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Is Learning Really Recollection?

Updated on January 30, 2010


In both the Meno and the Phaedo, Socrates puts forth the theory “learning is recollection.” Socrates does not provide us with an argument for this claim, per sé, but he does provide us with a demonstration to prove the truth of the claim. The significance of the claim, “learning is recollection,” is that it works as a premise in an argument that aims to establish the immortality of the soul. Socrates wants to establish the fact that the soul is immortal to prove he is justified in his lack of fear of death. If it can be shown that the soul is immortal, Socrates has no reason to fear death, because his soul will continue to live on after his body has died. The aim of this essay is not to attack the argument for the immortality of the soul directly, but rather, to criticize the notion that learning is recollection. And if it can be shown that learning is not recollection, the argument for the immortality of the soul will be weakened. 

In defence of the claim that the soul is immortal, Socrates asserts that the soul exists before the body. To defend this claim, Socrates puts forth the notion that learning is recollection. By claiming that learning is recollection, Socrates aims to show that we acquire knowledge before we are born. If it is true that we acquire knowledge before we are born, it must also be true that knowledge exists in a part of us that exists before our body is born. Since we know the body is mortal, knowledge must be contained in some part of us other than the body. A person is only made up of two parts: body and soul (or some might say mind or consciousness), thus it must be the soul where knowledge is contained. Therefore, if learning is really just recollection, and the soul is where knowledge is contained, the soul must pre-exist the body. But what evidence or argument does Socrates have for proving the hypothesis, “learning is recollection?”               

In the Meno, Socrates provides a demonstration to show that learning is recollection (82b-85b). Socrates begins by taking one of Meno’s attendants and asking him a series of questions concerning “the length of a line on which an eight-foot square is based (82e).” Socrates draws a square divided into four parts, with each side of each square equal to one foot (giving an overall square with a total of two feet per side, and an area of 4 feet – see diagram at 82c). Socrates then asks what length each side would be of a square double this size. The attendant answers, four. Then Socrates asks how many feet a square will be if it were twice the size of this square. The attendant answers, eight. Thus the attendant thinks that the line on which an eight-foot square is based measures eight feet, which both Socrates and Meno recognize as being wrong. After additional questioning, the attendant is made to see that his answer has led to a square with an area of sixteen feet, rather than one of eight feet, which he was looking for. After this has been pointed out, the attendant then believes that the length he is looking for must be between the original two-foot length and the four-foot length, which he gave as an answer; thus he answers 3 feet. Of course a square with each side equal to three feet would yield a square with an area of nine feet. Socrates points out this error to the attendant. From here, Socrates draws three squares, each equal to the original square with an area of four feet. Socrates then asks the attendant to fill in the remaining square, which the attendant does. The attendant then recognizes that this figure is four times larger than the original, not twice as large, as he had wanted it to be. From this point, Socrates draws diagonal lines intersecting each square in half (see diagram at 85a). From here, the attendant is lead to see how the diagonal line that connects from corner to corner of the four-foot square is the line on which an eight-foot square is based (85a-b).  

This demonstration is what Socrates relies on to support his hypothesis that learning is recollection. It is not an argument in the traditional sense, yet Socrates hopes that it will serve as a premise in the argument for the immortality of the soul. However I would argue that this demonstration does not show that learning is recollection, nor does it seem like a plausible explanation of how the attendant came to the correct answer. What I believe Socrates has done here is simply lead the attendant along in the direction of the correct answer. When the attendant goes wrong, Socrates simply points out where he has gone wrong, and then the attendant starts over until he finally is lead to the right answer. By the word “lead,” I mean “to be guided, or directed towards the right answer.” If a person is guided or directed to the right answer, we have no reason to think that this person is recollecting prior knowledge. All that has been shown is that the attendant has reasoning skills, and through proper questioning the attendant has used his skills of reasoning as a guide towards the answer. In order for the attendant to recollect the correct answer to a problem, his answer must in fact, be the correct answer. Otherwise, his answer is no better than a mere guess. But as we saw, the attendant gave several wrong answers before he found the correct answer.   

Any person with the ability to reason is able to negotiate through some mathematical or analytical problem if properly guided. This however does not amount to recollection. For example, if someone were to ask me if I knew where Dodoma was located, I would have to answer that I do not know. If however, after a process of questioning and answering I discovered that Dodoma was south of Arusha and north of Songea, I could then conclude that Dodoma is located in Tanzania, because I do know that both Arusha and Songea are in Tanzania. Therefore if Dodoma is located between Arusha and Songea, Dodoma must be located in Tanzania. 

Even though this example is much simpler than the one offered by Socrates, it works in a similar manner: Here I have relied on reason to deduce some fact. I have not directly been told where Dodoma is located, however I have been guided in a direction that has allowed me to use my reason to supply me with the correct answer. It is not likely that I am just recollecting the fact that Dodoma is located in Tanzania, but rather, that I have reasoned out this answer given other facts about the case. But the critic of my argument would ask, why is it more likely that I have reasoned my way to the correct answer rather than the correct answer having been arrived at by recollection? 

To this objection, I would say that it is important to remember that what Socrates has presented here is a hypothesis; it is not a valid argument meant to hold up to scrutiny. In other words, Socrates has offered his hypothesis as an undefended premise in an argument. It is not an empirical claim, but rather a hypothetical claim. Therefore there may be no “proof,” as such. I cannot prove or disprove whether recollection has occurred. Thus, all I can do is consider whether it is more likely that I have reasoned my way to the answer, or whether I have recollected the answer from a previous life. 

I would argue that my claim, ‘that we have reasoned our way to the correct answer,’ is more plausible than Socrates’ claim, ‘that we recollect knowledge from a previous life.’ This is so simply because my claim does not rely on something as suspect as a previous life, but relies, rather on the ability to reason (an ability we know exists because we have direct experience of using it). Fewer assumptions have to be made to accept my argument over Socrates’. Therefore, my explanation of arriving at the correct answer through a process of reasoning is more plausible than the explanation offered by Socrates. Thus, the argument for the immortality of the soul is somewhat weakened if we are no longer inclined to accept the notion that learning is recollection.



       Plato, (2002) Five Dialogues (G.M.A. Grube, Trans. – 2nd ed./revised by John M. Cooper). Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.



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    • lsfloro profile image

      lsfloro 8 years ago

      I am sure it was as difficult for an enlightened person in the age of Aristotle and Socrates to convince people of their knowings as it is in this day and age. Certain knowings are past on as time goes by such as the beating of one's heart or breathing. We do not have to reason or learn to do these things. It would be nice to have proof of what happens before and after the lives we are living now. This is what we have to learn.

    • EFPotter profile image

      EFPotter 8 years ago

      The immortal soul and learning as recollection barely seem connected--this isn't by your fault, but Socrates's. The attendant doesn't suddenly recall from some prior-to-birth knowledge that the square's are would be sixteen, that's simply preposterous. This test isn't evidence for anything except, as you demonstrated, reasoning.

      Learning is defined in psychology as "change in behavior due to experience." This is a definition I hold true. Maybe it's because of how far outdated Socrates is in certain aspects of modern science and math that I take for granted (psychology, basic math like the area of a square), but it definitely feels like the support he offered was disproportionate in size to his hypothesis.

      All of these things lead to me concluding that I support your presented arguments.