On perplexity and learning

This week, I’m sharing an essay I wrote for a class in my Master’s program. We were asked to pick one of the texts we’ve read so far and explore a specific question we want to think more about.

I chose to write about Plato’s Meno. Since the essay is a textual analysis that may be confusing without some prior knowledge of the book, here’s a short summary:

Plato's Meno is a dialogue that explores the nature of virtue and whether it can be taught. In it, Socrates and Meno discuss if virtue is a kind of knowledge that can be passed from one person to another. They try to define what virtue is but find it challenging to come up with a definition that fits all types of virtue. Socrates uses a method of questioning to guide Meno toward the idea that knowledge can be recollected from a person's soul, suggesting that learning is actually a process of remembering. They also introduce one of Meno’s attendants to demonstrate that even without formal education, people can solve complex problems by recalling knowledge. The dialogue ends without a definitive answer on whether virtue can be taught, but is significant because it shows how Socrates' method of questioning leads to deeper understanding and how knowledge and virtue are closely linked.

If you’d rather skip the essay and want a 10-second takeaway instead, I won’t be mad. Here it is: if you’re feeling confused, perplexed, or even frustrated when you’re attempting to learn something new, that’s a good sign. If you’re not, you may not be challenging your pre-existing beliefs enough. Being perplexed is the first step towards learning something new.

Meno: …And you seem to me to be—if I may even make a little joke—most completely similar in looks, as in other ways, to that flat sea-creature, the numbfish. For it makes numb whoever comes near it and touches it, and now you seem to me to have done something like that to me—made me go numb. (80A)

After several unsuccessful attempts to define virtue, Meno becomes increasingly frustrated with Socrates's questioning. Beneath this apparent personal attack, however, lies the concept of aporia, or perplexity. Meno confesses to feeling numb and being perplexed during his dialogue with Socrates as they jointly explore the nature of virtue, its definition, and whether it can be taught.

What, if any, is the significance of aporia? What role does it play in the learning process?

Aporia as a catalyst for philosophical exploration

Until his moment of admitted perplexity, Meno had confidently declared his understanding of virtue in three different ways, only for Socrates to find flaws each time (71E-79E). Instead of responding to Meno's ad hominem attack, Socrates saw it as an opportunity.

Socrates: …I won’t make a likeness of you in return…you, however, perhaps at first knew [about virtue] before you made contact with me; now, however, you are similar to one who doesn’t know. All the same, I’m willing to investigate this along with you and join you in searching for what in the world it is. (80C-D)

This early instance of aporia showcases its potential: it not only signifies the dismantling of Meno's pre-conceived notions about virtue but also indicates the prospect of a fresh inquiry and an earnest pursuit of knowledge. However, this possibility is fleeting. Meno rushes to argue that one can neither search for what they already know nor for what they don't know, as they wouldn't know what to look for (80D-E), halting any such pursuit.

The role of aporia in the geometry demonstration

To fully appreciate the value of aporia, let's look at Socrates's dialogue with one of Meno's attendants. This interaction follows Meno’s attempt to halt the search for virtue and serves as a response to Meno’s request for a tangible explanation of learning as a form of recollection (82A), as Socrates has just asserted. Socrates uses a step-by-step questioning approach to guide the boy toward the answer to a geometry problem: the square root of eight. Like Meno before him, the boy reaches an impasse and exclaims, “But, by Zeus, Socrates, I really don’t know!” (84A).

This time, however, Socrates successfully continues his quest and joins the boy to search for the answer. He foreshadows what will follow, telling Meno "...we've done something that, as seems likely, furthers the task of his finding out how things stand" (84B). Unlike Meno, the boy perseveres under Socrates's guidance until he understands the solution to the geometry problem with Socrates's help. The significance of aporia in this context becomes clear with the following question:

Socrates: Then do you think that earlier he would have attempted to search for or learn the thing he thought he knew (although he didn’t know), before he fell into perplexity by having come to believe he didn’t know, and before he yearned for knowing? (84C)

"It doesn't seem so to me..." Meno is compelled to concede. If Meno's state of aporia hinted at its potential, the boy's experience illustrates its full realization. Instead of approaching aporia as a hurdle to overcome, as Meno does, it can be viewed as a necessary precondition for genuine learning. This episode emphasizes the vital role of aporia in facilitating the journey from ignorance to knowledge, forcing us to confront the paradox of learning something new: one must first realize how little they know before they can truly begin to learn.

A change in direction and a lack of aporia

Following this interaction, which highlights the peak of the demonstration of aporia and its value, the dialogue shifts back to discussing whether virtue is teachable.

We’re introduced to Anytus, who appears even more rigid in his beliefs than Meno, resulting in a conversation marked by caution and restraint. Responding to Socrates, who illustrates the unlikelihood that virtuous fathers could impart virtue to their sons using the examples of notable Athenians, Anytus says, "I would counsel you, if you're willing to obey me, to be careful; for perhaps also in another city it's easy to do people ill rather than do well by them, but it's especially easy in this one (94E).” So preoccupied with maintaining established norms, Anytus neglects to evaluate Socrates's argument objectively. He shut himself off from the possibility of experiencing perplexity and learning something unconventional.

After Anytus's sudden exit, Socrates and Meno proceed with their discussion, hypothesizing whether virtue is knowledge and, consequently, teachable. These deliberations (95B-99B), while intellectually engaging, focus on navigating logical possibilities and distinguishing true belief from knowledge rather than experiencing the transformative confusion that characterizes aporia.

The episode involving Meno’s attendant demonstrates how aporia can significantly enhance learning when individuals are open to questioning and self-reflection. In contrast, the subsequent discussions indicate that the inquiry process and its participants can blunt the impact, utility, and even the possibility of aporia.

Concluding reflections

The dialogue culminates without a definitive understanding of virtue. As Socrates states, “…we shall know the clear truth about it only at that time, when, before attempting to search for the way in which virtue comes to human beings, we first attempt to search for what in the world virtue is (100B).” This leaves both himself and Meno (and the readers) in an implicit state of aporia.

This conclusion, marked by unanswered questions and an invitation to continue the search, highlights the enduring importance of aporia in the pursuit of knowledge. The paradoxical nature of aporia delivers a profound insight: when one is perplexed, they are most open to learning, even though it may feel uncomfortable. On the other hand, when one believes they possess knowledge, they may inadvertently close themselves off to further discovery, mistaking the comfort of certainty for true understanding.

Aporia, with its capacity to simultaneously provoke and inspire, encourages us to embrace the world's complexities with an open and curious mind. It serves as the first step towards learning something new.