Plato and Aristotle on the Dilemma of Learning


In the Meno by Plato, Socrates and Meno are investigating the nature of virtue and they find themselves faced with the problem of learning. For if man has knowledge, then he already possesses it and there is no need for him to search for it. If he does not have this knowledge and he is seeking for what he does not know, then how will he know when he has found it if he knows it not? This is the dilemma that Socrates and Meno find themselves in. Socrates answers the problem in his own circuitous way by stating that we don’t actually learn, but merely recollect knowledge. But other philosophers disagree. In his Posterior Analytics Aristotle gives a different definition of knowledge and adheres to the idea that one can learn and come to know new things. 

The problem that Meno lays out is that “... a man cannot search either for what he knows or what he does not know?” (Meno 80e) Either a man will come to know knowledge which he did not possess before, or he already knows it. But if he’s searching for something which he does not know then how will he know once he has reached it? And if he already possess the knowledge then there is no gaining of that knowledge, for it is already possessed. This leaves the interesting predicament of whether one can learn anything at all. Though surely man does learn, what does he call learning otherwise?

Socrates responds to Meno by stating that this logic does not satisfy him and replies as such.

“They say the human soul is immortal; at times it comes to an end, 

which they call dying; at times it is reborn, but it is never destroyed, ... 

As the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things 

here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned; 

so it is in no way surprising that it can recollect the things it new before, 

both about virtue and other things. As the whole of nature is akin, 

and the soul has learned everything, nothing prevents man, 

after recalling one thing only - a process men call learning - 

discovering everything for himself, if he is brave and does not tire of the 

search, for searching and learning are, as a whole, recollection. ”  (Meno 81b) 

Here he appeals to some religious authorities, who he believes are wise and who teach on immortality and reincarnation, by saying that the soul is immortal, and never comes to an end. That the soul has seen all things and that there is nothing which it has not learned. So nothing prevents the soul from recollecting what it knew before in it’s past lives. Socrates says that what men call searching for knowledge and learning are actually recollection. So people once new the rules and principals in another life, but when their souls were put in their bodies they forgot them. But the principals are still in their souls, generating the behavior. This then, is the job of the philosopher, to help people to recollect the rules by asking thought provoking questions. In this way Socrates seems to skirt or evade the question of learning by replying with a mythical and unproved theory of recollection and claims that in fact man does not learn new knowledge, but merely recollects old ideas previously learned. 

Aristotle starts off by appearing to agree with Plato’s opinion that all knowledge lies inside of man by saying, “Every teaching and every learning through thinking comes about from knowledge had beforehand.” (Coghlin 71a1) But he qualifies himself by including ‘thinking’ in this statement. He says that all learning and instruction comes through thinking paired with knowledge had beforehand. So that while one does have some first knowledge inside of him, he learns by thinking and reasoning from this knowledge to a conclusion. This is evident by the fact that both kinds of instruction build on knowledge had beforehand and incorporate this activity of reasoning. This reasoning may come about in two different ways, either syllogistically or inductively. Syllogism works through the assumption that the audience accepts its premises, while induction shows the universal to be true through the clearly known particular instances. The kind of knowledge had beforehand, that this activity builds off of, are first principals that all men are born with. 

From infancy man starts out with his first principals and sense knowledge and comes to know by applying knowledge of the first principals to the knowledge which he gains from his senses. These common notions are undemonstrable, which provides for all arguments an irrefutable foundation based off of them and traced back to them. 

What Aristotle wants to convey in contrast to Socrates is that when man has knowledge of these first principals he only has potential knowledge of everything else, he does not actually contain all knowledge inside of him. Man has the potential to learn and know new and different things, but he does not know them in actuality yet. For example, if one has the first principles of the definitions and common notions of Euclid, one knows the rest of the book in potential. Aristotle views knowledge like a seed, as something that can grow and increase. In contrast, Socrates views knowledge as a treasure chest, where one has all the knowledge inside of him already from past lives, it is only forgotten. One must only find the treasure chest and stir up the knowledge inside to recollect and rediscover each piece of knowledge inside the chest. In his demonstration with the slave boy Socrates explains to Meno that the boy is actually just recollecting what he knows in his soul from his past lives.

According to Socrates, the slave boy's ability to reach the truth and recognize it as such proves that he already had this knowledge within him; the questions he was asked simply "stirred it up," making it easier for him to recollect what he forgot. He argues, further, that he must have acquired it at some earlier time, and since the boy didn't acquire such knowledge in this life, he must have always known it. While Socrates believes the young slave boy to be recollecting knowledge of math, Aristotle would argue that the boy is indeed learning from Socrates. Socrates starts with a basic common principal that the boy knows; the square, and builds on this knowledge. Still, based on Aristotle's philosophy, Socrates guides the boy in knowledge that he already knows by means of simple step-by-step questions to reason inductively to the conclusion.

Yet some of Socrates's inferences here clearly are slightly cursory and insufficient for an argument to be contrived. His jumps from statement to statement don’t necessarily follow. Why should one believe that an innate ability to reason mathematically implies that the soul is immortal? Or that one already possesses empirical knowledge about such things as the theories of biology, or the history of wars? Furthermore, if the soul maintains, like a treasure chest, all knowledge, there lie only two ways in which it could possess it. Either the soul has always existed and always had this knowledge in it, or the soul, more likely, did have a beginning. Though if it had a beginning then the soul must have learned the knowledge at this point. If learning in general is impossible, how is the soul able to learn anything in its previous lives? This disputes what Socrates said earlier when he admitted that learning did not exist and that man exclusively recollects. This seems to be a circular argument. Besides these complications in the argument, Socrates’ entire argument is based upon this subjective beliefs, while Aristotle’s arguments which are not only based in syllogism and induction which utilize the truths of reality where each statement follows logically from the next, but is arguments are supported by the common experience of man in his everyday life and through what he perceives with his senses. 

So the philosophers have made their case on learning. Socrates and Aristotle do share a similar idea from the idea of inherent knowledge, although they are still largely distinct. Socrates’s logic does seem legitimate at first, that when he instructs the slave boy, the young man is drawing off of knowledge he already has, even though no one has taught it to him. Aristotle says something quite similar by his statement of the existence of first principles within us. Socrates believes that this knowledge is already inside of us and denies learning entirely. Aristotle however says that while we do have first principals inside of us to build off of, he knows that there is much that we don’t know and that we have the potential to learn new things. And so his argument logically follows based on reality and personal sense experience to the conclusion that man does learn.

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