Plato’s Meno is a text I find endlessly fascinating: the drama of the interaction between its two characters, the young, cocky Meno and the older, more ironic Socrates; the range of philosophical topics discussed in such a short space; the bizarre theses considered seriously; the apparently (but only apparently) terrible arguments given in their defence… Reading the Meno is a good way to start doing philosophy. It gives you a sense of how vulnerable one can feel in a philosophical conversation, of how to make progress with a seemingly intractable problem, and has a couple of the valuable lessons to teach in humility and self-awareness.
It is vital that you read the dialogue from start to finish; the text is designed with great care, care that reveals itself only with multiple readings, and reading isolated extracts will lead you to miss important contextual details. I recommend, and myself use, the translation by Jane Day. If you know a little Greek, then the facing translation by RW Sharples is useful to have. The translation by GMA Grube is serviceable, and there are also virtues to Adam Beresford’s translation (his approach is deliberately colloquial).
If you’d like a general introduction to Plato, two of my favourite are Julia Annas, Plato: A Very Short Introduction and Bernard Williams, Plato: The Invention of Philosophy (the latter is also published as an essay in his volume The Sense of the Past: Essays on the History of Philosophy. There are dozens of others, but Plato is really best approached without too much preamble: you should let yourself be surprised by the text itself.
It’s unlikely you’ll have more than two supervisions on the Meno. I offer a choice of titles below. Your essays should not be too much longer than 2,000 words. They should be focussed on giving a straight answer to the set question; this answer should be stated early on in the essay, and substantiated with references to the passages of text that support your point as well as general philosophical considerations for and against your thesis. You can show in the course of answering the question that you’ve thought more generally about the text and its context, but don’t try to say everything. There will be opportunities for that in your supervision itself.
The most important reading is the set text itself. The further ‘secondary’ readings are there to suggest ways in which you can approach the question in your essay, but you are not called upon to discuss those papers in detail; if you do use ideas from anything you read, make sure to cite them. But remember that your essay is a defence of your view and no one else’s.
1st Week. Definition.
Question. Why does Socrates ask Euthyphro for a definition of holiness? What does he expect from a definition? What’s wrong with Euthphro’s initial attempts at answering his question?
Essential reading. Euthyphro 5c-9d; Meno 70a–80e, 86d–e
P. T. Geach, “Plato’s Euthyphro,” The Monist 50, no. 3 (1966): 369–82.
M. F. Burnyeat, “Examples in Epistemology: Socrates, Theaetetus and G. E. Moore,” Philosophy 52, no. 202 (October 1977): 381–98.
NB. What is Socrates’ question at 5c-d – what kind of answer is he looking for? (Vide Euthyphro 6e, Meno 70a-80e, 86d-e.) What is wrong with Euthyphro’s first answer according to Socrates’ objection at 6d? Why is Euthyphro’s second answer at 7a reckoned better? What is Socrates’ objection at 7b-8b? What is his argument for rejecting the definition? (What are its premises, what is its conclusion?) How does it refute Euthyphro’s definition? How does Socrates’ proposed revision at 9d help? Is there any stage of this exchange at which Euthyphro should have objected? What should he have said if so? In general, is it a necessary condition of your knowing what something is that you can give a definition of it? Why or why not?
2nd Week. The Euthyphro Dilemma.
Question. What makes the so-called Euthyphro dilemma a dilemma?
Essential reading. Euthyphro 9d–11b
Terence Irwin, ‘Socrates and Euthyphro: The Argument and Its Revival” in Remembering Socrates: Philosophical Essays, Oxford, 2006: 58-67.
NB. What is a dilemma? What is to be ‘on the horns of a dilemma’? What does Euthyphro have to choose between? Why is his choice a dilemma for him? What choice does he make and why? What cost did that choice have for him? Could he have chosen the other alternative? What costs would that have had? How would Socrates have responded if he had taken that option? To what extent does the dilemma reset on beliefs peculiar to ancient Greek religion? Does (e.g.) Christianity face a similar difficulty? Does it have a better response to the problem?
3rd Week. Holiness.
Question. Does the Euthyphro contain a hidden answer to its central question? If so, what is it? If not, what is the point of the dialogue?
Essential reading. Euthyphro 11b –
C C W Taylor, ‘The End of the Euthyphro’, Phronesis 27 (1982), 109-18.
NB. How does Socrates continue the conversation after Euthyphro’s definition is refuted at 11d? Is it significant that he suggests Euthyphro is close to getting the answer? Why does the new definition of holiness seem to lead back to the previously refuted definition? Does it really? Might the dialogue have gone in a different direction if Socrates had explicitly introduced the doctrine of the unity of the virtues? Why does the dialogue end in an ‘aporia’? Does this show that holiness cannot be defined? Does it only show something about Euthyphro? Does it show something about Socratic and his method?
4th Week. Desire and the Good.
Question. Why does Socrates think all desire is for the good? Is he right?
Essential reading. Meno 77b-78c
Gerasimos Santas, ‘The Socratic Paradoxes’, Philosophical Review 73 (1964), 147-64.
NB. What is Socrates’s first objection to Meno’s definition of virtue (or excellence) as ‘to desire beautiful things and have the power to acquire them’? What argument follows from this line of objection? (What are its premises – implicit and explicit? What is its conclusion?) Does it succeed in refuting Meno’s definition? How? Might Meno have objected at some point in this passage? Saying what? And how might Socrates have responded? Would his response be any good?
5th Week. Meno’s Paradox.
Question. What is Meno’s paradox? How can it be resolved?
Essential reading. Meno 79e–81a
Dominic Scott, Plato’s Meno, Cambridge University Press, 2006: Chapter 7 (pp. 75–91).
NB. How does Meno’s paradox emerge from its dramatic context in the dialogue? Does Meno’s language allude to things Socrates has said earlier in the dialogue? What are the rhetorical questions that constitute Meno’s paradox? What answers are these questions expecting? What is the difference in meaning between the three questions? How do the second and third questions relate to the first? (What is the significance of ‘gar’ at 80d6?) Which of the three rhetorical questions ‘states’ Meno’s paradox? Or do all three? What is Socrates’ reformulated paradox? (Again, what is the significance of ‘gar’ at 80e3?) Does Socrates’ reformulation differ from Meno’s statement? If so, does this make a difference? Why does Meno’s paradox count as a paradox? (What is a paradox?) What does Meno’s paradox imply for particular examples of inquiry (detective work, scientific or historical research, etc)? In what way would Meno say they are impossible? Why? Are they really? If not, how do we in fact proceed with such inquiries? Does this help us resolve the paradox? Are there features of the particular inquiry at hand – ‘What is virtue?’’- that make Meno’s paradox apply to it better than to everyday sorts of inquiry?
6th Week. Recollection.
Question. Does the demonstration with the slave boy provide good reason for Meno to accept the doctrine of recollection?
Essential reading. Meno 81b-86b
Terence Irwin, Plato’s Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Ch 9.
NB. How, if at all, does the doctrine of recollection answer Meno’s paradox? How, if at all, does the exchange with the slave illustrate, or prove, the doctrine? How might one object to Socrates’s procedure? How might he defend himself? Is recollection the only explanation for the slave’s having true beliefs about geometry? Is it the best explanation? If not, how do we account for the slave’s true beliefs? Would the demonstration have worked if Socrates had chosen something other than geometry to illustrate the doctrine, say, history or geography? If not, how does this affect Socrates’ case?
7th Week. The Road to Larissa.
Question. What, according to Socrates, is the difference between true belief and knowledge?
Essential reading. Meno 85c-d, 97a-98a
Terence Irwin, Plato’s Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), Ch 9.
NB. At 85c-d, why does Socrates call what the slave-boy now has ‘true belief’ (or ‘opinion’ – doxa) rather than knowledge? What differences between knowledge and true belief is he implying? How, according to 85c-d, does one convert true belief into knowledge? Why (as it says at 87c, and the remainder of the dialogue) can only knowledge be taught? Why in the Road to Larissa example is true belief as good a ‘guide’ as knowledge What does this show about the difference between true belief and knowledge? Does it matter that this is an empirical fact? Could it be ‘recollected’? How does that affect the argument? What is the point of the Statues of Daedelus passage? What does this show about the difference between true belief and knowledge, and how to turn one into the other? What does it mean to ‘tie down’ a true belief with an aitias logismos (98a)? How is this related to a) what Socrates suggests he could do with the slave-boy at 85c-d, and b) what Socrates tries do with Meno and with Euthyphro when searching for definitions? How does the definition of ‘knowledge’ implied by these distinctions between knowledge and true belief help us understand what Socrates means when he says he doesn’t know what virtue is earlier in the dialogue? More generally, what is the relation between knowledge as these passages (85c-d, 97a-98a) implicitly define it, and the ability to answer Socrates’ ‘What is X’ questions?
8th Week. Virtue
Question. Is virtue knowledge? Can virtue be taught?
Essential reading. Meno 86c –
Kathleen V. Wilkes, “Conclusions in the Meno,” Archiv Für Geschichte Der Philosophie 61, no. 2 (1979): 143–53.
NB. Does Socrates really think virtue is knowledge? Or is that just a ‘hypothesis’? Is it reasonable to suppose that if virtue is to be teachable, it must be some sort of knowledge? (What sort of knowledge could it need to be?) What is the significance of the fact that Socrates claims not to be teaching the slave boy? What conception of teaching does this presuppose? ‘If virtue is teachable, there must be teachers of it. There aren’t. Therefore, it isn’t.’ Is this a valid argument (i.e. does the conclusion follow from the premises)? Is it a sound argument (i.e. is it a valid argument with true premises)? What do you make of the two premises of the argument? Is it a necessary condition of something’s being teachable that there must be teachers of it? Was it true in Socrates’ time that there were no teachers of virtue? (Did anyone claim to do this? (Who?) What was Socrates insinuating about their claims?) Is this true today? Is a self-help guru a teacher of virtue? Is a philosophy tutor a teacher of virtue? Why or why not?