EDUC-910 Week 3 Readings / Philosophy

Defining what you know that you don’t know

Plato. (1997). Meno (G.M.A. Grube, Trans.). In, Plato: Complete works. J. M. Cooper & D. S. Hutchinson (Eds.), pp. 870–897. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. (Original work published ca. 380 B.C.) This has been my first real exposure to classical Greek philosophy, and as such I’ll apologize to any real scholars of Greek philosophy that may read this, any prior exposure I may have had, can really be summed up by Monty Python’s classic British Philosopher’s Song:

Which, I suppose, explains a lot. Anyway, my thoughts on Plato’s Socrates and Meno…



Socrates (470/469BC–399BC; Maybe) As a practical application to problem-solving, I see no real-world application for “To know is to know that you know nothing. That is the meaning of true knowledge.” No solid evidence he even existed, but as a philosophical invention by Plato, he works. Christopher Hitchens summed up my views on Socrates wonderfully…

The original collision between our reasoning faculties and any form of organized faith, though it must have occurred before in the minds of many, is probably exemplified in the trial of Socrates in 399 BC.

It does not matter at all to me that we have no absolute certainty that Socrates even existed. The records of his life and his words are secondhand, almost but not quite as much as are the books of the Jewish and Christian Bible and the hadiths of Islam.

Philosophy, however, has no need of such demonstrations, because it does not deal in “revealed” wisdom. As it happens, we have some plausible accounts of the life in question (a stoic soldier somewhat resembling Schweik in appearance; a shrewish wife; a tendency to attacks of catalepsy), and these will do.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

On the word of Plato, who was perhaps an eyewitness, we may accept that during a time of paranoia and tyranny in Athens, Socrates was indicted for godlessness and knew his life to be forfeit.

The noble words of the Apology also make it plain that he did not care to save himself by affirming, like a later man faced with an inquisition, anything that he did not believe.

Even though he was not in fact an atheist, he was quite correctly considered unsound for his advocacy of free thought and unrestricted inquiry, and his refusal to give assent to any dogma.

All he really “knew,” he said, was the extent of his own ignorance.

(Hitchens, 2007, p. 255)




Plato’s account of a dialog between Socrates and a young man (Meno), asking can virtue be taught and then, what is virtue? Socrates attempts to dissect an ethical term by questioning a person who claims to know the term’s meaning, and eventually concludes that neither he nor the expert really know what the term means.

That the nature of virtue could even be a question surprises Meno (and possibly/probably Plato’s readership at the time). Meno begins not by asking what virtue is, but if and how virtue can be taught.

A great part of the initial dialogue focuses on the idea that virtue must be rigorously defined before it can be questioned further. This is the Socratic notion of elenchus, which seeks to clear the ground of received, unconsidered knowledge in favor of the pursuit of truth.

Truth? Truth is constructed within context. Social construction, or constructivism, as discussed by Patton (2002), where “two people can live in the same empirical world, even though one’s world is haunted by demons, and the other’s, by subatomic particles.” (Patton, 2002; Sagan, 1997). A number of possible definitions of virtue are suggested by Meno and dismantled by Plato’s representation of Socrates. Each of these definitions appears to be drawn from aspects of Greek cultural custom at the time. Socrates then dissects them to show that they do not meet the requirements of a definition. In apparently determining the nature of virtue, Socrates illustrates what virtue is not. In doing so,

The Meno is not a theory of the nature of virtue but rather a theory about what is necessary to frame a good theory about virtue. And as such, what is necessary to frame a good theory about similar concepts: Knowledge? Truth? The question is it even possible to seek for something one does not yet know about (as in the case of seeking a definition of virtue)? Socrates performs a scale-model of elenchus (clearing the ground etc., to form a detailed picture of the problem), with Meno’s slave to solve the problem via the Socratic theory of anamnesis. Anamnesis (the idea that the soul is eternal, knows everything, and only has to recollect in order to learn; p. 17). It is through anamnesis, that Socrates describes virtue as a kind of wisdom. Throughout the discussion, Meno names various examples of virtue, but fails to name what is common to all of the examples.

A necessity for a clear definition of a subject is that it should not use the term to be defined, within the definition itself. Here, Meno’s examples of virtue suffer from a circuitous description. Socrates explores this in response to Meno’s idea that virtue is the ability to acquire beautiful things. Meno admits that such acquisition is virtuous only if it is just. But if justice itself is a virtue, then it cannot be used to define virtue (i.e., Meno has basically defined virtue as the acquisition of beautiful things in the context of a type of virtue). Plato’s Socrates is trying to convince a world that has always been confident in its knowledge, that it in fact knows nothing about the things of which it is most certain. Further, he is trying to convince the world not only that it does not know, but also that it does not know how to know. It does not even know how to frame its enquiries into that aspect of knowledge.

Socrates himself makes no claim to know the real answer to the question of the nature of virtue, but he does claim to know the basic form that such an answer would take… How are we to look for virtue without first knowing what it looks like? Socrates suggests that this can be investigated through… Anamnesis—the idea that learning truth (one man’s truth etc.), is really a matter of the soul recollecting what it has learned before its current human birth. This does seem to be a contradiction to Socrates’ claims that he knows he knows nothing. To learn it (if it were knowledge) would actually be to recall it.

The most important such point is that the good or virtuous depends on wisdom: “All that the soul undertakes and endures, if directed by wisdom, ends in happiness.” (Plato, 380 B.C./1997, p. 888). True virtue is a product of knowledge? There is a conflict between the conclusion that virtue is, “as a whole or in part,” a kind of wisdom and the conclusion that no one can teach it (so that it cannot be knowledge). Meno leaves us hanging between defining virtue as straight knowledge or as a kind of mysterious wisdom revealed to us by the god “without understanding.” (Plato, 380 B.C./1997, p. 897). It is seen as likely that most virtuous men are so by holding “true opinion” (p. 895), rather than true knowledge.

True opinions lead us to the same ends as knowledge, but do not stay with us because people may express them “without possessing [the] intelligence” to know why they are true opinions. Thus, we can only depend on semi-divine inspiration to keep us focused on true opinions rather than wrong ones. For when, by speaking, they bring a multitude of important things to successful issue without understanding what they are talking about, it is because they have been breathed upon and laid hold of by the god. Ultimately,

Meno provides no definitive answer to the text’s central question of what virtue is. By the end of the dialogue, the participants (including the bit-player Anytus, who enters toward the end) have arrived at the classic state of Socratic aporia—they still do not know what virtue is, but at least they now know that they do not know. Could Donald Rumsfeld be a Socratic scholar?

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know. (Donald Rumsfeld Press Conference at NATO Headquarters, Brussels, Belgium, June 6, 2002)

The analytical approach pursued by Plato’s Socrates is apparently intended to highlight wrong opinions (can you have a right/wrong opinion if you know nothing?). The process of elenchus is meant to clear the ground for an inversion of the whole sequence of right opinion and truth. If the requirements for a definition of virtue can be filled, we would no longer need to test out opinions blindly (as is done throughout the Meno). Instead, we would have a rigorous definition of virtue first—an idea of virtue that is “tied down… by (giving) an account of [their reasoning]” (Plato, 380 B.C./1997, p. 895), and could determine the details on the three main themes of Meno from there….

  1. The teachability of Virtue
  2. Difference between knowledge and opinion
  3. Learning as recollection: anamnesis

Resources Listen to the full audiobook of Plato’s Meno on YouTube, here… Or download from a large selection of Plato’s works (all in the public domain), including Meno, The Apology, The Republic and The Symposium, from =author&search_page=1&search_form=get_results.

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