BMCR 2015.10.03

The Possibility of Inquiry: Meno’s Paradox from Socrates to Sextus

, The Possibility of Inquiry: Meno's Paradox from Socrates to Sextus. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. iv, 399. ISBN 9780199577392. $85.00.


Gail Fine published ‘Inquiry in the Meno‘ in 1992,1 and after twenty-plus years of related work, her The Possibility of Inquiry offers a detailed investigation into ancient philosophers on inquiry. In addition to Plato, The Possibility of Inquiry considers Aristotle, Epicureans, Stoics, Plutarch and the Skeptics. This book is challenging and thought-provoking; it requires and repays patient study. Fine cares deeply about Meno’s paradox itself, but she also uses it to illuminate ancient epistemology more broadly. Thus this book should find a wide audience among scholars of ancient philosophy. Although the writing is clear and jargon-free and no knowledge of Greek is required, the work places heavy demands on its readers. Advanced undergraduates might be able to read it, but they are not the target audience.

Roughly half of the book is about the Meno, and Fine’s discussion of Plato is the heart of the volume. Plato was not the first or the only ancient philosopher to investigate the paradox of inquiry, but in Fine’s opinion his investigation is the most in touch with “our concerns” (3). In addition, Fine notes that she can be briefer in the second half of the book because she has clarified so many details while discussing Plato (3). I will follow Fine and focus on Plato.

Here, briefly, are the key points of Fine’s interpretation of Meno’s paradox in Plato:2

1. Socrates disavows knowledge, which is defined in the Meno as true belief plus an explanatory account. Socrates’ disavowal is consistent with his having true beliefs and strong convictions about the same things he disavows knowledge of.

2. Meno, however, misinterprets his and Socrates’ lack of knowledge. Meno thinks that he and Socrates are “in a cognitive blank” about what they do not know (82; see also the General Index s.v.‘cognitive blank’). To put this in other terms, Meno thinks that he and Socrates have literally no idea about virtue.

3. As a result of his confusion, Meno poses the paradox of inquiry: how can you even inquire about something, if you are in a cognitive blank about that matter (80d5-8)? Socrates accepts this challenge as important and restates it more formally as a dilemma (80e1-5).

4. Socrates responds to the dilemma via a distinction between true belief and knowledge. Meno is correct that it is impossible to inquire into something if you are in a cognitive blank about it. But Socrates is not in a cognitive blank about virtue; he has true beliefs about it, even if he lacks knowledge. The discussion about geometry between Socrates and a slave (82b-85c) is proof by example. The slave does not know the answer to Socrates’ initial question, but he has many true beliefs about geometry, and he can gain new true beliefs, and eventually even knowledge, by inquiring.

5. The distinction between true belief and knowledge proves that inquiry is possible. Thus, this distinction answers Meno’s paradox: even in the absence of knowledge, inquiry is possible if one relies on true belief. The theory of recollection, on the other hand, makes a related but distinct point. Its aim is to show how inquiry can be successful. Unfortunately, Plato remains vague about recollection. He does not reveal how recollection explains successful inquiry (165).

6. Plato does not argue for or rely on innate knowledge in the Meno. Instead, Plato only relies on prenatal knowledge: before birth a person’s incorporeal soul possesses knowledge, but that knowledge is lost when a soul enters a body at birth.

Fine’s analysis is patient, detailed, insightful, and philosophically rich. Although I will focus on two disagreements below, I want to stress that anyone who reads Plato’s Meno philosophically will profit from considering Fine’s careful interpretation.

Meno’s position concerning knowledge raises questions of philosophical coherence. According to Fine, Meno suggests that knowledge and being in a cognitive blank are exhaustive, exclusive options. This leaves no room for beliefs—whether true or false. For example, you either know what virtue is or you have absolutely no thoughts about the question whatsoever. Such a view is extreme and arguably incoherent. In another publication, Fine points out that Plato’s careful distinction between true belief and knowledge was novel and that students still have a hard time telling the two apart (Fine, 2007, 343). However, this may not fully support her reading of Meno’s argument since some distinction between knowledge and belief still seems necessary. A contrast between belief and knowledge is common in the earliest Greek poets, and early Greek philosophers refined the distinction.3 Meno may not understand the precise differences between true belief and knowledge, but that does not explain why he would deny the existence of any cognitive state other than knowledge.

My second concern is that Fine minimizes the theory of recollection. Fine argues that Socrates replies to Meno in three stages: (1) initial mention of the theory of recollection, (2) an interlude where Socrates cross-examines one of Meno’s slaves about geometry, and (3) a second discussion of recollection. Fine tends to describe stage (2) as if it were something distinct from the theory of recollection. On her interpretation, recollection appears in stages (1) and (3), but the cross-examination of the slave in stage (2) demonstrates the distinction between true belief and knowledge. The progress of the dialogue suggests, however, that the stages may not be so distinct. After Meno presents his paradox, he asks whether it impresses Socrates (81a1-2). Socrates confidently answers that it does not seem like a good argument to him because of an account he has heard from priests and poets. This is Fine’s stage (1). These priests and poets reveal that the soul is immortal and that what we call learning is actually recollection of things the soul knew before this life (81a3-e2). Meno does not understand, and he asks Socrates to explain (81e3-82a6). Socrates agrees and begins his cross-examination of the slave (82a7 ff.). This is Fine’s stage (2). The cross-examination of the slave, as this shows, does not break away from recollection, as Fine would have it. Socrates’ introduction of recollection in stage (1) was allusive and brief. The cross-examination of the slave in stage (2) makes recollection clearer and more vivid to Meno (and by implication to Plato’s audience at the same time). The conversation of Socrates and slave explains recollection itself rather than introducing a distinct topic.

After chapters on Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics, Fine investigates a fragment of Plutarch that was preserved by a commentator on Plato’s Phaedo. Plutarch claims that Plato can easily explain knowledge and solve Meno’s paradox while the Peripatetics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans are unable to do so. The overlap in topics makes it clear why this fragment would appeal to Fine. Unfortunately the text is brief and elliptical. Even worse, Plutarch rarely bothers to give explicit reasons for his claims. However, Fine makes the most of this unpromising material. After reviewing what Plutarch wrote with great charity, Fine imagines how Plutarch might have supported his claims. Then in turn she reviews potential replies available to the targets of Plutarch’s criticism. Thus, this chapter illuminates a difficult and relatively unknown text while also serving as a useful overview of Fine’s book so far.

The Skeptics, who are the subject of Fine’s last two chapters, are in a unique position with regard to the paradox of inquiry. Aristotle, the Epicureans, and the Stoics need to answer the paradox no less than Plato. For all these thinkers, it is crucial that successful inquiry is possible. For the Skeptics, however, the paradox of inquiry is yet another battleground in their war against dogmatic philosophers. In a nutshell, Stoics and Epicureans claim that Skeptics cannot inquire since they do not even know what they are talking about or looking for, and Skeptics respond that only they can inquire since Epicureans and Stoics believe they know the truth. In an argument familiar from Plato’s Meno, Skeptics claim that you do not look for knowledge that you already think you have. These chapters make many interesting observations, particularly concerning whether or not the Skeptics think that they can do entirely without belief. But consideration of the Skeptics and Plutarch also implicitly shows how flexible the paradox of inquiry was in antiquity. It was not only a puzzle to be solved but also a weapon to use against your philosophical rivals.

This was, in a way, already true for Meno and Plato’s Meno. When Meno first raises the paradox of inquiry, he is floundering as a result of Socratic elenchus. If we consider the Meno as a drama, Meno’s motivation at this point in the conversation is to turn the tables: let’s see Socrates answer this puzzle. The chapters on Plutarch and the Skeptics make clear that such an eristic use of the paradox is always available. Fine, however, has taken up Meno’s attack and turned it into a valuable opportunity to investigate both the paradox itself and its many wider ramifications.4


Fine, G., Plato on Knowledge and Forms: Selected Essays (Oxford, 2003).
Fine, G., ‘Enquiry and Discovery: A Discussion of Dominic Scott, Plato’s Meno ’, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 32 (2007), 331-67.
Kraut, R. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Plato (Cambridge, 1992).
Scott, D. Plato’s Meno (Cambridge, 2006).


1. Originally published in Kraut 1992, the essay was reprinted with minor changes in Fine 2003.

2. Each of the following notes begins with an implicit “On Fine’s account”.

3. For example, Iliad 2.485-6 and Theogony 26-8 contrast gods and humans. Gods enjoy complete knowledge while humans do the best they can with beliefs, many of which are false. Odyssey 1.215-16 provides a purely human example of belief versus knowledge. Two especially important examples of early Greek philosophers who distinguish belief from knowledge are Xenophanes and Parmenides.

4. Nathan Nicol read and gave valuable comments on several drafts of this review. Justin Blank helped me clarify and formulate my complaints about ‘in a cognitive blank’. I also found two earlier reviews of Fine’s book very useful: by Whitney Schwab and by Justin Vlasits. I also thank the BMCR editors for helpful suggestions and comments. All remaining flaws are solely my fault.