The Theory of Recollection

Once Sir Francis Bacon, a great philosopher, said, “Scientia potentia est.” This phrase implies that with knowledge, a person’s potential and abilities in life will increase. According to one of the greatest and most famous philosophers of all time, Plato, knowledge can be acquired by simply remembering or recollecting things that we already know before we born. Plato believes that some ideas that we have now are innate and we are born with imprinted knowledge in our soul. He went in great lengths to prove that our soul does exist before our body. However, another great philosopher, John Locke, has a different idea regarding a way to acquire knowledge. Locke believes that knowledge is obtained through our senses when we are conscious. Locke doesn’t buy any of Plato’s theory. After comparing both sides, I choose to side with John Locke because Plato’s theory is not always reliable and Locke has a strong idea regarding human’s rationality in obtaining knowledge. Even though Plato’s theory of how Soul has existed before our body exists has its own logical proves, it nevertheless raises many criticisms from other philosophers, such as John Locke who believes that Plato’s theory is irrational.

The theory of recollection was first introduced in one of the famous 5 dialogues of Plato. Plato believes that by asking the right question, one can jog his memory and recollect things that he doesn’t aware of knowing. According to Plato, our souls are imprinted with knowledge and when we were born, that knowledge is carried on to us. This knowledge is called innate or inborn knowledge. In the book of Meno, Socrates clearly explains how theory of recollection by saying, ”As the soul is immortal, has been born often, and has seen all things here and in the underworld, there is nothing which it has not learned; so it is in no way surprising that it can recollect the things it knew before, both about virtue and other things”. From this quote, Socrates explains how our soul has gone through several lives and has acquired knowledge in the process.

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In the book of Meno, Plato proves that the theory of recollection is reasonable by solving paradox of inquiry of Meno’s Paradox. Paradox of inquiry state that either one has already knows what the definition of virtue is or one doesn’t knows. This renders learning impossible. Socrates then proposes the theory of recollection as a solution to Meno’s Paradox by teaching a servant boy who only has the knowledge of basic mathematics to solve a normal difficulty geometry problem. As expected, the boy got his answers wrong. Socrates then helps the boy by asking numerous questions so that the boy can recollect his inborn knowledge and answer the question in his opinion. After several question, finally the boy find the right answer. The boys follow Plato’s question and guidance from his state of aporia (perplexity) until he has found the right answer. By using this experiment, the doctrine of recollection is indeed a legitimate theory that can be considered.

In Plato’s final day, in the dialogue of Phaedo, theory of recollection are also used by Socrates to prove that there are indeed life after death and that soul existed before the body. In this dialogue, Socrates explains the theory of recollection by first giving an example about how two very similar sticks or stones will always appear to be unequal in different perspective at different times. But we are able to perceive that the very similar stick is, for example, same in lengths but different in width. Socrates conclude his argument by saying,

Therefore, if we had this knowledge, we knew before birth and immediately after not only the Equal, but the Greater and the Smaller and all such things,… about all those things which we mark with the seal of “what it is,” both when we are putting questions and answering them. So we must have acquired knowledge of them all before we were born.

This learning can only be done when one was in the form of a soul, which means that our soul is in fact existed before our body. This means that soul’s life extends beyond the body’s soul, which implies that our soul will still live after our body died. Thus, this makes life after death possible.

However, John Locke disagrees with the doctrine of recollection and claims that one does not have any inborn knowledge. He argues that acquiring knowledge is like filling you empty head with one. Locke is an empiricist, which means that he believe that all knowledge comes from experience, and not from any soul remembrance. He states that theory of recollection is unreasonable by saying, “For if they are not notions naturally imprinted, how can they be innate? and if they are notions imprinted, how can they be unknown? To say a notion is imprinted on the mind, and yet at the same time to say, that the mind is ignorant of it, and never yet took notice of it, is to make this impression nothing”. By saying this, Locke argues the absurdity of the theory regarding imprinted knowledge that one doesn’t aware of.

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Furthermore, Locke believes that person is equal to consciousness. According to Locke, personal identity consists in consciousness. Locke said that, “as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person”. Based on this believe, he argues that it is absurd to say that an idea is present in one’s mind when he is not conscious. According to Plato, when we are in our “soul form” we do not have consciousness. Locke responded by saying, “No proposition can be said to be in the mind which it never yet knew, which it was never yet conscious of”. By saying this quote, Locke states that it is impossible for a soul, who doesn’t have consciousness, to have knowledge. According to Locke, the mind and consciousness have to be synchronized.

Furthermore, Locke suggests that human can only learn by developing two categories of ideas. One of the ideas is the one that are revealed by our relations and lesson from and the world. The other idea is established from our observation of how something will works with our senses. According to Locke, the process of learning from senses should be step by step. Locke states that,

For upon the same ground, viz. of assent at first hearing and understanding the terms, that men would have those maxims pass for innate, they must also admit several propositions about numbers to be innate; and thus, that one and two are equal to three, that two and two are equal to four, and a multitude of other the like propositions in numbers, that everybody assents to at first hearing and understanding the terms, must have a place amongst these innate axioms.”

Human mind can synchronized the association between numbers and logic, which cause us to know that one and two are equal to three the same way the human mind associates the ideas of colors, sounds, tastes, figures, and etc. They were all obtained through senses and reasons, not inborn knowledge.

After examining the two positions of the argument, I choose to accept John Locke’s ideas because of two reasons. The first reason is that I think the theory of recollection creates another paradox and this theory will not always work with all cases. The second reason is because I think that it is impossible for a person to have knowledge before they were born without being aware of it. In my opinion, the theory of recollection will not always work with all cases. One example is Plato’s dialogue of Eutyphro. The success of Plato’s theory of recollection with the slave boy was simply because the boy’s tendency not to give up. But in the case of Eutyphro, Eutyphro leave before Socrates is able to finish asking all of his questions. During the state of aporia, Eutyphro decided that it is not worth it to hear Socrates asking numerous questions and leave. Plato believe that Eutyphro can be the example of how theory of recollection works, but unfortunately Eutyphro decided to leave and the theory of recollection fails. Furthermore, I also think that the theory of recollection creates another paradox; even if learning is merely recollection, doesn’t the soul at some point have to learn something for the first time? If the soul at some point has to learn something for the first time, then how would the soul acquire that knowledge? Is it through recollecting? If it is, then the paradox will go on and on.

Personally, I believe that learning is like writing in a blank piece of paper. We learn everything through senses and rationality. We learn about justice, courage, integrity, and other qualities through experience and observation, not from innate ideas. We learn that a chicken sandwich tastes like chicken from our experience of eating it, not from innate ideas. Everything we know now is the product of our learning through senses and rationality, not through recollecting inborn knowledge. Even when Socrates teaches the slave boy geometry problem, I think that the boy doesn’t actually recollect his past knowledge about geometry. Rather, he developed his logical thinking through Socrates’ numerous questions.

In conclusion, although the theory of recollection is proved to be able to solve the Paradox of Inquiry and prove that soul existed before our body, Locke’s theory of knowledge is still superior due to the fact that the theory of recollection itself creates another paradox. Furthermore, I strongly agree that human can only learn through senses and rationality, not through innate ideas that are imprinted in our soul.

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