- Clitophon’s Challenge: Dialectic in Plato’s Meno, Phaedo, and Republic by Hugh H. Benson
This study of Plato’s hypothetical method is a more than welcome addition to the literature on philosophical method in Plato’s middle dialogues. Benson’s study is remarkable for unusual care and thoroughness in the development of its arguments, and the fairness of its treatment of rival interpretations. One can safely predict that future work on the topic will have to come to grips with his arguments and original interpretations.
Benson begins with a careful analysis of the brief descriptions of the method in Meno and Phaedo, then examines its application there and in relevant Republic passages. Benson finds the method a way of conducting what he calls ‘de novo inquiry’ aimed at acquiring knowledge. In Meno the method is introduced through Meno’s challenge: how can one inquire into something if one starts from ignorance. According to Benson, in the “elenctic” dialogues, Socrates attempts to refute his interlocutors to determine whether they have knowledge he could learn. Once the interlocutors are shown to lack knowledge, we might expect Socrates to propose joint inquiry, but this does not happen. In Meno, it happens: once Meno sees that he is in the same state of ignorance as Socrates, Socrates proposes a joint inquiry. In response to Meno’s paradox, Socrates first introduces anamnēsis to show how such inquiry is possible, and then proposes the method of hypothesis (borrowed from the geometers) as a way of conducting such inquiry. Thus Meno progresses beyond the elenctic dialogues.
Benson’s approach to explaining the method differs from what one usually encounters; he distinguishes between its description and its applications. Socrates’s description in Meno is simply: one “reduces” one’s original question to a second question such that the answer to the second provides an answer to the first. The description itself does not tell us what the hypothesis is that we are “investigating from,” nor does it say anything about a second, more fundamental hypothesis (116–29). Before looking at how the method is used in Meno, Benson turns to Phaedo and gives a similar analysis of 100a3–8 and 101d1–e3. A fundamental “hypothesis” guiding Benson’s approach is that the same method is described in Meno and Phaedo. He thus sees Phaedo as filling out the sketchy, cryptic description in Meno. The fuller description has two stages (151–52). Proof Stage: (i) Identify a second question such that its “most compelling” answer will provide an answer to the initial question; (ii) show how the answer to the second question provides an answer to the initial question. This stage corresponds to the description in Meno. Confirmation Stage: (i) Test the things that follow (the hormēthenta) from the first hypothesis for consistency; (ii) identify a second “most compelling” hypothesis from which the first hypothesis can be derived, and continue this process until “something adequate” (hikanon) is reached.
Benson then examines applications of the method to clarify how it works. In the proof stage of Meno, the hypothesis that virtue is knowledge is identified, and how it answers the question whether virtue is teachable is shown. The confirmation stage has two parts: first, Socrates identifies a second hypothesis, that virtue is good, and shows how this provides support for the first; then he examines what follows from the first hypothesis. If virtue is knowledge, it is teachable; if teachable, there will be teachers and learners; but there are [End Page 333] no teachers and learners, so virtue is not teachable and not knowledge—a negative answer to Meno’s original question.
The negative answer, however, could have been reached without appeal to the method of hypothesis. This is clear from the argument at 89d6–96c10. This makes one suspect that the use of the hypothetical method at 86e1–89c4 was a way of returning to the question of the nature of virtue, though Benson argues against this (100–102).
Perhaps the most difficult—and least persuasive—part...