Moving beyond the ordinary

Recollection and Experience
October 11, 1996

An anonymous ancient commentator on the Theaetetus reports some people as taking Plato's view to be that knowledge does not exist, because in this dialogue he refutes every definition of knowledge. Such an interpretation looks wholly implausible: Plato's entire philosophical enterprise seems to be predicated on the assumption that knowledge - of the most important things - is not only possible, but essential to the proper conduct of our lives. It may be difficult to say precisely what knowledge is, but there is every indication that we are meant to look for it, to whatever extent it is possible for us, or for human beings in general, to achieve it. The question is how it is possible, and what guarantees the truth of what we may come to know.

Dominic Scott's book makes out a strong case for supposing that Plato's "theory of recollection" (that learning is a matter of recollecting innate knowledge, forgotten at birth) is not designed to explain our ordinary, everyday grasp of concepts like beauty or equality, but rather to explain the possibility of progress towards philosophical knowledge, which at bottom means leaving behind and moving beyond ordinary ways of thinking and classifying things in the world. This claim is fundamental to the argument of the book. Having followed the debate about learning as it develops in Plato, in Aristotle (who is himself primarily interested in "higher learning", but substitutes empiricism for innatism), in Epicurus (a thoroughgoing empiricist) and the Stoics (representing an un-Platonic brand of innatism which accounts for ordinary concept formation, and gives a high rating to ordinary concepts), Scott turns in his fourth and final section to consider 17th-century theories of learning, and attempts to locate their ancient antecedents. He finds the new innatists, who include the Cambridge Platonists More and Cudworth as well as Descartes and Leibniz, to be closer to the Stoics than to Plato, particularly in so far as they "expected innatism to explain human learning at all its levels, whether it be our awareness of the obvious or the discovery of the abstruse". But there are even closer connections with Stoicism in other writers of the period, many of them clerics, who - in a way that both implicitly and explicitly recalls the Stoic idea of moral prolepses - saw the ability to recognise religious and moral truths as implanted in us at our creation. Thus "John Hartcliffe cheerfully affirms the existence of a natural and instinctive knowledge of the rules of virtue. Like an animal's drive to self-preservation these notions have no need of reason, and so are self-evident; they are easy to understand and command universal assent". Finally, Scott points out surprising affinities between the anti-innatist Locke and Plato: both believed that "morality could be as demonstrable as mathematics"; both insisted that true beliefs must be supported by reasoning; both opposed the lazy borrowing of principles at second hand. Paradoxically, the same sorts of considerations led the one to propose a version of innatism, the other to oppose innatism altogether.

Plato's theory of recollection has sometimes been regarded as an embarrassment, to be set quietly (or noisily) aside, or else to be treated as metaphorical: in fact, as Scott shows, it is in many respects as good, or as bad, as some other innatist theories. If Plato abandoned it, it is not clear what he would have put in its place - certainly not any version of empiricism; and whether we like it or not, it set the terms of a debate that continues as fiercely as ever. Quite how it did so, this book makes clear. We are now also in a much better position to understand, in one important area, what exactly it means to be a "Platonist". "The true position is rather more complicated," as Scott concludes, than even Leibniz thought.

Christopher Rowe is professor of Greek, University of Durham.

Recollection and Experience: Plato's Theory of Learning and its Successors

Author - Dominic Scott
ISBN - 0 521 47455 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 289

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