Art of Inquiry: Interlude–Meno’s Paradox of Inquiry

Excerpt from The Art of Inquiry. Interlude comes after Chapter 1 and before Chapter 2. Enjoy.

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Interlude: Meno’s Paradox of Inquiry

Is Meno fed up with Socrates? Could he be throwing up his hands when he accuses Socrates–earnestly or in jest–of being a ‘magician,’ of casting spells and bewitching and enchanting him? Or, likening Socrates to a torpedo fish, of stupefying his victims, stunning their tongues so that they can’t speak rightly or make flowing speeches? Has Socrates taken away his power of speech, thereby casting him into a strange, frightful land?

Before, Meno thought he knew what virtue was and seemed to have no difficulty in giving speeches about it, extolling it, and going on about it with eloquence. He was not concerned with the nature of virtue, only with the question of whether it could be taught. But after an inquiry into the essence of virtue proves that he does not know what virtue really is, he is stunned, taken aback, speechless. In amazement, he poses his now famous challenge:

And how will you inquire, Socrates, into that which you do not know? What will you put forth as the subject of enquiry? And if you find what you want, how will you ever know that this is the thing which you did not know? (Plato, Meno, 80e)

This is known, variously, as Meno’s challenge, Meno’s dilemma, or Meno’s paradox of inquiry. It can be reformulated, more stringently, as

1. If you know what it is you’re looking for, then looking for it is unnecessary. For why would one need to look for the sort of thing one already knew?

2. However, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, then finding it is impossible. In the first place, how do you even go about searching for it? In the second place, even if you know how to search for it, how do you know when you’ve hit upon it?

3. So, inquiry is either unnecessary or impossible.

There are many ways of responding to Meno’s challenge–by rejecting one of his premises, by analyzing his concepts, etc.–but I want to wonder, more basically, about Meno’s moral character. What is his disposition–is he fed up with Socrates who has brought his life into question, or is it rightly perplexed (i.e., confused or bewildered) where this sense of confusion gives rise, point and purpose to his desire to inquire further or perhaps seriously for the first time? And what of his own virtues–persistence, disinterestedness, and receptivity? Will he be stubborn and seek to forget after they part that he ever met Socrates? Or will he be a coward, unable to persist in this inquiry or others like it? Will he take offense, fixating on the alleged harm done him or will he focus his attention on the general subjects in question?

Perhaps we need to understand more clearly what it means to be confused.

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