McGowan: Where Are the Platonists?

August 7, 2023

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

When I taught ethics, I had several challenges. For one thing, unlike students in France, American students took no philosophy courses in high school. Students leave high school with reasoning skills that do not align well with the critical analysis philosophy courses demand. Students, even bright students, rely too much on memory for knowledge acquisition and cognitive growth.

I should know. After a stellar high school G.P.A. that got me admitted to a very selective college, I performed poorly as an undergrad, relying on memory to master the material.

But it has ever been thus. Plato had to contend with students and people like me so he wrote a dialogue, “Meno,” showing the difference between knowing something by way of memory and understanding something by way of investigation. The dialogue, like most of Plato’s dialogues, asks a ‘ho ti esti’ question, a ‘what is it’ question. Socrates asks Meno, “What is virtue?

Then, similar to Plato’s famous “Republic,” it addresses cognitive and moral growth.

The dialogue’s namesake, Meno, thinks knowing is a function of memory alone. Therefore, Meno’s method of learning involves listening to the Sophists, the alleged experts of ancient Greece. Socrates must show him that memory alone is insufficient. His approach to Meno begins with a math problem involving the square root of two. Meno says the problem is impossible to solve.

However, Meno’s slave boy, with lots of help from Socrates, solves the problem. Socrates draws a 2 x 2 square and coaxes the slave into connecting lines from the midpoint of each side to the midpoint of the adjacent sides. The result shows a square whose area is the square root of two squared.

To get past the problem of Meno’s slave solving the problem while Meno did not, Socrates invents a solution that preserves Meno’s dignity and “explains” the slave’s solving the problem. Socrates asks Meno, “Did he ever get an education?” “No” replies Meno.  Socrates then says, “He must have been born with the knowledge; learning must be a matter of recollection.”  Meno quickly agrees. 

Later in the dialogue, Socrates tells Meno a story about the famous statues of Daedulus. “They are so life-like that they run away.  To keep their value, they must be chained down.” Socrates adds, “Opinions are a fine thing and do all sorts of good so long as they stay in their place, but they will not stay long.” Socrates continues. “They run away from a man’s mind; so they are not worth much until you tether them by working out the reason.” Then Socrates says, “That process is recollection, as we agreed earlier.”

Meno agrees but does not understand the point. First, he remembers poorly inasmuch as that was not what they talked about.  And two, the process is not about memory but reasoning.

I used to show what’s at stake in class when I told my students, “It’s like Hank Aaron breaking Ruth’s home run record when he hit his 713th homer.”  No one objected because my students respected my knowledge of baseball history.  “Wait, that’s wrong,  it was homer number 714.”  So 714 went into their heads as knowledge.

“Well, that may be wrong, too”  I said. I offered them a way to chain down home run number 715, ( so they could “work out the reason” for themselves. I hoped that they would become more critical about what entered their minds as knowledge and do their own research regarding claims, wherever they appeared.

If we look back to ancient Greece, though, we can observe that cognitive development is the same now as it was then. Learning follows the same patterns today as it did then, only now we can document those patterns. Researchers such as Lawrence Kohlberg and William Perry have charted the patterns that are found across cultures.

If I put my mind to the situation at all, I’d say human beings are more alike than different. However, if I were Meno I’d listen to the mob and not think at all.

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University. 


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