The Learner's Paradox - Meno 80d-81e
In the first several pages of Meno, the character Meno proposes several hypotheical definitions of arete which Socrates proceeds to "refute" (elenchus). This portion concludes with the "cathartic point" where Meno has been purged of at least the appearance of the false conceit of wisdom. In a typical profession of Socratic ignorance, Socrates tells Meno:
Socrates: So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps you knew before you contacted me, but now you are certainly like one who does not know. Nevertheless, I want to examine and seek together with you what it may be.
But Meno is not to be led easily into philosophical perplexities. His training in rhetoric (winning arguments) has given him an assortment of "debater's arguments" (80e) which he can use to throw up a roadblock to further inquiry:
Meno: How will you look for it [i.e., arete], Socrates, when you do not know what at all it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know?
Socrates: I know what you want to say, Meno. Do you realize what a debater's argument you are bringing up, that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know? He cannot search for what he knows - since he knows it, there is no need to search- nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.
This argument expresses what is commonly called the "Learner's Paradox." It can be analyzed as a valid deductive argument composed of three premises leading to the conclusion that it is impossible to learn anything. Let us abbreviate the Searcher for knowledge (the philosopher) by the letter "S" and the object of his search, that of which he seeks knowledge (in Socrates' case, arete), by the letter "X".
Since there is no limit on who "S" (the knowing "Subject") can be nor on what "X" (the "object" known) can be, the conclusion is quite general, and could be expressed:1. Either S knows X or S does not know X.
2. If S knows X, then S cannot learn X.
3. If S does not know X, then S cannot learn it.
C: Therefore, S cannot learn X.
C': No one can learn anything.
Clearly if knowledge is taken to require learning why S is justified in believing X to be true, then if no one can learn anything, then no one can know anything that he/she does not know from birth. This validly deduced conclusion certainly seems -on the basis of "common sense"- to fly in the face of the apparent "fact" that people actually do manage to learn at least a few things in life; hence the argument poses a "paradox": an argument which appears to validly deduce from apparently true premisses an "absurd" conclusion.
Click here to find out how to escape the paradox.