Example Of Platos Recollection Argumentative Essays

"One excellent argument [for the recollection theory] is that when people are questioned, they state the truth about everything for themselves - and yet unless knowledge and a correct account were present within them, they would be unable to do this." (Plato Phaedo 73a.)  
Discuss.

 

The "Recollection Theory"is Plato's hypothesis that all knowledge that has ever been known and will ever be known is already pre-existent in your memory.   Plato's arguments in support of the "Recollection Theory,"both here in the Phaedo and in the earlier Meno, can by no standard of sound reasoning be classified as "excellent".   The reasoning presupposes far too many unmentioned premises -- that are mostly wrong.   The actual quote that is the essay title is from the mouth of Cebes who is supposedly just providing a brief conversational summary of the argument more fully developed in the Meno.   In the Phaedo text that follows the quote, Socrates (Plato) goes into some detail to support the summary provided by Cebes, and in the process provides the first arguments for his Theory of Forms.

Although the statement quoted above, was made by Cebes in the Phaedo, it almost certainly (the relative chronology of the two dialogues is not completely clear-cut) refers to a scene in the Meno dialogue where Socrates draws upon one of Meno's slaves (a boy) in order to demonstrate his Theory of Recollection.  

The Pythagorean Theorem was perhaps one of the greatest mathematical accomplishments of ancient Greece.   The scene in the Meno assumes that the slave-boy has no geometrical background whatsoever -- although as we will see, he is in fact granted some elementary mathematical knowledge.   With a series of simple geometrical diagrams in the sand and some highly leading questions, Socrates leads him to make basic deductive conclusions at each step in the proof.   In essence, according to Plato's theory, the boy is able to prove the very theorem which had puzzled Pythagoras.   Consequently, as the boy could not have acquired the knowledge of how to prove this theorem during his lifetime on earth (it is assumed), the only way that he could have done this proof is to have had the knowledge of it available to him before he was born.   Plato/Socrates concludes that therefore the boy is not learning something new, but rather recollecting knowledge that he already had from a previous existence.

The standard interpretation of this scene in the Meno, is that it is a demonstration by Plato that the slave has an innate (non-empirically gained) knowledge of Euclidean geometry -- and hence must have "recollected"the knowledge he supposedly is demonstrating from a prior familiarity with the geometrical Forms involved.

Yet, if the scene is read with a focus on the different conversational roles played by Socrates and the slave boy, it becomes clear that Socrates is leading the slave in an exercise in deductive reasoning.   (See the Appendix for the complete excerpt from the Meno Dialogue.)   The slave's participation is clearly minimal.   He contributes no data to the reasoning.  

                      [SOCRATES: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?]

BOY: I do.

                      [SOCRATES: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?]

BOY: Certainly.

             [Note that it is obvious here that Plato is beginning this exercise by granting that the boy knows what a square is.   So, contrary to Plato's theory, one cannot conclude that any of the properties of the square that are subsequently deduced by logical reasoning must have been "recollected".]

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Certainly.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: There are.

BOY: Yes.

                      [SOCRATES: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.]

BOY: Four, Socrates.  

                      [The most elementary of basic arithmetic.]

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Of eight feet.

BOY: Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Certainly.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: True.

BOY: Certainly.

BOY: No, indeed.

BOY: Four times as much.

BOY: True.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: Certainly.

BOY: Yes; I think so.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: It ought.

BOY: Three feet.

BOY: Yes.

BOY: That is evident.

BOY: Nine.

BOY: Eight.

BOY: No.

                      [SOCRATES: But from what line? -- tell me exactly; and if you would rather not reckon, try and show me the line.]

                      [Note that this is the first geometrical question that Socrates has asked where he has not already provided the answer.]

BOY: Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.

 

Observe that Socrates/Plato does not argue that the boy's initial familiarity with the geometrical shape of the square is what he is "recollecting".   He argues to Meno, at the conclusion of this scene, that it is those elements that are logically deducible from that basic presupposed familiarity with the square that are what is being "recollected."But as you can see from this focus on the boy's responses, he contributes nothing to the discussion beyond basic arithmetic.   Except for the presupposed familiarity with the basic properties of the square, he contributes no geometrical knowledge to the discussion.   His involvement is limited to agreement with the logical deductions that Socrates is drawing from the given properties of the square.   And remember, this is a fictional dialogue construction, so there is no need to hypothesize that the slave-boy is in fact doing any reasoning here.   There is therefore nothing here the slave needs to "recollect"as the "answer"he is providing to the questions that Socrates asks.   What he is supposedly "recollecting"is inherent in the data already presented to him by Socrates.   The "knowledge and correct account"that the boy supposedly displays is clearly nothing more than elementary deductive logic (with some common elementary arithmetic), as carefully guided by Socrates.   The boy does not have to "see"(or "recollect") the equality of areas that Socrates marks on the ground.   As noted, the boy already starts with the knowledge that the first figure is a square, and that a square has four equal sides.   Everything else that Socrates draws out of the dialogue, is deducible from that fundamental premise.  

In the Phaedo, as he expands on his argument for the "recollection theory", the example that Socrates (Plato) employs to carry his reasoning is the "form"of equality.   The argument for the recollection theory in the Phaedo is, therefore, totally dependent on the as yet unsupported presumption that there are "Forms", and that one "recognizes"a form when one sees an example of it.   In the discussion between Socrates and Simmias, the existence of the "Form of Equal,"is taken as obvious and neither supported nor challenged.   Plato's reasoning between the "recollection theory"and the existence of Forms is totally circular -- each depending on the presumption of the other.  

The Phaedo argument from the example of "equality"has many other inadequacies.   Not least of which is the presumption that "equality"is something that we recognize without being taught the meaning of the word.   The basic argument is that we recognize a property of a particular by its resemblance to the Form.   We recognize that two sticks are roughly equal in length because we recognize that the equality of the two sticks roughly resembles the Form of perfect equality.   Plato then reasons that since we are able to use our senses from birth to perceive and understand the environment, we must have gained our familiarity with the Forms before birth.   In other words, we do not learn what "equality"means, we recollect a prior learning of what the Form of Equal is.

What Plato fails to do in his argument in either the Meno or the Phaedo is provide any suggestion of how the soul "learns"what it supposedly "recollects"(the Forms, according to the Phaedo) in the first place, even granting the hypothesis that it gains its familiarity with the Forms in the "other world".   One has to provide the missing reasoning and interpolate that the soul, before birth, must somehow "encounter"the Form that is to be later recalled to mind.   This would be consistent with the then extant tendency to view "knowledge"in the manner of "familiarity"(knowledge of) rather than in the modern context of "propositions"(knowledge that).  

Interestingly, in the Meno Socrates draws a clear distinction between knowledge and true opinion (when, for example discussing the benefits of the various ways of knowing the way to Larisa).   This is a distinction that he more completely develops in the Theaetetus.   For Plato, knowledge is clearly more than just true opinion.   It is true opinion supported by some form of "account".   But by this distinction, the theory of recollection described in the Meno and Phaedo would generate just true opinion, not knowledge -- it involves no "account".

To draw upon the often problematic "analytic / synthetic"dichotomy -- Plato's recollection theory is conceivable only for analytic answers -- answers that are inherent (logically deducible from) the data already available.   That two sticks (with lengths already in hand) are equal is determined from the meaning of the word "equal".   As Pythagoras demonstrated, the Pythagorean Theorem is logically deducible from the fundamental properties of a square and the simple premises of Euclidean geometry.   The recollection theory is totally incompatible with synthetic answers -- answers that are dependent on further investigation of the world around us.

In an early part of the argument, Plato mentions the statue of Simmias in the context of demonstrating what he means by "recollecting"something previously encountered.   The statue recalls to mind the image of Simmias, but only if the statue is recognized as that of Simmias.   (Or as someone else, but only if the statue is recognized as similar to that someone else.)   But of course, Plato cannot possibly return to that example in the context of someone who has never previously encountered Simmias (or that someone else) in this life.   For it is quite obvious that the statue of Simmias could not "recall to mind"an image of anyone, if the person doing the recalling has not already encountered in this life the image that is to be recalled to mind.

Since all of mathematics (particularly the basic arithmetic and geometry of Plato's time) is a deductively reasoned edifice drawn from a small set of premises, mathematical examples (the geometrical properties of a square in the Meno, and the arithemetic properties of equal in the Phaedo) are the only possible ones Plato could have employed to support his theory of recollection.   The more empirically supported alternative that it is an ability to reason, rather than preexisting knowledge (a "recollection") of the answer, that is innate within each of us is not addressed -- either in the Meno, or in the Phaedo.

Appendix

The following is the portion of the Meno Dialogue where Socrates engages Meno's slave boy in an exercise intended to demonstrate that the boy does in fact have "knowledge" of things he could not have experienced.   The excerpt is from Plato's Meno.   (Translated with an introduction by Benjamin Jowett, Downloaded July 15, 2007 from the University of Adelaide eBooks library, URL=http://etext.library.adelaide.edu.au/p/plato/)

SOCRATES: Tell me, boy, do you know that a figure like this is a square?

BOY: I do.

SOCRATES: And you know that a square figure has these four lines equal?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And these lines which I have drawn through the middle of the square are also equal?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: A square may be of any size?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And if one side of the figure be of two feet, and the other side be of two feet, how much will the whole be? Let me explain: if in one direction the space was of two feet, and in the other direction of one foot, the whole would be of two feet taken once?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: But since this side is also of two feet, there are twice two feet?

BOY: There are.

SOCRATES: Then the square is of twice two feet?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And how many are twice two feet? count and tell me.

BOY: Four, Socrates.

SOCRATES: And might there not be another square twice as large as this, and having like this the lines equal?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And of how many feet will that be?

BOY: Of eight feet.

SOCRATES: And now try and tell me the length of the line which forms the side of that double square: this is two feet -- what will that be?

BOY: Clearly, Socrates, it will be double.

. . .

SOCRATES: Tell me, boy, do you assert that a double space comes from a double line? Remember that I am not speaking of an oblong, but of a figure equal every way, and twice the size of this -- that is to say of eight feet; and I want to know whether you still say that a double square comes from double line?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: But does not this line become doubled if we add another such line here?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And four such lines will make a space containing eight feet?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: Let us describe such a figure: Would you not say that this is the figure of eight feet?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And are there not these four divisions in the figure, each of which is equal to the figure of four feet?

BOY: True.

SOCRATES: And is not that four times four?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: And four times is not double?

BOY: No, indeed.

SOCRATES: But how much?

BOY: Four times as much.

SOCRATES: Therefore the double line, boy, has given a space, not twice, but four times as much.

BOY: True.

SOCRATES: Four times four are sixteen -- are they not?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: What line would give you a space of eight feet, as this gives one of sixteen feet; -- do you see?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: And the space of four feet is made from this half line?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: Good; and is not a space of eight feet twice the size of this, and half the size of the other?

BOY: Certainly.

SOCRATES: Such a space, then, will be made out of a line greater than this one, and less than that one?

BOY: Yes; I think so.

SOCRATES: Very good; I like to hear you say what you think. And now tell me, is not this a line of two feet and that of four?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: Then the line which forms the side of eight feet ought to be more than this line of two feet, and less than the other of four feet?

BOY: It ought.

SOCRATES: Try and see if you can tell me how much it will be.

BOY: Three feet.

SOCRATES: Then if we add a half to this line of two, that will be the line of three. Here are two and there is one; and on the other side, here are two also and there is one: and that makes the figure of which you speak?

BOY: Yes.

SOCRATES: But if there are three feet this way and three feet that way, the whole space will be three times three feet?

BOY: That is evident.

SOCRATES: And how much are three times three feet?

BOY: Nine.

SOCRATES: And how much is the double of four?

BOY: Eight.

SOCRATES: Then the figure of eight is not made out of a line of three?

BOY: No.

SOCRATES: But from what line? -- tell me exactly; and if you would rather not reckon, try and show me the line.

BOY: Indeed, Socrates, I do not know.

SOCRATES: Do you see, Meno, what advances he has made in his power of recollection? He did not know at first, and he does not know now, what is the side of a figure of eight feet: but then he thought that he knew, and answered confidently as if he knew, and had no difficulty; now he has a difficulty, and neither knows nor fancies that he knows.

[Up][Home][Next]

Even on his last day of existence, Socrates did not surrender his exploration of the nature of the soul. Using the Socratic Method and the Recollection Argument, he cleverly proved that the soul exists before birth and that it is immortal. In this paper, I will explain Socrates’ line of reasoning by using the words of the philosophers engaged in the discussion recollected in Phaedo and a metaphor of my own. Secondly, I will point out some limitations in the Recollection Argument, such as its exclusive definition of all learning as recollection and the negative perception of the body. Finally, I will assess the strength of Socrates’ premises and the conclusion to reach an overall evaluation of the argument that established a strong foundation for future examination of the nature of the soul.

Our inquiry begins with the analysis of the premises upon which the Recollection Argument is established. Plato’s Theory of Forms is a pivotal aspect of the Recollection Argument. Forms are ideas that are imperceptible through the senses. They are eternal and independent of human existence. Examples of Forms include the Equal, Beautiful, Good, and Size. Our understanding of the Forms provides a standard for measuring how much something possesses or lacks a particular Form. For instance, we can only know how small something is by relating it to a reference, presumably something big. Moreover, we cannot measure darkness directly, but only the amount of light present, thus measuring how it would lack the "Form of Light." Plato adds that Forms are constant and absolute in the invisible world, but in the physical world, they never manifest in the same way, which means that they are hard to distinguish (Plato, 78d-79a). Due to their intangibility, Forms cannot be understood using the senses. This means that empirical understanding, which includes scientific understanding and reasoning, is useless to comprehend the Forms as it is based on the perception of the world with our senses.

The philosophers engaged in the discussion recollected in Phaedo understand the soul as a separate entity of the body. Even though science has not provided concrete evidence of this division, without this premise the discussion of what happens after death would most likely collapse to a conversation about the decomposition of the body. Moreover, they unanimously agree that our senses, which begin to function since birth, do not provide a reliable foundation for true knowledge. They are the source of "impure thought," which does not lead to the truth or the understanding of reality. Because the body constantly deceives the soul, it does not allow the soul to acquire wisdom while they are connected (Plato, 65c). If pure thought could be achieved while they are joined, all knowledge could result from the physical realm, thus making the task of all philosophers world-oriented, and proving that the soul exists before birth would require a different approach. The idea that our senses deceive us has been thoroughly explored in psychology, an area that is mostly concerned in explaining why the mind makes such erroneous attributions. However, Socrates’ goal is to engage in pure thought while the soul is dissociated from a body, a context where no adverse consequences from sense-perception would arise. A question immediately arises from Socrates’ reasoning: what makes Socrates believe that the soul’s perceptions when it separates from the body will not be deceived, even though it would not be by the trickery of the five senses?

Next, we need to consider Socrates’ Recollection Argument. So what exactly is recollection? Recollection involves bringing memories back to conscious awareness. In Socrates’ words, "as soon as the sight of one thing makes you think of another, whether it be similar or dissimilar, this must of necessity be recollection" (Plato, 74d). Moreover, "we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect" (Plato, 72e). The object currently being observed must be compared to the recollected memory, and then evaluated to assess their similarities and note any deficiencies (Plato, 74a). Based on our definition of recollection, Plato’s statements follow irrefutable logic.

Socrates reaches his first conclusion from this argumentation when he states that the Forms and the objects that posses the Form are not the same. This conclusion joins all the previous premises, and becomes a pivotal premise to prove the Recollection Argument. For Socrates, knowledge about the Forms cannot be gained simply by comparing objects that possess the characteristics of that particular Form. Knowledge about the Forms cannot result from the physical realm: it can only result when the soul is separated from the body, because in the visible existence, Forms do not exist in the pure state. Due to the extreme importance of the previous premise for the whole argument, I believe that the reader deserves more than the concise explanation that Plato decided to give us (Plato, 65c, 74b). Because we have knowledge of the forms in this life, and because it was proven before that this knowledge did not result from the physical realm, Socrates concludes that our understanding of the Forms must exist from before we were born. Therefore, he concludes that the soul came into existence before our birth. As Socrates’ transparently puts it, "our souls also existed apart from the body before they took on human form, and they had intelligence" (Plato, 76c).

The purpose of the Recollection argument was not only to show that the soul existed before birth, but to establish a premise in the dialogue on which Socrates could further demonstrate to Cebes that the soul is immortal (Plato, 87a). This will somehow motivate Socrates’ followers to further explore philosophy once Socrates drinks the hemlock, separating his soul from the body and leaving them behind. On a deeper level, the argument creates peace of mind on those who are left since they are assured that their souls will transcend death, while at the same time knowing that Socrates will live in a constructive setting. This argument that the soul is immortal leads us to believe that Plato would argue that because all that dies has a beginning, and the soul is immortal, the soul therefore has always been in existence. However, this deduction would only be a speculation as the philosopher chose not expand on this matter.

I have been able to grasp the Recollection Argument through a metaphor of my own, similar to those that Plato employed in his texts. Our minds tell us that in dreams we can see, smell, or even levitate. All dreams have some foundation on reality, but they are nothing more than a distortion of the waking reality. Applying this idea to the Recollection Argument, we are currently in a dream-state brought on by the deceit by the senses, and that when our body and soul separate, we will wake up, gaining understanding of reality. Thus, we could argue that we will not understand reality if we try to do so while in that dream-state. Moreover, thoughts that arise during dream-state are "impure" as they do not represent reality accurately because of the clever deceit of which we are victims while in it. The Recollection Argument states that we can’t understand reality until we wake up from our bodily lives.

What gives us the ability to dream? Our dreams are based on our everyday actions, and therefore, without these actions we would not be able to dream. In the same way, Socrates argues that the only reason we can try to understand our dream-state is because we were once awake, awake, and thus knew Reality, the realm of the Forms. How would we comprehend completely a situation that happens in a dream if we couldn’t connect it to our daily lives? Finally, Socrates interprets death as the waking up from the dream state, the final release from the chains of dreaming, that allows direct observation of reality.

I believe one of the main weaknesses of the Recollection Argument is the negative outlook of the dream-state. Plato believes that being in the dream-state only brings unfounded truths as it is based on deceived perceptions, which are completely irrelevant to understand reality. This means that Plato depicts the dream-state as a non-independent entity from which no knowledge can be gained. If this is so, then what is the purpose of experiencing the dream-world? Plato never explains why the soul initially joined with the body. The arguments presented by Socrates seem to support the idea of reincarnation; however, he makes no statements about how and why the soul chooses to reincarnate.

Plato goes further in this line of reasoning and states that all learning is a form of recollection because the dream-state is only a distortion of reality. Life is reduced to recollecting what we already know and nothing else, making our lives simply a nostalgic remembering. Why couldn’t some of our learning be gained with the body instead of through recollection? Why couldn’t we define beauty by simply comparing all the objects we have known in our lives and figure out what overall characteristics are more valuable or trigger our emotions? Socrates could answer this question since he implies that we cannot set our own standards as they would be based on our sense-perception.

There is another possible loophole in Plato’s argument. He argues that we must have acquired the knowledge of the Forms before we were born but lost it at birth and then, the knowledge was gradually recovered with our senses as we start to recollect. However, Socrates does not have any guarantee that when he dies, and thus gains access to the true reality, the realm of Forms, he will remember what happened during his dream-state. If Socrates’ position that no knowledge can be gained in the dream-sate, then this would not make a difference. But if the argument of reincarnation is retaken and we enter the dream-state to learn a lesson, remembering what happened in that life becomes essential. Memories are of no use if they can’t be remembered consciously, the same way dreams are useless if we can’t remember them. If he were to forget his dream-state, he could cyclically spend his lives trying to remember what he dreamt, without realizing he already woke up.

Putting aside the dream metaphor, Socrates’ conception of free will and individuality calls my attention. Socrates takes as a fact that he will still exist as an independent, fully-conscious being with decision-making capacity. He may have proven that what coexists with the body persists even after death, but he does not prove that it continues to exist as a whole. What if the elements that make his soul separate, leaving away his egotistic conception of reality, and recombine with other elements to form new combinations of souls?

The conclusion that Socrates reaches is perfectly valid as it logically follows the premises that were agreed upon by all the philosophers that were present the day of his execution. However, in this case the soundness of the argument is relative, depending on the reader’s perception on how knowledge can be gained. All the premises are true if Socrates’ logic is strictly followed. As an alternative approach to demonstrate that the soul is immortal, Socrates could have decided not to prove that the soul exists before birth. This would mean that no knowledge would be a form of recollection, which would give a broader significance to existence. As a definition, not all that is immortal has to be inherently eternal.

I agree completely with Socrates’ conclusion, since I strongly believe in the immortality of the soul, although I did not arrive at the same conclusions by applying the Socratic Method, but based in meditation and self-awareness. The Recollection Argument is a thought-provoking sequence of ideas, but they are all exclusively based on reason. I believe that our understanding of reality beyond the body can be enhanced with our experiences in this dimension. We will surely not know until our souls separates from our bodies. Until then, we can use logical arguments, or simply follow our intuition to understand the nature of the soul and of reality.

Sources
Plato. . Phaedo.. . Five Dialogues. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1981. 93-155.

0 Thoughts to “Example Of Platos Recollection Argumentative Essays

Leave a comment

L'indirizzo email non verrà pubblicato. I campi obbligatori sono contrassegnati *