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Ian Leask’s Talk on Dialogical Difficulty Re-reading Plato’s Meno
Date:2019-03-18  Clicks:1

On March 14th, Dr. Ian Leask presented the lecture “Dialogical Difficulty Re-reading Plato’s Meno” at Room B214 in Zhenhua Building . Ian is from “theology, philosophy & music” department of Dublin City University and his study area is “theology and philosophy”.

In this lecture, Ian Leask talked about the nuances and difficulties about the dialogue in Meno. Meno is always taken as the paradigmatic example of the efficacy of the philosophical conversation, especially because of the “slaveboy episode”, during which the uneducated boy, led by Socrates’s questioning or interrogation, learned geometric knowledge through recollection. However, Ian suggested that the assumption of clear and transparent conversation might mask the uncertainties, even aporias. Furthermore, it reminded us to reconsider what might seem “obviously Platonic”.

Firstly, Ian showed the modern philosophers’ opinions about the efficacy of dialogue. Derrida and Gadamer both questioned the presupposition of dialogue in general. The French philosopher Jacques Rancière even claimed that Meno typified anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian Western philosophy, and Socratic maieutic showed “a perfected form of stultification”.

Then Ian gave a synopsis of Meno. The text focused on “how to acquire virtue” and “what is virtue". It also presented the famous “Meno’s Paradox”: how to search for X without already knowing X? In terms of knowledge, Socrates proposed the theory of recollection. And he verified the theory by manifesting the famous “slaveboy episode”. Then Socrates asked whether virtue is also teachable. After discussion, Socrates and his interlocutors found that “virtue isn’t teachable, but true belief possible”.

Ian then introduced the main characters Meno and Anytus in the dialogue, both of whom were important historical figures. The former was an aristocrat and became a general later, who was portrayed as embodiment of hubris by Xenophon; the latter was a second-rate businessman and politician, who became one of the prosecutors of Socrates later.

Ian pointed out Plato’s attitude towards the theory of recollection. Ian maintained that, in fact, Plato thought that Socrates’ maieutic or midwifery did not lead to conclusive demonstration. The two important clues came into the statements made immediately before and immediately after the discussion between Socrates and the slave. The former was that, Socrates told us that the notion of Anamnesis or recollection was based on what he had heard from wise men & women, such as poets, priests, and priestesses, which meant that the theory of recollection was not really the result of recollection; the latter one was that, once Socrates finished questioning the slave, he “wouldn’t swear” on his own account, which meant that he would not stand by the theory. Ian said, there are also other scholars in agreement with the doubts about the achievements of midwifery, and one of them is Jacob Klein.

Furthermore, Ian showed that when we examined the dialogue between Socrates and the slaveboy in more details, there seemed to be a reasonable case for suggesting that Socrates asked leading questions, and that he almost told the slaveboy what he should say. It seems like that the famous “demonstration” of recollection might not achieve what it was usually assumed to do.

Then, Ian went back to the original question: can virtue be taught? Based on the historical factuality, great men didn’t necessarily have great sons. In addition, Socrates’ other two interlocutors, Meno and Anytus, both failed to know what virtue is after their encounter with Socrates. Obviously, we are shown a failure of dialogue. Ian also invoked what Socrates said to show the aporia, “It isn’t that, knowing the answers myself, I perplex other people. The truth is rather that I infect them also with the perplexity that I feel myself.”

In the conclusion part, Ian said that perhaps the underlying point of Plato in the dialogue Meno was that we should be cautious when we claimed the achievements of dialogue rather than took the efficacy of it for granted. And this claim also presupposed that Plato achieved a kind of dialogue with us, his readers. The overall effect may be to remind us to be wary of our own assumptions of about what ‘Platonism’ might stand for.

After the lecture, the students and the teachers raised questions about whether there were same inefficacy of dialogue in Plato’s other dialogues during different periods, whether the inefficacy of the dialogue was relevant to the skeptics in the later stage of Plato Academy, what were the normative state of dialogue as a method, and how about the 20th or 21st century philosophical interpretations about Plato and Meno, etc..Ian answered all these questions wholeheartedly. (Written By Lingling Wang)