On Plato’s ‘Meno’​ — The Paradox of Inquiry

‘Seek and Find’

by Robert Herrick (1591–1674)

Attempt the end, and never stand to doubt;

Nothing’s so hard, but search will find it out.

If one is searching for something then presumably one knows what one is searching for. If, for instance, I am concerned with introducing a virtue ethical perspective to already existing consequentialist ethical decision making theories or practices, that is, I am in search of virtue with the objective of integrating such virtue alongside values, character strengths and ethical decision making, then presumably I know what virtue is in order to be searching for it. And for Socrates, (c. 470–399 BC), if I know what virtue is then I should be able to define it. Socrates was forever after definitions, for he believed that the possibility of morality, that is, moral character, moral behaviour, depended upon knowledge of definitions, and virtue is knowledge, so if you know what is right then you will do what is right. Knowing a Socratic definition is therefore, it appears, necessary and sufficient for moral behaviour, and as we have seen from this series he has informed us often enough that he knows how to discard defective definitions. But then, how does he know when, if indeed it ever transpires, he has been successful in discovering a correct definition? Meno, (c. 423 — c. 400 BC), in Plato’s (428/427 or 424/423–348/347 BC), dialogue ‘Meno’, raises an objection to the entire project of searching after definitions in the form of what has come to be known as Meno’s Paradox, or The Paradox of Inquiry. One may suspect some sophistry in operation here but Plato certainly took it very seriously, for he granted its central claim, that you cannot come to know something that you did not already know. Which is to say, inquiry never produces new knowledge but only recapitulates things already known, a quandary that led Plato to his well known Doctrine of Recollection in order to find a solution.

Recollection (Erinnerung) is crucial to the philosophical system of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), he discusses the psychological functions of recollection, imagination and memory (recollection and memory are different in his system but I need not go into that here) in his account of Subjective Spirit in the ‘Philosophy of Mind’. (See my article Fabled by the Daughters of Memory — Part One). It is of interest to compare the Platonic account of recollection with the Hegelian account, for what is being recollected? Ideas? Knowledge? Capabilities? Are there innate ideas? (knowledge or concepts considered universal to all humanity, something human beings are born with rather than something they learn through experience). Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, (1646–1716), thought so, mathematical truisms for instance, the idea that 1 + 1 = 2 is evident to us without the necessity for empirical evidence, indeed, empiricism can only show that concepts are true now, observing one apple and then another in one instance and in that instance only leads to the conclusion that one and another equals two but the suggestion that one and another will always equal two requires an innate idea for that would be a suggestion of things unobserved. In more recent times, Noam Chomsky, (1928 — ), argues our linguistic systems contain a systemic complexity that could not be empirically derived and a child’s accurate grammatical knowledge could not have originated from its experiences as its experiences are inadequate and hence humans must be born with a universal innate grammar that is determinate with a highly organized directive component enabling the language learner to ascertain and categorize language heard into a system. Which is to say, the ability to learn how to properly construct sentences or know which sentences are grammatically incorrect is an ability gained from innate knowledge. John Locke, (1632–1704), attacked the notion of innate ideas, suggesting that the mind is a tabula rasa or blank slate and all ideas come from experience, all our knowledge has its foundation in sensory experience. But a child learning a language is certainly quite a remarkable achievement if it starts from nothing.

‘An Angel Piping to the Souls in Hell’, c. 1916, Evelyn De Morgan

The principal ideas forwarded in the ‘Meno’ are as follows:

1. Meno asks Socrates how to acquire virtue, and Socrates questions him in order to discover the nature of virtue, but Meno either uses the term, gives examples, or offers circular definitions.

2. The question arises as to how anyone can inquire about that which he does not know, for it would seem that one must know what one is inquiring about.

3. Socrates suggests that men’s souls are immortal, and that in the course of their travels between reincarnations the souls acquire knowledge of all things, acquiring knowledge in this life, then, is an act of recollection.

4. Virtue can be taught if virtue is knowledge, but there appear to be no teachers of virtue, virtue must be a gift of the gods.

Plato’s ‘Meno’ is one of his early productions, and it does not have quite the high dramatic quality characteristic of some of the dialogues Plato wrote shortly following the ‘Meno’, for instance the ‘Symposium’ or the ‘Phaedo’. And further, the philosophical problems discussed in the dialogue, whether virtue can be taught, receives better handling in other dialogues, Plato’s best account of this question is found in the ‘Protagoras’. (See my article On Plato’s ‘Protagoras’ — The Teaching of Virtue). Nonetheless, the ‘Meno’ is a well-known and significant dialogue, the locus classicus of one of Plato’s most important philosophical doctrines, the doctrine of recollection. Indeed, it is perhaps Plato’s earliest account of that doctrine, and the fullest illustration of what the doctrine came to mean to him.

The dialogue opens quite abruptly with Meno asking Socrates how one acquires virtue, to which Socrates replies that this question cannot be settled without first reaching agreement on a prior one, namely, what the nature of virtue itself is, and as per usual Socrates professes not to know what virtue is, and, furthermore, he claims that he has never met anyone else who knows. Meno somewhat naively remarks that Gorgias knew, to which Socrates replies that he has ‘forgotten’ what Gorgias said. (See my article On Plato’s ‘Gorgias’ — The Art of Persuasion). Meno then agrees to act in Gorgias’ behalf, and inform Socrates on what Gorgias held virtue to be, which needless to say sets up a view which Socrates can examine and refute by his usual method of question and answer.

Meno’s first attempt at defining virtue turns out to be formally invalid, for rather than offering a definition of virtue, he identifies what a man’s virtue is, and what a woman’s virtue is, and then says that each kind of person has his own peculiar virtue. Virtue is relative to the person and the condition in which the person finds himself, this is something Plato will pick up and make explicit in the ‘Republic’, that a thing’s virtue is its function, though he does nothing with this idea here. (See my article On Plato’s ‘Republic’ — Philosopher Kings). Meno’s proposed definition fails since it does not define the term virtue, rather he offers several other definitions, definitions which are substitution instance of the formula ‘the virtue of X is Y’. He does not recognise that all of these presuppose some common meaning for the word virtue itself. Socrates, by citing a number of analogous cases, finally gets Meno to see what is involved and to offer a second definition.

Meno’s second proposal is that virtue is ‘the power of governing mankind’, and this second definition does not have the same inadequacy as the first, but it still will not do, for the obvious reason that not all men govern others. Virtue must be possible for everyone, but if virtues is the power of governing, then it can be achieved only by the governors and must remain beyond the reach of the governed. At this point Meno slips into enumerating the specific virtues, a mistake made by many of the people Socrates interrogates in the Platonic dialogues. Socrates then illustrates the kind of definition he is after by giving Meno an example of a proper definition, for ‘figure’ in the geometric sense:

‘To what then do we give the name of figure? Try and answer. Suppose that when a person asked you this question either about figure or colour, you were to reply, Man, I do not understand what you want, or know what you are saying; he would look rather astonished and say: Do you not understand that I am looking for the ‘simile in multis’? And then he might put the question in another form: Meno, he might say, what is that ‘simile in multis’ which you call figure, and which includes not only round and straight figures, but all? Could you not answer that question, Meno? I wish that you would try; the attempt will be good practice with a view to the answer about virtue’.

[‘simile in multis’ — the similar notion that many particulars share].

For a third time Meno makes an attempt to define virtue, this time by saying that ‘virtue is the desire for honourable things and the power of attaining them’. By cross-examining Meno, Socrates draws the implications of this, showing it to be a circular definition, for it amounts to saying that virtue is the power of achieving good with justice. That this is circular, in a sense, follows from Meno’s admission that justice is one of the virtues, and what it comes to, then, is this, Meno is saying that virtue generally is the power of achieving good in a specifically virtuous manner, but this will hardly suffice, for ‘a specifically virtuous manner’ is meaningless as long as virtue generally remains undefined. At this point Meno confesses his confusion, but he tries to lay the blame on Socrates, it is characteristic of Socrates, he says, to confuse those who talk with him, Socrates is like the torpedo fish who paralyzes all with whom he comes into contact. Socrates accepts the comparison provided he can add a qualification concerning a respect in which he differs from the torpedo fish. The torpedo fish itself is not paralyzed when he comes into contact with another fish, Socrates, by contrast, is just as ignorant as those he argues with. But if this is so, Meno observes, there seems to be no point in trying to learn anything at all. He raises the stock puzzle of the eristic sophists: ‘How can one inquire about what one does not know, and if one already knows it, why should he inquire about it?’

‘The Lotus Soul’, 1898, Frantisek Kupka

In reply to this puzzle, Socrates puts forth the theory of recollection, claiming that he heard from ‘certain wise men and women who spoke of things divine’ that men’s souls are immortal, and undergo an endless cycle of deaths and rebirths. In the course of these endless rebirths men’s souls have come to know all things, both in this world and in the other world, and knowing, therefore, is not a matter of acquiring something new but, rather, a matter of recollecting something known but afterward forgotten. Meno is fascinated by this idea, and asks if Socrates can prove it to him, to which Socrates does not offer a direct proof of the theory, but he does offer what is supposedly an illustration of it by getting Meno’s slave boy, who has been given no training in mathematics, to construct a proof in geometry merely by answering certain questions (which of course are not at all leading) Socrates puts to him.

The proof itself is fairly simple, but not at all obvious, the problem is to determine how long the side of a square must be if its area is to be twice the area of a given square. Socrates diagrams a square and arbitrarily sets the side equal to two units. The area of the original square is, of course, four square units, and using the diagram, Socrates then shows the boy what the diagonal is. He subsequently asks the boy how many units long the sides of a square twice the area of the original square will be, that is, a figure which has an area of eight square units. At first the boy says that the side of the required figure will be four units long, but under questioning, and by referring to the diagram, he sees that this answer would yield a square whose area is sixteen square units rather than eight. He then guesses that the side of the required square should be three units long, but again he recognizes that this is not the answer since it yields a figure with an area of nine square units. Finally, he sees that by constructing a square on the diagonal of the original figure he will have the required solution, a square whose area is twice the area of the original one. Socrates, without telling the boy the answer, has elicited merely by asking questions.

Socrates points out to Meno that the boy could not have learned the solution subsequent to his birth because he has never been given any instruction in geometry, nor did Socrates himself tell the boy the solution, and therefore, the boy must have known the solution all along, and Socrates’ questions served merely as an occasion for the boy’s recalling what he knew but had forgotten. The point of the example is to refute the claim of the eristic sophists that nothing can be learned. In spite of the apparent self-evidence of their paradox, the fact is that ignorant persons can come to know something as a result of intellectual inquiry. It is better to engage in inquiry, even if it merely reveals that a proposed solution is inadequate, than it is to imagine that there is no value at all in intellectual inquiry.

The discussion is shortly brought back to the original topic, whether virtue can be taught, and Meno wants Socrates’ own view on the matter, but Socrates replies that he cannot deal directly with this question. He must, he says, first lay down an hypothesis, since he and Meno have not yet defined virtue, and considerable discussion has centred around what Socrates says here about hypotheses. He gives, as an instance of a hypothesis, another illustration taken from geometry, whereby he says that a geometrician, if asked whether a certain triangle can be inscribed within a given circle, may answer that he must first lay down a hypothesis. A. E. Taylor, (1869–1945), has suggested that Socrates means that some geometrical problems are not susceptible to a general solution, only when some restriction is laid down is a solution possible. Still, there is no need to dwell upon all of the niceties of the proper interpretation of the passage in an effort to make something out of them, for the development of the dialogue can be seen without our having to determine Plato’s meaning in all its technical detail. The point is that Socrates is willing to discuss the question whether virtue can be taught if Meno will grant the restriction that virtue is knowledge, and this must be granted as an initial assumption, that is, hypothesis, before the discussion can proceed, and Meno agrees to the restriction.

Once it is granted that virtue is knowledge, the conclusion that it can be taught follows easily, indeed, the conclusion seems trivial, but it raises another question which is not trivial, namely, who are the teachers of virtue? Meno suspects that there must be some such teachers, but Socrates again professes ignorance, he has found none. But perhaps, Socrates suggests, Anytus, (c. 5th — 4th BC), who is listening to the conversation, can tell Socrates and Meno who the teachers of virtue are. Anytus has no uncertainties, of course there are teachers of virtue, but they are not to be found among the Sophists ( such as, for example, Gorgias). Any Athenian gentleman is a fine teacher of virtue. It adds to the irony of this part of the dialogue to know that this Anytus was the leader of the group of Athenian ‘gentlemen’ who prevailed upon Meletus to bring the charges which led to the conviction and execution of Socrates. But Socrates wants to know who taught these Athenian gentlemen who teach virtue. Obviously, Anytus responds, a previous generation of Athenian gentlemen taught them. Plato does not pursue this matter, it is clear enough to any reader that this answer leads to a troublesome regress, but upon other grounds Socrates is not satisfied with this general answer. He grants that there have always been good men to be found in Athens, however, if one takes time to look at the particular histories of some of these good Athenians and their sons, he finds many cases where the father has taken care to have his sons instructed in such things as horsemanship or wrestling, and the instruction has been successful, yet in the matter of virtue, either the sons have received no instruction, or else the instruction has not achieved its purpose, for the sons have turned out to be considerably less virtuous than the fathers. Themistocles, ( c. 524–459 BC), and Pericles, (c. 495–429 BC), are good examples.

Anytas’ argument has been demonstrated to be inadequate, and he recognises the fact, but instead of pursuing the question in the proper spirit, he loses his temper and issues a pointed warning to Socrates to watch his step in criticising the Athenian aristocracy in this way. Socrates, in good-humoured fashion, returns to Meno. It seems, Socrates points out, that the outcome of the investigation into whether virtues can be taught is finally negative, in spite of the previous restriction. For if there are no teachers of virtue, and no scholars of virtue, then the apparent conclusion is that virtue must not be capable of being taught. Perhaps, however, another possibility should be examined, perhaps true opinion is just as good a guide for action as is knowledge, perhaps men can become virtuous by holding true opinions. The only drawback to this theory is that true opinions are like the statues of Daedalus, they are very valuable, but unless they are tied down they walk away. True opinions must be tied down by recollection of the truth, that is, true opinion must become knowledge. Men can get along by holding true opinions which they get from great statesmen and poets, but true opinion must be converted into knowledge in order to become completely adequate, and virtue, then, is neither taught nor is it something which men have ‘by nature’ (as the Sophists held). It is, finally, a gift from the gods.

‘Ship of Souls’, c. 1960, Salvador Dali

So ends the dialogue, but let us examine the doctrine of recollection in more detail, for it is a matter about which there is some dispute among scholars. There is no disputing the fact that Plato did hold a doctrine of recollection, references to it are to be found throughout Plato’s writings, and it lies at the centre of his theory of knowledge. The dispute concerns just what the theory of recollection amounted to for Plato. Specifically, did Plato’s belief in the doctrine of recollection include a belief in the pre-existence of the soul? Scholars have given both affirmative and negative answers to this question. One interpretation suggests that there is not enough evidence to show conclusively that Plato did believe in the preexistence of the soul. Regardless of how one settles this question, however, the crucial point for Plato’s theory of knowledge is that he held that knowledge is in some sense innate. The evidence cited by those who say that Plato really did believe in the pre-existence of the soul includes the following points. First, Socrates calls the doctrine a ‘glorious truth’ in the ‘Meno’. Second, the Platonic view that the Ideas are separate from the things of sense, and that the soul knows the Ideas, implies that the separation of the Ideas and the pre-existence of the soul stand or fall together. Third, the first argument for the immortality of the soul which is given in the ‘Phaedo’ assumes the truth of the doctrine of the preexistence of the soul. (See my article On Plato’s ‘Phaedo’ — Forms of Life). Each of these claims must be countered if one is to conclude that Plato did not hold to the preexistence of the soul.

With reference to the first claim, that Socrates calls the doctrine a ‘glorious truth’, one may make the following observations. Plato here adopts his standard technique for introducing a myth in presenting the doctrine in the ‘Meno’, that is to say, he does not put the doctrine into the mouth of Socrates directly, rather, he has Socrates say that he heard this from certain poets and wise men. This is the device Plato repeatedly uses when he wishes to state a myth which expresses an important truth which is not to be taken literally, indeed, the emphasis in reading the words ‘glorious truth’ seems to fall upon ‘glorious’ rather than upon ‘truth’, suggesting that the doctrine cannot readily be expressed in literal terms. As for the second assertion, that the separation of the Ideas and the pre-existence of the soul go together, this is too strong, albeit no one can deny that Plato asserted the separation of the Ideas and that he believed the soul was the element in man which knows the Ideas, but Plato might very well hold these views without also holding that the soul existed before its incarnation in the body.

The third claim, that the first argument for immortality in the ‘Phaedo’ assumes the pre-existence of the soul, neglects the fact that the first two arguments of the ‘Phaedo’ are questioned in that dialogue, and that the conclusion of the ‘Phaedo’ is that the belief in immortality is consistent with other common-sense beliefs, the conclusion of the ‘Phaedo’ rests upon agreed premises, Plato never claims that they are incontrovertibly true, as anyone who takes seriously the account of Socratic method given in the ‘Phaedo’ should immediately recognize.

If such arguments are sound, the most plausible conclusion is that we cannot be certain Plato held that the theory of the preexistence of the soul was a necessary part of the doctrine of recollection. But if this is the case, the question arises, why, then, does he mention the pre-existence of the soul? When we remember that pre-existence is part of the myth, and that this means that an important truth is being expressed, though not necessarily in literal language, the proper interpretation presents itself. Plato means to say by his doctrine of recollection that knowledge is not learned, but is in some sense innate. Undoubtedly Plato, who wrote his philosophy before Aristotle, (384–322 BC) had made logic into an independent discipline, was not quite as sophisticated in logical matters as were philosophers who followed him, and hence it would be unreasonable to expect him to have recognised the significance of the relevance of logical implication. A contemporary philosopher may say of the slave boy’s demonstration that he recognised, under appropriate questioning, the logical implications of the geometrical situation Socrates diagrammed, and that the ability to recognise such implications is innate. Such a view, while perhaps not the most popular current view, (but see Chomsky above), nevertheless is not without merit, indeed, it represents the spirit of a the rationalist tradition in philosophy as it was given expression by such important thinkers as René Descartes, (1596–1650), Baruch (de) Spinoza, (1632–1677). Plato’s myth, it appears, is his expression of the rationalists’ insight, an insight which had to wait for greater logical sophistication before it could be expressed properly. Plato had the insight, but he lacked the appropriate apparatus for expressing it in terms that contemporary philosophers easily recognise.

Regardless how one interprets the theory of recollection as it is presented in the ‘Meno’ there can be no disagreement that the ‘Meno’ is an important element in the Platonic corpus, and it is probably as good a place as any to begin reading Plato, for the subject of the dialogue, the relation between virtue and knowledge, is central to Plato’s ethical views, while the use of illustrations from geometry to clarify knowledge reflects Plato’s underlying mathematical predisposition, and the theory of recollection itself is closely tied to the central Platonic doctrine, the theory of Ideas. One who reads the ‘Meno’ will hence find it an excellent introduction to the thought of one of the truly great thinkers in the history of Western civilisation. ‘The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition’, said A. N. Whitehead, (1861–1947), ‘is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato. I do not mean the systematic scheme of thought which scholars have doubtfully extracted from his writings. I allude to the wealth of general ideas scattered through them’.

‘The Souls of the Mountain’, 1938, Remedios Varo

So, are there innate ideas? I rather like the way Hegel puts it in discussing the ‘Meno’ in the ‘History of Philosophy’: ‘The spirit of man contains reality in itself’:

‘The source through which we become conscious of the divine is the same as that already seen in Socrates. The spirit of man contains reality in itself, and in order to learn what is divine he must develop it out of himself and bring it to consciousness. With the Socratics this discussion respecting the immanent nature of knowledge in the mind of man takes the form of a question as to whether virtue can be taught or not … in the Meno … he asserts that nothing can, properly speaking, be learned, for learning is just a recollection of what we already possess, to which the perplexity in which our minds are placed, merely acts as stimulus. Plato here gives the question a speculative significance, in which the reality of knowledge, and not the empirical view of the acquisition of knowledge, is dealt with. For learning, according to the immediate ordinary conception of it, expresses the taking up of what is foreign into thinking consciousness, a mechanical mode of union and the filling of an empty space with things which are foreign and indifferent to this space itself. An external method of effecting increase such as this, in which the soul appears to be a tabula rasa, and which resembles the idea we form of growth going on in the living body through the addition of particles, is dead, and is incompatible with the nature of mind, which is subjectivity, unity, being and remaining at home with itself’.

The ‘Meno’ marked something of a sea change in the Platonic dialogues, whereby the putatively negative dialectic of the earlier dialogues gives way to a more positive approach and the notion of recollection is a significant achievement leading to the theory of Ideas or Forms, albeit just prior to Meno’s paradox being presented Meno had called Socrates a torpedo fish (or stingray), a fish that makes one numb, and Socrates responded by saying that this is only true if the torpedo makes itself numb, for Socrates is claiming to be as puzzled by his own questions as others frequently are. Socrates grants there is a seeming paradox but then proceeds to the explanation of how learning is recollection. It may appear as though Plato is simply stressing the notion of learning as recollection when he endeavours to demonstrate for Meno how the slave boy appears to recall the answer to the problem with which he is presented, and discussion of this has often focussed upon whether Socrates proves the notion of recollection using the slave. The full force of the refutation of the paradox lies not in the theory of recollection in and of itself, but in demonstrating that what seems to be true turns out to be false, for several times the slave boy thinks he knows but at Socrates’ questioning he sees that he did not know. We are given a kind of ironic reminder of the way by which Socrates asserted Meno knew what virtue was but now does not know what virtue was, but it is evident enough Meno only thought he knew, just like the slave boy thought he knew. Hence one must be numbed upon feeling the sting of negativity, of opposition, of denial, and finally aporia, to be able then to proceed and develop.

The solution to Meno’s paradox uncovers some foundational aspects of the Hegelian dialectic, for Hegel the individual spirit has within himself the spirit of the age, (although zeitgeist is a term he never uses, as far as I know), that is to say, it participates in a collective awareness and if human beings did not reflect the truth or participate in it then Meno’s paradox would hold, that is to say, human beings would never be able to be certain of truth if or when they stumbled upon it. Meno’s paradox is sound unless one helps oneself to the dialectical position which comprehends negativity as destroying appearances that have been considered to be truths but can no longer continue holding such a status once subjected to a critique. Or to put it another way, one cannot find what one does not know but we actually do know in virtue of the fact that each individual is to a certain extent a manifestation of the truth of an age. And appearances should not simply be assumed as false or truth unrealized in a non-dialectical manner but rather the truth in which they participate must be recognized, that is, realized. To simply negate or replace one appearance with another is mere sophistry, but to actualize how appearances are part of the truth is to think in a dialectical manner. Jean Hyppolite, (1907–1968) neatly summarizes the nature of this movement of consciousness in his discussion of recollection. After a consciousness learns it was false the new ‘Experience thus seems to consciousness to be a discovery of new worlds. And this is so because consciousness forgets the course of those worlds. Like scepticism, it sees only the negative result of its past experience. Facing its future and not its past, it is unable to understand how its past experience was a genesis of what for it is a new object … [For the moment] the content is, indeed, for it, but the origin of the content is not. It is as though consciousness forgot its own development, which has made it what it is at every particular moment’.

Such moments may be seen to be held together by an observer who has passed through them, that is to say, the philosopher, but all must ascend the ladder and only through development does each and everyone attain awareness of its forgetfulness. ‘Then if the truth of things is always in our soul the soul must be immortal’, said Socrates, ‘so that what you do not know now by any chance — that is, what you do not remember — you must boldly try and find out and remember’. For ‘in one’s soul’ Hegel would say immanent, and as Hegel he states in the Phenomenology of Spirit: ‘What is familiarly known is not properly known just for the reason that it is familiar. From an epistemological point of view alienation (part of the process of self-discovery for initially consciousness does not understand its true nature) appears necessary to the dialectician, for unless one can negate and become alien or achieve otherness then the familiar, that is, the apparently immanent, is forever the plausible falsity, and Meno’s paradox obstructs the search for actuality. The negative is that power through which thought can negate the falsity of the seeming, hence Hegel speaks of death while also speaking of knowledge. To think is to alienate and not to alienate is to be an immediate being and not capable of experiencing life:

‘Death, if that is what we want to call this non-actuality, is of all things the most dreadful, and to hold fast what is dead requires the greatest strength. Lacking strength, Beauty hates the Understanding for asking of her what it cannot do. But the life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. It is this power, not as something positive, which closes its eyes to the negative, as when we say of something that it is nothing or is false, and then, having done with it, turn away and pass onto something else; on the contrary, Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being’.

The radical nature of Hegelian dialectic is clear enough. Only that which can alienate, or make other, what seemingly is, can truly comprehend a period in history, indeed this is the fundamental condition of knowledge, for each of us is in addition to being a mirror of an age are also a prism that can differentiate the nature of an age into a spectrum that refracts and relates its parts in order to comprehend the age, as opposed to merely appearing as an undifferentiated totality like white light. However, as Hegel points out, in his discussion of the ‘Meno’:

‘In one sense recollection [Erinnerung] is certainly an unfortunate expression, in the sense, namely, that an idea is reproduced which has already existed at another time. But recollection has another sense, which is given by its etymology, namely that of making oneself inward, going inward, and this is the profound meaning of the word in thought. In this sense it may undoubtedly be said that knowledge of the universal is nothing but a recollection, a going within self, and that we make that which at first shows itself in external form and determined as a manifold, into an inward, a universal, because we go into ourselves and thus bring what is inward in us into consciousness. With Plato, however, as we cannot deny, the word recollection has constantly the first and empirical sense. This comes from the fact that Plato propounds the true Notion that consciousness in itself is the content of knowledge, partly in the form of popular idea and in that of myths. Hence, here even, the already mentioned intermingling of idea and Notion commences.

And so on a couple of occasions in the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ Hegel hyphenates Erinnerung to form Er-innerung (though he does at times adopt the rather dubious tactic of taking recourse into etymology to make a philosophical point which is not always a good move) to stress this sense of going inward, making oneself inward, (a going within of the subject, for inner has the same meaning in German as in English, and Innerung has the sense of innering or inwardizing). This is a crucial difference between Platonic recollection and Hegelian recollection. Recollection is the capacity to retain an intuition and call it to mind at will whereby one overcomes the object and makes it its own conscious possession. Hegel also employs the term recollection in the final section of the Phenomenology, ‘Absolute Knowing’, where he employs the term several times to describe that which has occurred in the foregoing text (which I recommend you read to get the point, it is only 808 paragraphs). The Phenomenology is, in fact, a recollection of Spirit’s development by Spirit itself, Spirit going within itself, recollecting itself, and writing its autobiography, not in the sense of a literal history, but instead the natural history of its manifestations:

‘The goal, Absolute Knowing, or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit, has for its path the recollection of the Spirits as they are in themselves and as they accomplish the organization of their realm. Their preservation, regarded from the side of their free existence appearing in the form of contingency is History; but regarded from the side of their philosophically comprehended organization, it is the Science of Knowing in the sphere of appearance [that is, phenomenology]: the two together, comprehended History, form alike the inwardizing and the Calvary of absolute Spirit, the actuality, truth, and certainty of his throne, without which he would be lifeless and alone. Only

from the chalice of this realm of spirits

foams forth for Him his own infinitude’.

[Note: the quote of poetry is an adaptation from Friedrich Schiller’s, (1759–1805), ‘Die Freundschaft’].


‘I sent my Soul through the Invisible’

by Edward Fitzgerald (1809–1883)

(after Hakim Omar Khayyám (c1048 — c1122))

I sent my Soul through the Invisible,

Some letter of that After-life to spell,

And by and by my Soul return’d to me

And answer’d: I myself am Heav’n and Hell.

Heav’n but the vision of fulfilled Desire

And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on fire,

Cast on the Darkness into which ourselves,

So late emerged from, shall so soon expire.

Oh threats of Hell and Hopes of Paradise!

One thing at least is certain — This Life flies:

One thing is certain and the rest is lies;

The Flower that once is blown for ever dies.

‘Love Dies in Time’, 1872, Edouard Debat-Ponsan



David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.