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A logical problem encountered in Plato's Meno during Socrates' discussion on the acquisition of knowledge.

     "So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps you knew before you contacted me, but now you are certainly like one who does not know. Nevertheless, I want to examine and seek together with you what it may be.
     "How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know?
     "I know what you want to say, Meno. Do you realize what a debater's argument you are bringing up, that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know? 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."1

In this section of the dialogue, the objection raised by Meno relates to the entire definitional search, and it is formally known as Meno's Paradox or The Paradox of Inquiry.

To restate the argument raised :

  1. If you know what you're looking for, inquiry is unnecessary.
  2. If you don't know what you're looking for, inquiry is impossible.
  3. Implicit premise : Either you know what you're looking for or you don't know what you're looking for. This is true iff "you know what you're looking for" is used in the unambiguous sense.

  4. ------------
  5. Hence, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible.

In looking at the argument as presented in the Meno, the phrase "you know what you're looking for" can be understood in two ways, as there is an equivocation in that phrase.

  • You know the question that you want the answer to.
  • You know the answer to the question you're asking.

In terms of the first sense, the second premise of the argument is true, but the first premise is false. Under the second sense, the first premise of the argument is true, but the second is false. However, there is no one sense in which both of the premises of the argument are true.

So, evaluating the question once again from a different perspective : "Is it possible to know what you don't know?" The answer could be yes or no. In one way, the answer is "no", as you can't know and not know the same thing at the same time. However, the answer could also be "yes", as you can know the questions that you simply don't have the answers to.

Inquiry is possible by grasping the question to which an answer is needed and following correct investigational techniques for answering that question. Knowledge is then aquired in the form of the answer previously unknown to that question. Socrates belives inquiry is possible via the formulation of hypotheses according to true belief and the testing of these hypotheses along with the employment of the elenchus.

Meno's Paradox is thus flawed under the fallacy of equivocation. However, in the dialogue, Meno's Paradox is looked at further in the context of The Theory of Recollection and is therefore not dismissed, but utilized in Plato's further formulation of his epistemology.


1 Plato. Meno. tr. G. M. A. Grube. Stephanus pp. 80 d-e.

I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.
--Socrates (470 - 399 B.C.)

There are several approaches to take on Meno's paradox and trying to decipher what it was that Socrates was trying to get at. Before doing this, one should look at Socrates and his life and times and his philosophy as a whole.

Meno: ... But are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to Thessaly?
Socrates: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.

(from the Project Gutenberg etext located at ftp://ibiblio.org/pub/docs/books/gutenberg/etext99/1meno10.txt)

To an extent, Socrates was one of the first skeptics who practiced this philosophy (According to Cicero, Socrates took the position that nothing can be known except the proposition that nothing (else) can be known). When looking at his fellow philosophers of the time he saw two groups - the sophists who merely pretended to philosophy and many dogmatists who where certain they had had the right answer. Socrates believed that neither group was on the right path and furthermore that as humans, we are fated to never have the universal answers about ethics or other core truths of the universe. The existence and content of these universal answers is privileged to those minds that are one with the essence of reality (Plato later called this the realm of forms). And yet, Socrates realized that we cannot live in a moral vacuum, and neither can we realize the universal moral answers.

In this, Socrates suggests that we must go out search for the truth - even if we can never know it. It is true that we don't know where we're headed - there is no map that says "This way to the one true moral answer" in this landscape. Socrates' claim of ignorance is more than "I don't know the truth" and extends to the ethical fallibility that he tried to demonstrate]

In acknowledging the possibility of mistake in our own ethical matters we are then able to have a reasonable dialogue with those who have different views upon ethics or other truths.

Addressing the paradox itself, the 'paradox' offered by by Meno is that of other philosophers to Socrates when he said "I do not know" to the question of "what is virtue?" To this Socrates (or Plato through the character of Socrates) goes on to express the theory of recollection which Plato later builds his epistemology upon.

Despite this side track that Plato sends us upon, Meno's paradox is flawed in several other ways that are applicable no mater what your beliefs on reincarnation or the theory of forms are. The later half of each premise is wrong - inquiry is never unnecessary, nor is it ever impossible.

If you know what you're looking for...
If you know what you're looking for, that is if you already know the subject at hand, and you have a truth - it is not necessarily the only truth in the matter. Likewise, if you know what you seek you have a direction in life. In either case, the landscape of philosophy has a vast number of truths. Just because you have found one hill truth doesn't mean that the other hills are not worth examining and understanding. Even if you may not agree with the truth, there are others who do, and by understanding the truth they have found and believe in you are better able to understand your own (and possibly defend it against those who would say you are wrong).

If you don't know what you're looking for...
If you search the landscape of philosophy without a clue as to where you wish to end up, you are among the most fortunate of all those who wander these ways. While it is quite easy to get lost and confused in the myriad labyrinths of language and argument, you are approaching this with an open mind unencumbered by preconceptions. Following a line of inquiry is certainly not impossible, but rather encouraged for all lovers of wisdom. In doing this with a clear and open mind, many truths can be found. There is nothing wrong with saying "I can not decide those truths that I have found, but I shall continue to seek".

Meno was absolutely correct in saying that you cannot investigate what you do not know. He was wrong that in saying when you already know something that there is know need to investigate because you already know it.

Sometimes when we know something, we need to put things we know together to get to the answer we are looking for, and experiment with things that we already know in a variety of ways. We can find out more about what we already know and find out new things, but we find them with things that we already know.

For something so foreign that we know nothing about, and know nothing similar to it, then we cannot investigate it, the most we can do is make theories we will never be able to test or prove. For example, try thinking of a new color. One that has never been seen before, and not a combination of colors that we already know. There are things that we cannot look into. What we can look into is what we can see and experiment with. We were able to produce some colors that we had never seen before when we mixed them with other colors, or they were mixed in nature. This is because we cannot pull something from nothing.

Leonardo da Vinci, the famous inventor is a good example for this subject; he would think up things that would baffle most others in his time. Where did he get those ideas? He would look at the world around him. He was likely inspired by seeing birds in nature flying when he drew up some of his inventions for flight. Would we (not just Leonardo) have been able to come up with the idea of flight otherwise, if we had not seen birds?

There are some things which man has never seen, or come close to, and have somehow managed to come up with. One such thing is the concept of eternity. We have never seen it, but yet, the idea is well known, and it is a concept that we could not of known before it was made up in peoples imagination (instead of us seeing it in the world around us). The idea was most likely arrived by looking at something that we could see around us, even though it seems such a huge thing that is beyond men. First we noticed time, and then we wondered, perhaps, what would happen if time were to continue. Or we could of come up with the idea when we saw people die, and realized that we would die when our time ran out, and our fear pointed us in the direction where we hoped that we would not die, and we were able to arrive at the concept of forever, and eternity.

We can arrive at ideas in a number of ways. We can look at a known thing, experiment with it with other known things and arrive at a new thing. We can twist a known thing to arrive at a new thing. We can look at the things opposite, and so on. But in the end, Meno was correct, we cannot look at things which have know relation to anything that we know. To answer the question above, would we have been able to come up with the idea of flight without seeing a creature in flight? Yes, we might of imagined walking on the air, or floating through the air like we float in water. Still, when we look at an idea, we need something to lead us there. We can arrive at complex ideas from simple things, complex things that we may not of imagined possible, even. Look at what can be done with coding today, it started from simple true and false statements represented by 0’s and 1’s.

To make it all simple, all ideas have been inspired from the world around us, which is what we know, we can manipulate the world for something new, but some things are beyond the world around us, which we cannot inquire. So, in saying that we cannot look at what we do not know, as Meno did, than it is true so long as this thing which we do not know has no relation to the things we do, as these things are beyond our realm of inquiry.

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