ultimate question

The more I think about it, the more I understand that most of the things that really interest me go back to one question. That question was (ofcourse) first formulated by Plato, in the dialogue called ‘Meno’, as I found out this summer, when I was reading ‘La technique et le temps, La faute d’Épiméthée‘ by Bernard Stiegler.

The relevant passage in the Greek text of Meno is this (80d-80e):

καὶ τίνα τρόπον ζητήσεις, Σώκρατες, τοῦτο μὴ οἶσθα τὸ παράπαν ὅτι ἐστίν; ποῖον γὰρ ὧν οὐκ οἶσθα προθέμενος ζητήσεις; εἰ καὶ ὅτι μάλιστα ἐντύχοις αὐτῷ, πῶς εἴσῃ ὅτι τοῦτό ἐστιν σὺ οὐκ ᾔδησθα;

μανθάνω οἷον βούλει λέγειν, Μένων. ὁρᾷς τοῦτον ὡς ἐριστικὸν λόγον κατάγεις, ὡς οὐκ ἄρα ἔστιν ζητεῖν ἀνθρώπῳ οὔτε οἶδε οὔτε μὴ οἶδε; οὔτε γὰρ ἂν γε οἶδεν ζητοῖοἶδεν γάρ, καὶ οὐδὲν δεῖ τῷ γε τοιούτῳ ζητήσεωςοὔτε μὴ οἶδενοὐδὲ γὰρ οἶδεν ὅτι ζητήσει.

the translation by Benjamin Jowett runs as follows:

MENO:     And how will you enquire, 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?

SOCRATES:     I know, Meno, what you mean; but just see what a tiresome dispute you are introducing. You argue that a man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.

The question that is asked here could perhaps be summarized as: ‘How can we ever get to know anything we don’t know already ?’, the trouble being that we don’t know how to find something new because we don’t know yet what it is, and if we ever encounter something new, we might even not recognize it, for the same reason. This questions the basis of many interesting human activities such as creating, discovering, learning and having discussions; introducing a “tiresome dispute” indeed. Stiegler is perhaps not exaggerating when he writes that the whole history of modern philosophy can be seen as an attempt to adress this fundamental question.

In any case, in ‘Meno’, Socrates responds to it by explaining that all our learning or creating is a form of ‘anamnesis’, a recollection of divine knowledge; our immortal souls still know all these things we have forgotten, and any act of learning or discovery is that something made us remember some element of this knowledge. Which is why we can ‘recognize’ things as true. So he solves the question by saying we can not actually learn anything that is really new; a response that might work for believers or cynics, but not for me.