- The Possibility of Inquiry: Meno's Paradox from Socrates to Sextus by Gail Fine
In the first half of this book, Gail Fine provides a renewed defense of her reading of Meno's famous paradox; in the second, she provides novel accounts of how Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and Sextus Empiricus responded to the paradox. For reasons of space, I focus on the first half, where Fine defends the same basic account of Meno's paradox she put forward in her influential "Inquiry in the Meno" (1992). The book goes further, considering and dismissing several alternatives not considered there and arguing at length against recent accounts in the secondary literature, especially those of Dominic Scott and David Charles.
According to Fine, Meno's paradox rests on Meno misunderstanding what Socrates means by "not knowing at all." On her reading, Meno takes this to refer to a cognitive blank, then raises a problem for inquiring in a cognitive blank; Socrates does not think of "not knowing at all" as a cognitive blank, and so responds that it is possible not to know at all and still have true beliefs that allow one to inquire.
Is Fine right that Meno's paradox rests on misunderstanding "not knowing at all" as a cognitive blank? While this is a key point in the book, the only evidence Fine cites (71) is that, shortly before the paradox, when Meno accuses Socrates of being like a torpedo fish, Meno says that he can "no longer say [eipein] at all what it [virtue] is" (80b4). But this seems to point to Meno's inability to provide an acceptable answer to "what is virtue?"—not to his thinking he is in a cognitive blank about virtue. If someone reports that she cannot say what time the train leaves, she may still have views, but think that they are insufficiently justified to say. In fact, Socrates suggests earlier in the dialogue that one should only say what virtue is if one knows what it is. At the beginning of the dialogue Meno asks Socrates to "say" (eipein) whether virtue is teachable (70a). Socrates claims that Gorgias has given Meno the habit of expecting fearless and magnificent answers, as is reasonable from those who know (70b–c). But Socrates claims that people in Athens would laugh at the idea of answering Meno's question because they are so far from knowing whether virtue is teachable that they do not even know what it is (70c–71b). It is only after Meno suggests that he may have learned from Gorgias what virtue is that Socrates asks Meno to say (eipein) what it is (71d). Meno alludes to this earlier conversation in his torpedo fish objection, when, having been refuted, he reports that he no longer can say what virtue is.
Meno points to two different problems in his statement of the paradox. Fine treats it as clear that the first is a "targeting objection": how can you specify the thing you are inquiring into. She translates the sentence in question as "[f]or what sort of thing, from among those you don't know, will you put forward as the thing you're inquiring into?" (80d6–7). As translated, it is not clear that Meno is pointing to a targeting problem; one would like an argument for thinking this. But it is also not clear that this is the best way to translate the sentence. "What sort of thing" (poion) can be governed by the participle, "put forward," without being governed by the main verb, "inquire" (see Smyth, 2643). If read this way, Socrates is saying "[f]or what sort of thing, from among those you don't know, will you put forward when you inquire?" Up until this point, Socrates's and Meno's inquiries have involved putting forward proposed answers to the "what is it?" question. One could interpret Meno's question as pointing to a problem with putting forward such an answer, [End Page 537] rather than with specifying...