Why Does Socrates/Plato Maintain that Learning Is Recollection?

Learning objectives

  1. Analyze Socrates’/Plato’s theory of learning
  2. Discuss role of noumena and phenomena in their argument.

What do we recollect? In order to answer this, we must look at the trail left in the dialogue.

The initial premises are that souls (ψυχη, psyche) exist and that there is a dimension of Perfection and Truth (this is the noumenal dimension) where the gods and souls exist.

Not only do souls exist, but our souls are the part of us that grasps truth (65b), and, unlike our bodies, it is the part of us that thinks and has memories. (66c) The body imprisons the soul and confuses the soul. (79c) At birth our souls forget where it has come from and that it is made up of the same stuff as the Truth and the Perfect. (76c-d) The soul, when not intoxicated and imprisoned by the body, is able to pass into the realm of the True and the Perfect, and when it remains in that state, this is called wisdom. (79d) Through the practice of philosophy we can train our souls to liberate itself from our bodies and remain in that state of wisdom. (83b) What we call learning is the exercise of the soul recalling its true nature.

Here’s where you find evidence for this thinking:

Socrates tells Cebes and Simmias he thinks that “a man who has truly spent his life in philosophy is probably right to be of good cheer in the face of death.” (63e-64a) Socrates then tells them that, “true philosophers are nearly dead.” (64b-c)

Socrates asks Simmias, “Do we believe that there is such a thing as death?” to which Simmias states, “Certainly.” Socrates asks if death means that the soul departs from the body, Simmias affirms that this is the case. (64c)

Socrates then asks Simmias whether philosophers overly concern themselves with getting drunk, sex, food or other bodily pleasures and the two arrive at the conclusion that, by avoiding these bodily impulses, philosophers free their souls from association with their bodies. (65a)

Socrates asks (65b) if the body is an obstacle for in the search for knowledge, since the poets are “forever telling us that we do not see or hear anything accurately.” (65b) Simmias says he believes this is the case.

Socrates asks, “When, then, […] does the soul grasp the truth?” since, “whenever it [the soul] attempts to examine anything with the body it is clearly deceived by it.” (65b-c)

Socrates asks Simmias (65c), “Is it not in reasoning if anywhere that any reality becomes clear to the soul?” To which Simmias says, “Yes.”

Socrates further presses Simmias if it is the case that, “the soul reasons best when none of [the body’s] senses troubles it, neither hearing nor sight, nor pain, nor pleasure, but when it [the soul] is most by itself, taking leave of the body and as far as possible having no contact or association with it in its [the soul’s] search for reality.” (65c-d)

Socrates presents us with what he believes the “true philosophers believe and say,” (66b) that the body “fills us with wants, desires, fears, all sorts of illusions and nonsense,” and as a result, “no thought of any kind ever comes to us from the body.” (66c-d) All of this, these “true philosophers” would tell us, “makes us too busy to practice philosophy.” (66d) If that weren’t bad enough, the end result of this confusion and fear is that it, “prevents us from seeing the truth.” (66d-e)

Furthermore, these “true philosophers” would tell us that, “if we are ever to have pure knowledge, we must escape from the body and observe things in themselves with the soul itself. It seems likely that we shall, only then, when we are dead, attain […] wisdom.” (66e)

We are then presented with a dilemma, “if it is impossible to attain any pure knowledge with the body, then one of two things is true: either [1] we never attain knowledge or [2] we can do so after death.” (66e-67a)

Cebes tells Socrates that other men will find it hard to believe that soul exists after the body dies, and it’s even harder to believe that the soul will possess intelligence after the body dies. (70a-b).

Socrates asks Cebes and Simmias to examine the “ancient theory” that the souls of men exist in the underworld after their bodies die and those souls come back from the underworld to inhabit the bodies of the living. (70c-d)

They establish what “recollection” means (i.e., recalling we knew something already. (73b-c)

They discuss that, in measuring things, we never get the perfect measurement (in our translation this perfect measurement is called “the Equal,” or “the Equal itself”—there is always, no matter how subtle, a discrepancy. (74e) “Our sense perceptions must surely make us realize that all that we perceive through them is striving to reach that which is equal but falls short of it.” (75b)

But, how do we have this sense of perfect measurement? If we’ve never encountered true perfection through our senses (because our senses tell us that there is always some shortcoming of the objects we encounter), then we must have been born with an awareness of perfection. (75a, 75c, 75d)

They agree that “learning” is acquiring knowledge and not losing it, and that forgetting is losing knowledge. (75e) “One of two things follows […]: either we were born with the knowledge of [perfect measurement, the ‘Equal’], and all of us know it throughout life, or those who later […] are learning, are only recollecting, [therefore] learning is recollection.” (76a)

But this leads us to wonder, if souls are the part of us that grasps Truth (the perfect form of truth) or perfect measurement (“the Equal”), “When did our souls acquire the knowledge of them?” (76c)

We don’t acquire that knowledge at our birth because then we’d have to establish at what time in our lives did we forget that we knew the Truth. (76c-d)

At this point Simmias and Cebes and Socrates return to asking about the nature of souls.
The soul makes use of the body to investigate things, but the body’s effect on the soul is like being drunk. (79c) When it is allowed to investigate things without interference from the body, the soul “passes into the realm of what is pure, ever existing, immortal, and unchanging.” The experience of and staying in this realm “is called wisdom.” (79d)

Because the body makes the soul impure, Socrates reasons with Simmias and Cebes, “those who practice philosophy in the right way keep away from all bodily passions.” (82c) To purify the soul, one must practice philosophy (67d), because the lovers of learning, “know that when philosophy gets hold of their soul, it is imprisoned” by the body. (82e)

All pleasures and pains and corporeal sensations that we revel in are like nails riveting the soul to the body. The soul comes to believe that the Truth is something found in the body, and because of this soiled state of affairs, the soul cannot return to the realm of the Perfect and True. (84d-e)

The practice of philosophy persuades the soul “persuades the soul to withdraw from the senses” and to trust itself to remain in the realm of the Perfect and True. (83b)