Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...
(icon) is a concept in Plato
Plato , was a Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world. Along with his mentor, Socrates, and his student, Aristotle, Plato helped to lay the...
and psychological theory that he develops in his dialogue
Dialogue is a literary and theatrical form consisting of a written or spoken conversational exchange between two or more people....
, and alludes to it in his Phaedrus
, Plato's character (and old teacher) Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...
is challenged by Meno with what has become known as the sophistic
Sophism in the modern definition is a specious argument used for deceiving someone. In ancient Greece, sophists were a category of teachers who specialized in using the tools of philosophy and rhetoric for the purpose of teaching aretê — excellence, or virtue — predominantly to young statesmen and...
paradox, or the paradox of knowledge:
- Meno: And how are you going to search for [the nature of virtue] when you don't know at all what it is, Socrates? Which of all the things you don't know will you set up as target for your search? And even if you actually come across it, how will you know that it is that thing which you don't know?
In other words, if you don't know any of the attributes, properties, and/or other descriptive markers of any kind that help signify what something is (physical or otherwise), you won't recognize it, even if you actually come across it. And, as consequence, if the converse is true, and you do
know the attributes, properties and/or other descriptive markers of this thing, then you shouldn't need to seek it out at all. The result of this line of thinking is that, in either instance, there is no point trying to gain that "something"; in the case of Plato's aforementioned work, there is no point in seeking knowledge.
Socrates' response is to develop his theory of anamnesis
. He suggests that the soul is immortal, and repeatedly incarnated
Metempsychosis is a philosophical term in the Greek language referring to transmigration of the soul, especially its reincarnation after death. It is a doctrine popular among a number of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Druzism wherein an individual incarnates from one...
; knowledge is actually in the soul from eternity (86b), but each time the soul is incarnated its knowledge is forgotten in the shock of birth. What one perceives to be learning, then, is actually the recovery of what one has forgotten. (Once it has been brought back it is true belief, to be turned into genuine knowledge by understanding.) And thus Socrates (and Plato) sees himself, not as a teacher, but as a midwife
Maieutics is a pedagogical method based on the idea that the truth is latent in the mind of every human being due to innate reason but has to be "given birth" by answering intelligently proposed questions . The word is derived from the Greek "μαιευτικός", pertaining to midwifery.- Possible origin...
, aiding with the birth of knowledge that was already there in the student.
The theory is illustrated by Socrates asking a slave boy questions about geometry. At first the boy gives the wrong answer; when this is pointed out to him, he is puzzled, but by asking questions Socrates is able to help him to reach the true answer. This is intended to show that, as the boy wasn't told the answer, he could only have reached the truth by recollecting what he had already known but forgotten.
, Plato develops his theory of anamnesis
, in part by combining it with his theory of Forms. First, he elaborates how anamnesis
can be achieved: whereas in Meno
nothing more than Socrates' method of questioning is offered, in Phaedo
Plato presents a way of living that would enable one to overcome the misleading nature of the body through katharsis
Catharsis or katharsis is a Greek word meaning "cleansing" or "purging". It is derived from the verb καθαίρειν, kathairein, "to purify, purge," and it is related to the adjective καθαρός, katharos, "pure or clean."-Dramatic uses:...
(Greek: καθαρσις; “cleansing” (from guilt or defilement), “purification”). The body and its senses are the source of error; knowledge can only be regained through the use of our reason, contemplating things with the soul (noesis) (see 66 b–d).
Secondly, he makes clear that genuine knowledge, as opposed to mere true belief (doxa
Doxa is a Greek word meaning common belief or popular opinion, from which are derived the modern terms of orthodoxy and heterodoxy.Used by the Greek rhetoricians as a tool for the formation of argument by using common opinions, the doxa was often manipulated by sophists to persuade the people,...
), is distinguished by its content. One can only know eternal truths, for they are the only truths that can have been in the soul from eternity. Though it can be very useful to have a true belief about, say, the best way to get from London to Oxford, such a belief does not qualify as knowledge; how could the human soul know such factually contingent propositions for all eternity?
For the later interpreters of Plato, anamnesis
was less an epistemic assertion than an ontological one. Plotinus
Plotinus was a major philosopher of the ancient world. In his system of theory there are the three principles: the One, the Intellect, and the Soul. His teacher was Ammonius Saccas and he is of the Platonic tradition...
himself did not posit recollection in the strict sense of the term, because all knowledge of universally important ideas (logos
' is an important term in philosophy, psychology, rhetoric and religion. Originally a word meaning "a ground", "a plea", "an opinion", "an expectation", "word," "speech," "account," "reason," it became a technical term in philosophy, beginning with Heraclitus ' is an important term in...
) came from a source outside of time (Dyad or the divine nous
Nous , also called intellect or intelligence, is a philosophical term for the faculty of the human mind which is described in classical philosophy as necessary for understanding what is true or real, very close in meaning to intuition...
), and was accessible, by means of contemplation, to the soul as part of noesis. They were more objects of experience, of inner knowledge or insight
Insight is the understanding of a specific cause and effect in a specific context. Insight can be used with several related meanings:*a piece of information...
, than of recollection. Despite this, in Neoplatonism
Neoplatonism , is the modern term for a school of religious and mystical philosophy that took shape in the 3rd century AD, based on the teachings of Plato and earlier Platonists, with its earliest contributor believed to be Plotinus, and his teacher Ammonius Saccas...
, the theory of anamnesis
became part of the mythology of the descent of the soul.
Porphyry of Tyre , Porphyrios, AD 234–c. 305) was a Neoplatonic philosopher who was born in Tyre. He edited and published the Enneads, the only collection of the work of his teacher Plotinus. He also wrote many works himself on a wide variety of topics...
's short work De Antro Nympharum
(ostensibly a commentary on the brief passage in Odyssey
13) elucidated this notion, as did Macrobius's much longer Commentary on the Dream of Scipio
. The idea of psychic memory was used by Neoplatonists to demonstrate the celestial and immaterial origins of the soul, and to explain how memories of the world-soul could be recalled by everyday human beings. As such, psychic recollection was intrinsically connected to the Platonic conception of the soul itself. Since the contents of individual "material" or physical memories were trivial, only the universal recollection of Forms, or divine objects, drew one closer to the immortal source of being.
is the closest that human minds can come to experiencing the freedom of the soul prior to its being encumbered by matter. The process of incarnation is described in Neoplatonism as a shock that causes the soul to forget its experiences (and often its divine origins as well).