not knowing the Theorem.

Given enough time and experience, one could discover everything currently known to mankind by reasoning from first principles. As impractical as this may be, it illustrates that what appears to Plato to be innate knowledge "discovered" at the appropriate time is in fact knowledge gained by deduction, experience, or another's teachings.

There is nothing mysterious going on behind the scenes here. Everything we know is based on things we learned earlier. There is no innate knowledge present in our souls before we are born, no learning without teaching. Plato's attempt to convince us otherwise ignores Socrates' role as the slave boy's teacher and is only an attempt at smoke-and-mirrors trickery.

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