The Possibility of Inquiry, written by Gail Fine

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition

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The Possibility of Inquiry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). £55

The title of this dense, challenging, and enlightening study refers to a problem whose origins are found in the Meno. In fact, it is called Meno’s paradox.

(M1) But how will you inquire into this, Socrates, when you don’t at all know what it is?

(M2) For what sort of thing, from among those you don’t know, will you put forward as the thing you’re inquiring into? (M3) And even if you really encounter it, how will you know that this is the thing you didn’t know? (80d5-8) (p.7)

When Socrates rephrases Meno’s paradox it becomes a dilemma:

I understand the sort of thing you want to say, Meno. Do you see what an eristic argument you’re introducing, (S4) that it’s not possible for someone to inquire either into that which (ho) he knows or into that which he doesn’t know? For (S2) he wouldn’t inquire into that which he knows (for he knows it, and there’s no need for such a person to inquire); nor (S3) into that which he doesn’t know (for he doesn’t even know what (hoti) he’ll inquire into). (80e1-5) (p.7-8)

Inquiry is impossible because either one knows x or one does not know x. If one knows x she cannot inquire because there’s nothing left to discover. If one does not know x she cannot inquire about x because she will not be able to recognize what she is looking for. As we know, Socrates’ answer to the dilemma is the theory of recollection. Now, this paradox has been the focus of a lot of investigation on the part of Anglo-American analytic philosophers. Certainly, Fine has written a book that uses her considerable analytic skills to sort through a generous selection of recent English-language commentary. She seems to aim at something like a definitive sorting out of concepts, terms, and logic so that we can at last understand Meno’s original paradox, Socrates’ restatement of it, and his solution to it. That task takes the first half of the book. Then she turns to the nachleben of the paradox in Aristotle and the Peripatetics, the Epicureans, the Stoics, and the Skeptics. In this review, I will address only the first half of the book and only a few major points of the analysis there.

Fine focuses on Socrates’ restatement of Meno’s original paradox, which transforms it into a dilemma.

(S1) for any x, one either knows, or does not know, x.

(S2) If one knows x, one cannot inquire into x.

(S3) If one does not know x, one cannot inquire into x.

(S4) Therefore, for any x, one cannot inquire into x. (p.8)

She argues, however, that Socrates does not believe the dilemma is sound. In particular, he does not think (S3) is true. According to Fine, Socrates will show the falsity of (S3); he holds that we do not need knowledge of x in order to inquire about x. This claim about inquiry is different from another claim that Socrates also makes, one about knowledge. Socrates also says that one cannot know whether virtue is teachable without knowing what virtue is—i.e., without knowing the essence of virtue (71b). Nevertheless, according to Fine, inquiry into x does not require knowledge of the essence of x (p.51-53). In fact, she argues that, in his conversation with the slave boy, Socrates shows that inquiry is possible starting only with true belief. The slave boy does not know the essence of a square although he has the true belief that a square has four equal sides. Refined by elenchus, such preliminary true beliefs lead to secure belief, which is then the basis for what ultimately will be knowledge. At this point, we have the answer to the question whether inquiry about x is possible when one does not know x. Since the slave boy has conducted a successful inquiry without knowledge, the answer is “Yes.” Then Fine turns to her second task. Socrates says that recollection explains how inquiry is possible; but he is not forthcoming about how it does so. Fine thinks the explanation is implicit in the text. Here she offers an interpretation of the notion of recollection that goes counter to what others have said about recollection as an explanation for inquiry.

To understand her interpretation we have to start with what she holds is a wrong interpretation. Many have argued that recollection explains the possibility of inquiry because one recollects innate knowledge. In this view, the slave boy will come to know the solution to the geometrical problem because he already knows it innately and, by elenchus, he will recover what he knows innately. In this kind of account, somewhere in his soul, he knows the solution but only latently; it needs to be made explicit. Fine, however, argues that Socrates’ notion of recollection, in the Meno at least, does not imply this sort of recovery of latent innate knowledge. According to Fine, Socratic recollection is based on prenatal knowledge that has been forgotten. One might ask how latent innate knowledge differs from forgotten prenatal knowledge. After all, if recollection is the recovery of forgotten prenatal knowledge then it seems indistinguishable from the recovery of latent innate knowledge. In both cases, one recovers knowledge—in one case, forgotten knowledge and, in the other, latent knowledge.

To understand her distinction between the two, we need to use the three forms of innate knowledge that she lays out. First is innate cognitive condition; the second is innate content; the third is innate disposition. It is best to start with innate content, which is a proposition or a noetic object somewhere in one’s soul at birth. However, one is not necessarily born knowing or grasping this content. In innate cognitive condition, one is born knowing some content or other. The concept of innate cognitive condition is complicated by the fact that it can be either explicit or latent—that is, one might be born consciously knowing some content or one might be born knowing some content but only in an unconscious way. In any event, we can understand recollection using either of the notion of content or the notion of cognitive condition. Thus, one might recollect some innate content; incidentally, one would then be in a cognitive condition with respect to this content (i.e., know it). Alternatively, one might recollect a latent cognitive condition if one previously knew—but only latently—some content. Finally, innate disposition does not have a content; it is a disposition that one is born with that enables one to acquire knowledge, using true, or relevant, beliefs (p.141-147).

At this point, Fine argues that prenatal knowledge implies that, at best, the slave boy has an innate disposition to acquire knowledge. He does not have the knowledge in the form of some content or other or in the form of a latent cognitive condition. Rather, he starts with true beliefs (or at least relevant beliefs) that are subjected to elenchus; his ability to arrive by these means at knowledge is explained by an innate disposition to arrive at knowledge. However, having the disposition does not imply that one must arrive at knowledge, only that one can. Thus, her account of the way recollection makes inquiry possible is deflationary; recollection is the way innate disposition uses true—or at least relevant—beliefs to arrive at knowledge. In fact, her account is even more deflationary since she says that Socrates does not actually posit an innate disposition. So, finally, either his argument depends, implicitly, on taking recollection to imply such a disposition or he has no way of explaining how recollection explains inquiry (p.165).

While there are many places in this account where one might disagree with Fine’s reading of the text, I will leave them aside. I will dwell only on the problem of prenatal knowledge. We have seen that she denies recollection implies innate knowledge—at least in the cognitive condition and content senses—but she argues that it does imply prenatal knowledge. Prenatal knowledge is knowledge that one once had but has now forgotten. At this point, the interpretation faces a dilemma. Either prenatal knowledge has content or it is just an innate disposition, with no specific content. If it has content, then it is indistinguishable from innate knowledge in either the cognitive condition sense or in the content sense. The latter Fine rejects. So it seems prenatal knowledge is just an innate disposition not tied to any specific content. If prenatal knowledge is an innate disposition to reason from any set of beliefs to knowledge, one wonders why Socrates goes to such lengths to argue that it is something forgotten that one recovers by recollection. He could have just posited an innate disposition to reason in the appropriate way. The mechanism of recollection seems otiose. Fine’s deflationary account, then, makes it hard to understand why Socrates would have suggested recollection as a solution to Meno’s paradox or his reformulation of it.

If the inline PDF is not rendering correctly, you can download the PDF file here.

The Possibility of Inquiry, written by Gail Fine

in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition


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