Learning is Recollection

Plato stated that everything we learn is simply recollection. Here, I try to refute this.

Plato’s theory that ‘learning is recollection’ is an interesting and unusual concept. For the everyday man this may be an absurd idea, as he will have, most likely, been educated to secondary level. He will probably believe that teaching involves more than simply recollecting by oneself.  For those of us who have the opportunity to read and follow Plato’s arguments we can let Plato try to convince us that his theory has credibility. I will explain the details of the theory and discuss what it means in relation to immortality of the soul and will then offer my own opinion.

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Before this theory can be discussed, we must look at what it entails and explain what Plato means.  The issue that learning is recollection is first brought up in the Meno and means that everything we will learn throughout our lives is nothing other than recollecting what we already knew. This idea is called Anamnesis and it says that everything we are taught was within us to begin with. (1)

 In the Meno, Socrates and Meno are discussing the topics of virtue and the soul and Socrates relays to Meno that the soul can recollect things that it learned before it came to be embodied in us. This puzzles Meno and he asks Socrates to teach him how this is so. Socrates replies, “You ask me if I can teach you, when I say there is no teaching but recollection, in order to show me up at once as contradicting.” Here, Plato is saying that, in the physical life we do not learn anything ‘new’. He is saying that we recall or recollect the information which the soul already knew. In order to demonstrate his point Socrates asks Meno to beckon one of his slave boys. Socrates asks the slave a series of questions regarding mathematics and irrational numbers. Despite the slave boy offering several intuitive, but incorrect answers, he grows closer to the correct answer. 

The scene with the slave is very significant for Plato’s theory. In it, Socrates ensures that he does not offer the slave any new information and only asks relevant questions. Furthermore, he asks Meno to confirm that the slave boy has never been educated in the area of geometry. These points, complemented by the fact that the slave approaches the correct answer, are seen as evidence that learning truly is recollection. By asking the uneducated slave the appropriate questions, the slave comes up with answers and knowledge which he didn’t have, or was unaware of before. Socrates’ questions are merely guidance for the slave recollecting the correct information and applying this information to the problem.

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