Anamnesis (Greek: αναμνησις recollection, reminiscence), or as it is also known, the theory of recollection, is one of the best known of all Platonic themes. The philosophical significance of anamnesis derives from its role in Plato’s epistemology. The theory of anamnesis says that there are certain concepts or beliefs in the mind from before birth, which explain aspects of the learning process undergone by normal human beings; so, anamnesis is essentially a theory of learning, and may be summed up in a single phrase: learning (mathesis) is anamnesis (recollection).
The theory of anamnesis is a version of theory of innate ideas. Rationalists such as Rene Descartes and Gottfried Leibniz argued that certain concepts and knowledge, which we could not have acquired from sensory experience, are innate to the human mind. Plato’s strategy is similar. The distinguishing feature of Plato’s theory from other theories of innate knowledge is his claim that we have been in possession of this knowledge before birth. Learning is understood in terms of our recollecting knowledge which was once ours before we were born.
The word anamnesis is commonly translated as “recollection.” Anamnesis is a noun derived from the verb anamimneskein, which means “to be reminded.” According to Plato, what we call learning is actually recollection of facts which we possessed before incarnation into human form.
Plato argues for the theory of recollection in two dialogues—the Meno, and the Phaedo—and mentions it in one other—the Phaedrus. His basic strategy of argument is that human beings know certain things, or possess certain concepts, which could not have been gotten from sense experience. Plato’s explanation is that the human soul knew these things before it was born, so that learning these things is really just a matter of remembering them.
It is important to see that anamnesis is not meant to explain all learning. The Greek word translated “learning,” manthanein, (from which the English ‘mathematics’ is derived) does not pertain to information acquired through the senses, or knowledge of skills. So, for example, ananmnesis is not meant to explain the acquisition of skills such as being able to play the guitar, or with simple factual information such as the dates of the battle of Marathon. The claim that learning is anamnesis appears to be restricted to a priori knowledge, that is knowledge which does not depend on experience for its justification.
In the Meno, Plato introduces the claim that “seeking and learning are in fact nothing but recollection” [81e] in the context of a paradox, sometimes called the eristic paradox or the paradox of learning. The paradox of learning aims to show that learning is impossible and inquiry futile, since a person can neither learn what he already knows nor what he does not know. He cannot inquire about what he already knows, since he already knows it, and if he does not know what he is looking for then he surely will not find it [80e].
The paradox of learning poses a threat to Socrates’ philosophical investigations. Socrates’ style of philosophizing (as it appears in Plato’s earlier dialogues) involves inquiring into the nature of concepts such as courage, virtue, and wisdom. He customarily interrogates or examines unsuspecting persons on their knowledge of these concepts. The structure of this Socratic interrogation (exelenchein) is roughly as follows: Firstly, Socrates requests his interlocutor to define a notion such as justice. He may ask, as he does in the Republic, what is justice? After his interlocutor has offered a definition of justice (e.g. justice is giving to others what they are owed), Socrates proceeds to show that this definition is inconsistent with other beliefs that the interlocutor holds. At this point, the interlocutor will be at a loss as to how to go on, that is, a state of perplexity (aporia). Many of Plato’s earlier dialogues end at this point, without having reached any conclusive answer as to the nature of the concept under scrutiny.
The paradox of learning is a threat to Socratic investigation because Socrates seems to assume that there are determinate answers to his “What is F?” questions (e.g., “what is justice?”) that can be known and discovered. The theory of recollection (in the Meno) is introduced as Socrates' response to the paradox of learning. It is meant to show that Socrates’ investigations of concepts such as justice and knowledge are not futile because there is some possibility of success. The theory of recollection says that philosophical inquiry of the Socratic sort is possible because we already possess the knowledge “within ourselves”; and learning is simply a matter of remembering what we already know, but do not know that we know.
Socrates demonstrates the claim that learning is recollection by means of a very famous examination of a slave, who is asked to solve a problem in geometry. The problem is to work out the length of the side of a square double in area to any given square. At first Socrates’ interrogation proceeds very much along the lines of the failed investigations in the earlier dialogues, with the slave providing wrong answers and eventually falling into a state of despair (aporia) about how to proceed. However, in contrast with the earlier dialogues, Socrates is now able to guide the slave and help him work out the correct answer. Since Socrates does not actually tell him anything but simply helps him to reason out the matter for himself, Socrates claims that the slave has gathered true beliefs from within himself, by himself, and that this process in recollection. The crucial point is this: since the slave has not been told right answer, he must have got the right answer from within his mind. But this is possible, Socrates says, only if he previously knew the answer and is simply remembering it.
In this way, anamnesis is introduced as the explanation for the success of the slave boy in acquiring the correct answer. The implication is, of course, that if the slave is able to acquire knowledge in this way, then others who inquire into the nature of concepts such as justice and knowledge may also succeed in remembering the answer. This suggests that Plato thought that philosophical knowledge (or perhaps more specifically, ethical knowledge) is a priori: it is not knowledge that is obtained by information coming from the sense, including here the testimony of human authority figures.
The theory of recollection reappears and is argued for in the Phaedo, which is generally agreed to have been written after the Meno. The Phaedo is set on the day of Socrates’ execution by the state of Athens, and narrates Socrates’ last conversations with his philosophical companions. Anamnesis is introduced in the context of Socrates’ argument for the immortality of the soul. However, it is important to note that the argument for recollection is independent of any argument for the pre-existence of the soul. If the theory of recollection is true, then the soul existed previously, but not the converse.
The argument for recollection in the Phaedo begins with a reference to the argument in the Meno. This summary is quite helpful in understanding the process as it occurs then. “People when questioned are able to state the truth about everything for themselves, and unless knowledge and a correct account were present within them, they would be unable to do this” [73a7]. After this summary, Socrates goes on to provide another argument for the claim that all learning is recollection. This argument is substantially different from that in the Meno. The general strategy of argument in the Phaedo seems to be that human beings have knowledge which they could not have acquired after birth. This entails that the soul existed before birth, and since they have not always possessed this knowledge, it follows that they recover it by anamnesis. What knowledge does Plato think we possess which not have been gotten by experience, and why can’t experience generate knowledge of this sort?
The argument in the Phaedo is conducted with an example of “equality,” but Socrates explicitly generalizes the argument from the “equal” to other concepts such as beauty and goodness. In other words, whatever applies to the “equal” itself in the argument, also applies to terms such as good, beautiful, etc. These concepts are what are usually known as the Forms, ideal entities existing beyond the spatio-temporal world. Anamnesis is offered as an explanation for how we came to possess these concepts because, Socrates says, there never are any ideal instances of equality which map on to our perfect grasp of the concept. We cannot explain our grasp of the notion of “equality” in terms of experience because experience never presents us with any genuine examples of “equality.” One apple is never, for example, really the same size as another apple.
The theory of recollection reappears directly only once more in Plato’s work and this is in the Phaedrus. Its introduction here is quite different from its argumentative presentation in both the Meno and the Phaedo, occurring in the context of Plato’s myth of the charioteer, which is an allegorical description of the human soul.
In the Phaedrus, Plato compares the soul to a winged charioteer driving a team of winged horses. The soul follows a procession of gods headed by Zeus to the edge of heaven, and there it gains a glimpse of true reality and the Forms. All the souls share in this vision although different souls gaze upon the forms to different degrees. At this point, the souls struggle to control the horses which drive their chariots, and they fall to earth where they are incarnated as human beings in human bodies.
Plato’s central concern in the Phaedrus is with the nature of love, and the myth of the charioteer is supposed to illumine that topic. Plato portrays the love as a sort of divine madness and anamnesis is introduced to explain this madness of love. Plato says that when a soul incarnated in human form beholds beauty in another he becomes inflamed with love because he comes to recollect the Form of beauty as was seen by his soul in the procession before its incarnation in human form. The Form of beauty is dimly reflected in the particular. The lover’s powerful emotional responses are due to his seeing and beginning to remember the majestic sight of the Form before his incarnation.
As with almost every aspect of Plato’s thinking, philosophical discussions of anamnesis have generated a vast scholarly literature. In the present context, a few central points of disagreement will be briefly indicated.
One main area of disagreement as to whether anamnesis is a relatively common place process in which many engage or whether it represents a difficult and advanced state of development. Plato’s commentators divide roughly into two camps according to whether they think that recollection is meant to explain advanced philosophical learning only, or whether it is meant to explain advanced philosophical learning and mundane concept formation.
Most interpreters agree that anamnesis in the Meno is meant to explain the possibility of achieving philosophical knowledge, or more particularly, knowledge of the answers to Socrates’ “What is X?” questions. The trouble arises because the argument for recollection in the Phaedo supports an interpretation of recollection in which it is an explanation for basic concept formation, as for example, when one has come to understand the concept of “equality.” A number of important commentators such as Cornford, Ackrill, and Bostock have read from the Phaedo in this way. If this understanding of the Phaedo were correct, then it would seem that recollection is offered as an explanation for both concept formation, and also more difficult philosophical discoveries into the nature of justice and knowledge (as it appears in the Meno).
Not all commentators agree that the Phaedo should be read in this way. These commentators, notably Dominic Scott, think that the knowledge of “equality” mentioned in the argument in the Phaedo refers to advanced philosophical knowledge of the Platonic form of equality, and that recollection is offered as an explanation for the philosopher’s knowledge of the Platonic form. Basic concept formation is not, in this view, something which anamnesis is meant to explain.
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