Catherine Pickstock

Ever since Plato, philosophy has seen that there is a profound link between the question of knowledge and the question of desire. Why is it that we desire at all, when it involves so much labor? And is the question of the motivation of learning a clue to the nature of knowledge as such? This link is particularly apparent in Plato's Meno, one of the most important loci for the Platonic doctrine of recollection. Socrates' interlocutor Meno puts to him a problem which has come to be known as the "aporia of learning":

Why, on what lines will you look, Socrates, for a thing of whose nature you know nothing at all? Pray, what sort of thing, amongst those that you know not, will you treat us to as the object of your search? Or even supposing, at the best, that you hit upon it, how will you know it is the thing you did not know? (Plato 1924: 80d)

This presents a double problematic: how can one seek to find out about that of which one is ignorant? How does one recognize a truth when one finds it, if previously one had been ignorant of this truth? As everyone knows, Socrates' solution to both sides of the aporia is to argue that before birth, our souls possessed perfect understanding, and that the process of human learning in time is less a matter of new discovery than of remembering. He dramatically argues for this solution by putting a slave-boy through his geometric paces, and shows that, untaught, he can derive new conclusions from a few given postulates.

Very often this argument has been seen as fallacious. Equally often, it has been regarded as a mythical presentation of a doctrine of a priori understanding. It makes sense, it is contended, for Socrates to argue that geometric knowledge is "in" the boy's soul already, in the sense that the mind applies logical principles which in some sense are pre-inscribed within the mind - whether transcendentally, or psychologically, or in terms of the mind's access to some sort of logical universe - rather than being discovered empirically But the myth of preexistence is entirely excessive to the truth of this argument: in consequence, the myth represents either Plato's merely half-grasp of the notion of an a priori, or else just a colorful and rhetorical presentation of the latter.

These common readings all suppose that the dialogue "resolves" the aporia in a straightforward fashion. In effect, this overcomes and explains the moment of desire in the process of learning. Socrates, according to the mythical mode of presentation, desires to know what he does not know, because once in a previous life his soul had been perfectly acquainted with the thing, and therefore had no need of any desire to know it. The more he is able to recall this knowledge, the more his desire to know is outrun and becomes redundant. He is now replete with knowledge, so he no longer desires to know. Demythologized, this means that Socrates recovers through reflection his innate understanding. In this process, desire is once again fulfilled and thereby once again canceled.

But is this really what the dialogue says? In his Confessions (I.i), Augustine famously presents a Christian version of the problematic of the Meno (of which he was unacquainted in its original version). He asks how he can search for God, call upon him, without God being already present. Augustine presents a double answer in the long course of the text: he can search for God because God has already rendered himself present to his mind in every act of thinking; to be able to think is to be illuminated by the divine light. However, for Augustine, this light has been severely impaired by sin, and must now be mediated to us again through divine grace conveyed by the church. Augustine knows to search for God because he has heard from a teacher of the complete descent of the divine light upon earth in the Incarnation.

Thus one could say that in the Confessions the Platonic doctrine of recollection is reworked as the theory of illumination and that this is supplemented in terms of the historical exigency of revelation.

However, a rereading of the Meno suggests that the contrast between the Augustinian reworking and the Platonic original can be overdrawn. Meno derives the following from his problematic skeptical conclusions: learning is impossible because either we know something already, or if we do not, we are unaware of our ignorance and so do not seek to remedy it. Socrates claims that he is able to refute this skeptical implication. However, he does not in the first place offer an argument; instead, he says that he has "heard the sayings of men and women who were wise, and knowing in divine things" and that these people were "priests and priestesses" whose teachings are also found in "Pindar and many other of the poets." These sayings concern the doctrine of the immortality and transmigration of souls (Plato 1924: 81b).

Is this dramatic aspect of the dialogue itself part of the merely colorful and rhetorical invocation of myth? Perhaps, but two points may give us pause. First of all, the priests and priestesses are said to have "made it their business to be able to give a rational account of those things in which they were employed" (Plato 1924: 81b). It seems then that their teaching is not to be regarded as a mere mythos but is already a logos. These learned people had a rationally reflective relation to the rituals and stories of which they were the conveyors. This circumstance may suggest (though does not by itself prove) that Plato did not see any sharp separation between the religious and the philosophical realms of discourse.

In the second place, the artfully literary character of the Platonic dialogues renders it certain that Plato deliberately insinuates a parallel between the problematic "desiring to know" involved in all learning, on the one hand, and Socrates' claiming to possess the solution to this problematic because he has been taught it, on the other. One trivial solution to the aporia, but also one aspect of any solution, is that we seek to know about something because we have been informed of it. A child may seek to know what a molecule is because by chance one day she hears the word "molecule" uttered. Or she may know that Africa is a country but no more, and seek in her Atlas to find out where it is and who lives there. It cannot be accidental that Socrates invokes the fact of teaching at this point. Indeed, that he has been taught the solution to the aporia of learning itself, in part performatively resolves the aporia. However, exactly like Augustine in this respect, he does not simply invoke any old teaching, but rather the teaching of a divinely revealed tradition. And as with Augustine, this sacred pedagogy forms a third term linking the "education" solution to the aporia with the "recollection/illumination" solution. And in either case, the reader is left wondering how this third term of linkage works: would not education on its own work as a solution (albeit a relativistic one)? Or else, recollection/illumination on its own? Why does an ontological solution need a historicist supplement? Is there not more a kind of mutual redundancy than a complementarity present here?

Leaving the latter issue in suspense for the moment, one can nevertheless say that Socrates' dramatic narrative suggests that the religious/mythic dimension is for Plato essential to the philosophic dimension. To confirm this suggestion, however, it would be necessary to show that his philosophical understanding of human knowledge in this dialogue does indeed require such a dimension.

But it is possible to demonstrate just this point. It requires taking Socrates at his word, which in this case there is no reason to doubt. Crucial here are the details of the geometric example. It is not the boy's manifestation of new and untaught knowledge which for Socrates alone demonstrates recollection. To the contrary, Socrates brings the boy to the point where he thinks that he should be able to discover certain pieces of geometric knowledge which at the outset he would not have supposed himself able to find out. This circumstance confirms the role of the teacher in the unraveling of the aporia, now in a more mundane context. Plato does not, here or elsewhere, like Descartes or Kant suggest that we can scour the recesses of our soul to excavate units of wisdom by remaining in solitary confinement. To the contrary, for Plato recollection is triggered by a human encounter, whether pedagogic or erotic or both. But if this is the case, then one may ask why a mere invocation of the a priori should require such a trigger? (Chr├ętien 2002: 1-40). The operation of the triggers seems much more to sublimate ordinary empirical recollection of lost facts. For example, only the chance meeting again with a person after many years may allow us to recall their face and voice. By contrast, even if we have forgotten our nine times table, we retain the innate resources to reconstruct it in any circumstances. Hence Plato's constant recourse to "triggers" is of a piece with his invocation of the role of teaching in relation to recall and suggests that the mediation of teaching is essential to recollection.

However, there is a further point to be made. Socrates not only causes the boy to recollect; he also stuns the boy, following his gadfly reputation, bringing him to the point where he thinks he should be able to find something out but cannot in fact do so. And this is what Socrates offers as his proof: namely, that he has taught the boy a desiring ignorance that is also an obscure sort of inkling as to knowledge: "from this sense of his ignorance, he will find out the truth in searching for it with me" (Plato 1924: 84c). This example does not dispel the mists of the aporia of learning so much as reproduce dramatically the circumstances of this aporia. Because the aporia persists, one must have recourse to a mythical solution. It is in this way that Plato's philosophical position regarding knowledge is also ineliminably a religious one. The argument for recollection does not proceed as follows: the boy has desire for the unknown because deep in his soul he already knows this thing (although the later Plotinian reading of recollection somewhat anticipates the a priori, whereas Proclus, by contrast, appeals to the "mythical/ritual" account). Rather, it proceeds as follows: the boy has desire for the unknown because this desire is an aspect of a memory of something primordial and pre-historical and so strictly speaking inaccessible and not entirely re-memorable at all. On this reading, desire is not the mask of a concealed awareness; rather desire is the only thing that allows any initial cognitive awareness whatsoever.

If memory of a pre-existent knowledge is also at one with a desire to recover this knowledge, and this desire is precipitated when we are stunned into ignorance by a teacher trying to incite our desire, then desire here is akin to an obscure oracular revelation, a harbinger of a mystery into which the slave-boy is initiated by Socrates. Of course, one can object here that, in the end, the boy moves beyond ignorance and arrives at the knowledge he sought, thereby canceling his desire. However, geometric figures and arithmetical numbers, as we are told in the Republic, lie beneath the realm of the absolute abiding truth of the Forms (Plato 1936: V 106e). They are more accessible than the latter, and knowledge of them is repeatedly seen by Plato as merely illustrative of knowledge of the Forms. If one can indeed have full episteme of mathematical realities, and so eventually cancel desire - even if one has to pass through an inescapably mysterious moment of inspiration by the muses even in mathematics, wherein one does not yet know that for which one seeks, like Meno's slave-boy - this may not be true of the Forms themselves.

This is suggested in the Meno. Socrates here, as elsewhere, proclaims his ignorance: he is himself like the slave-boy as one "stunned" - by the priests and priestesses, by his own reflections, just as he stuns others, in this way resembling the "torpedo fish" (Plato 1924: 80b-d; 84b). However, this condition of ignorance does not reside in a hostile relation with the condition of knowledge of the Forms; to the contrary, Socrates repeatedly indicates that such ignorance is itself just that other knowledge which is the knowledge of recollection and of the Forms. In order to show this other knowledge, he first reduces the boy to a simulacrum of his own ignorance. The Forms are recalled precisely through the operation of a desiring ignorance: the desire for absolute timeless truth, for episteme. But, as in the case of mathematics, can one fully recover this truth and leave desire behind? The answer is no. Socrates presents even his "other" knowledge of the Forms as only an "orthos doxa," a true opinion falling short of grasped certainty. Only in one paradoxical respect does he claim to exceed orthos doxa - namely, in knowing the difference between this and that absolute episteme which belongs to the pure beholding of the Forms: "for my part, I speak not thus [he has just said that in true episteme one thing follows from another like a chain of magnets] from knowledge; but only from conjecture. But that right opinion and science are two different things, this, as it appears to me, I do not merely imagine or conjecture" (Plato 1924: 98b).

It follows that Socrates' knowledge of the Forms is akin to a kind of religious belief and divine inspiration. This opens the possibility that his overall argument is that outside such belief, skeptical arguments would indeed be valid. On this view, the mythical dimension is essential to Plato's philosophy: it is a necessary way of going on speaking in order to try to illuminate the fact that we think we know and try to know, even though we cannot really ever envisage what makes our knowing and learning possible. To learn and to know are to participate in divine inspiration and this is mediated to us externally as much as internally. This is why the "teaching" and the "recollection" solutions to the aporia of learning are complementary rather than mutually redundant.

If this reading is correct, it is perhaps supported by the main argument of the Meno. What is primarily at issue here is the nature of virtue. The dialogue moves to show that virtue comes neither by nature nor by nurture: unlike other modes of excellence, there can be no discipline directly concerned with teaching virtue as a practice - as opposed to the philosophical study of "ethics" (Plato 1924: 95c). Yet, if virtue belongs to wisdom, this appears to be contradictory. Socrates rules out the idea that the wisdom involved is any sort of certain episteme; rather, it is a matter of approximate phronesis deployed in specific situations, and of a securing of justice in a manner for which no exhaustive rules can be found. Virtue then, although it is knowledge of the Good (the highest of the Forms according to the Republic), is a matter of orthos doxa rather than certainty Moreover, it is a rather extreme mode of the former, since it cannot be taught. It seems that one cannot here offer even approximative guidelines (and this sounds more extreme than Aristotle). In consequence,

Socrates concludes that virtue "must come by a divine portion or allotment" and there is no real reason to view this conclusion as ironic, given Socrates' association of his own wisdom with divine inspiration (Plato 1924: 99c-d, 99e).

This interpretation also fits with Socrates' claim that "true opinion" can be every bit as good as firm knowledge. This is because, if an opinion is "true," its truth is no less than the same truth known with final certainty. However, one could only in practice make this equation if something like faith or trust made up the difference between opinion and certainty. Only the sense of a divine presence of some kind can elicit such a trust.

The recollection of the Good to produce virtue is clearly central for Plato. Yet this is a matter of something triggered by examples of the beautiful which cannot be taught, at least in any normal fashion. Here, desire for knowledge persists even in the partial holding of knowledge, because this is a matter of the obscure reception of a divine gift. Indeed, were virtue teachable, then it would most likely be definable as something like "good government," which Meno favors, and would concern the pragmatic logic of strength (in the city, in the individual). According to the logic which Meno indicates, virtue might or might not be just: but for Socrates, virtue is always just as it is always prudent. But virtue as always just is a matter of harmonious distribution of goods as much as it is a matter of strength and self-control. This renders the display of the Good as beautiful indispensable for our sense of virtue and tied to a judgment of the harmonious for which there are no rules but is rather a gift of the muses.

Against this reading of the Meno, it might be argued that Socrates wishes ironically to contrast those currently good in a hit or miss way by "inspiration," with the figure he invokes at the end of the dialogue who would be "as it were the truth and substance of things, compared with shadows, in respect of virtue" (Plato 1924: 100a). This man, whom one must assume to be somewhat akin to the philosopher-king of the Republic, would indeed be "capable of making another man a good politician"; in other words, of teaching virtue, presumably by both example and counsel. However, Socrates never denigrates entirely the existence of a sporadic and unsystematic virtue, and, as we have seen, he indicates that even philosophy cannot entirely escape the realm of mere doxa. So how can one resolve this?

The clue may well lie in the invocation of the learned priests and priestesses who reflect on their religious performances. Just as they do not thereby render those performances superfluous, so also the philosopher does not stand any less in need of divine gift as regards virtue: it is more that he has a more reflexive and conscious awareness of the source of virtue as the heaven of the Forms, and intimates somewhat more of the "magnetic" link between the Form of the Good and examples of virtue. Since these examples, as we see in the Meno, are highly various and this is part of the reason why virtue cannot be taught, the philosopher's stronger sense of this link perhaps provides the clue as to why he, after all, can teach virtue. It is because he is in this respect, as in all others, a generalist.

One can go a little further than this by invoking the discussions which take place in the Ion. The issues here can be seen in parallel with those of the Meno because, once more, it is a question of inspiration versus science. Socrates suggests that the rhapsode Ion owes his wisdom to divine inspiration rather than to any sort of episteme. It can be suggested that this is not to be taken ironically (or at least entirely ironically) if one bears in mind the implications of Socrates' view of rhapsody for his view of philosophy. Ion does not possess episteme for two opposite reasons. First, his knowledge is far too particular (Plato 1925b: 533d-e). He only knows about Homer, and in this respect is like the poets on whom he is parasitic. Poets are confined to lyric, epic, or tragic genres, according to the different inspirations they receive from different muses. Rhapsodes cling to the skirts of inspired poets in the manner of components of a chain of magnets - there is an echo here of the chain of epistemic reasonings in the Meno, according to which "deduction" may be closely linked with "inspiration" in Plato's mind - or wild dancing intoxicated corybants. Thus Ion is able by inspiration to speak of Homer, even though, were he really speaking in a learned scientific manner, he could only speak of Homer by comparing him with other poets, and the same skills he applies to Homer should be applicable elsewhere.

Yet, inversely, his knowledge is far too universal. Homer's Iliad can be broken down into descriptions of fighting, navigation, charioteering and so forth: experts in all these areas, says Socrates, should be able to speak of these passages with far more sophistication than Ion (Plato 1925b: 536d-542b). The latter protests that he is an expert on "Homer" and not on chariots; Socrates responds that Homer can only be the sum of his parts. If, nevertheless, Ion has a mysterious capacity to speak regarding the "whole" of Homer, then once again this must be a strange divine gift.

Here one is reminded of the question of the nature of ruling or politics in itself in Republic I and II. To be more than a power-play, it seems to need a content, yet has none (Ophir 1991). In that dialogue, Plato eventually provides a content, in terms of the contemplation of the Forms and application of this vision via the exercise of phronesis to the life of the city. This reveals that the question of a strange knowledge of the whole in excess of that whole's parts is a question that applies most of all to philosophy which claims to know about everything, even though, once again, such knowledge would appear to be both amateur and redundant given a division of academic labor among experts. It is no wonder that Plato invokes the issue of the likely expulsion of the philosopher from the polis where he can only ever appear (if he is true to himself) as an imposter, a sophist, a show-off and seducer. These apparent crimes conceal his standing in a heavenly presence which cannot of course appear to view, but which provides him after all with a role and a specific way of talking about the general. Finally, this comes down to the following: it may be that there are only goods, only beings and only truths and only beauties. But the philosopher is one who envisages the Good itself and relentlessly shows that without this, the specific goods are so diverse as not to merit the name good at all, in such a way that virtue nihilistically evaporates, along with truth, being, beauty, and unity.

In a certain sense, then, the figure of the rhapsode is a foil for the figure of the philosopher and provides an allegory for all human understanding. The latter as expert of a particularity has not the benefit of comparison or generally applicable method and therefore his expertise can only be possible as an inexplicable kind of knack; a form of "tacit understanding" as one might now say. But the more it becomes universal, the more it appears to become vacuous, unless it possesses an even stronger degree of divine inspiration; a sense of the analogical derivation of diverse particulars from a common eternal source.

This is perhaps why Plato saw even philosophy, or rather especially philosophy, to be a "musical" art and a "musical" discourse. One can now read the Meno as saying that those virtuous without philosophy are still virtuous in a somewhat merely particular way and are therefore inspired by the Muses; while those truly virtuous in a universal way are philosophers or philosopher-kings, and therefore also inspired by the Muses.

Plato can in consequence be read as deconstructing the claims of both particular and general knowledge to be purely human and immanent. Only if it displays always the divinely inspired arts of the muses can it possess any truth and banish the shadow of skepticism. In ancient Athens, it seems, there were no humanists, only materialists in contrast to religious "postmodernists."

Amongst the latter, for Plato, the highest knowledge remained a matter of desiring, because it remained a matter of divine inspiration.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment