I know nothing except the fact of
--Socrates (470 - 399 B.C.)
There are several approaches to take on Meno's paradox and trying to decipher what it was that Socrates was trying to get at. Before doing this, one should look at Socrates and his life and times and his philosophy as a whole.
Meno: ... But are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to Thessaly?
Socrates: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.
(from the Project Gutenberg etext located at ftp://ibiblio.org/pub/docs/books/gutenberg/etext99/1meno10.txt)
To an extent, Socrates was one of the first skeptics who practiced this philosophy (According to Cicero, Socrates took the position that nothing can be known except the proposition that nothing (else) can be known). When looking at his fellow philosophers of the time he saw two groups - the sophists who merely pretended to philosophy and many dogmatists who where certain they had had the right answer. Socrates believed that neither group was on the right path and furthermore that as humans, we are fated to never have the universal answers about ethics or other core truths of the universe. The existence and content of these universal answers is privileged to those minds that are one with the essence of reality (Plato later called this the realm of forms). And yet, Socrates realized that we cannot live in a moral vacuum, and neither can we realize the universal moral answers.
In this, Socrates suggests that we must go out search for the truth - even if we can never know it. It is true that we don't know where we're headed - there is no map that says "This way to the one true moral answer" in this landscape. Socrates' claim of ignorance is more than "I don't know the truth" and extends to the ethical fallibility that he tried to demonstrate]
In acknowledging the possibility of mistake in our own ethical matters we are then able to have a reasonable dialogue with those who have different views upon ethics or other truths.
Addressing the paradox itself, the 'paradox' offered by by Meno is that of other philosophers to Socrates when he said "I do not know" to the question of "what is virtue?" To this Socrates (or Plato through the character of Socrates) goes on to express the theory of recollection which Plato later builds his epistemology upon.
Despite this side track that Plato sends us upon, Meno's paradox is flawed in several other ways that are applicable no mater what your beliefs on reincarnation or the theory of forms are. The later half of each premise is wrong - inquiry is never unnecessary, nor is it ever impossible.
- If you know what you're looking for...
- If you know what you're looking for, that is if you already know the subject at hand, and you have a truth - it is not necessarily the only truth in the matter. Likewise, if you know what you seek you have a direction in life. In either case, the landscape of philosophy has a vast number of truths. Just because you have found one hill truth doesn't mean that the other hills are not worth examining and understanding. Even if you may not agree with the truth, there are others who do, and by understanding the truth they have found and believe in you are better able to understand your own (and possibly defend it against those who would say you are wrong).
- If you don't know what you're looking for...
- If you search the landscape of philosophy without a clue as to where you wish to end up, you are among the most fortunate of all those who wander these ways. While it is quite easy to get lost and confused in the myriad labyrinths of language and argument, you are approaching this with an open mind unencumbered by preconceptions. Following a line of inquiry is certainly not impossible, but rather encouraged for all lovers of wisdom. In doing this with a clear and open mind, many truths can be found. There is nothing wrong with saying "I can not decide those truths that I have found, but I shall continue to seek".