In the course of some friendly trash-talk during a hypercompetitive game of Go, my esteemed opponent Arwen taught me a new word: anamnesis. From context and the similarity to amnesia, I understood the context, but it also rang a bell somewhere in the depths of my mind, piquing my curiosity enough that I turned to Google. In a modern medical context, it means reclaimed memory and experiences, but it turns out that the term was in fact coined by Plato (who just recently made an appearance here on, my three regular readers may recall). From Wikipedia:

In Meno, Plato’s character (and old teacher) Socrates is challenged by Meno with what has become known as the sophistic paradox, or the paradox of knowledge:

Meno: And how are you going to search for [the nature of virtue] when you don’t know at all what it is, Socrates? Which of all the things you don’t know will you set up as target for your search? And even if you actually come across it, how will you know that it is that thing which you don’t know?

In other words, if you don’t know what the knowledge looks like, you won’t recognise it when you see it, and if you do know what it looks like, then you don’t need to look for it. Either way, then, there’s no point trying to gain knowledge.

Socrates’ response is to develop his theory of anamnesis. He suggests that the soul is immortal, being repeatedly incarnated; knowledge is actually in the soul from eternity, but each time the soul is incarnated its knowledge is forgotten in the shock of birth. What we think of as learning, then is actually the bringing back of what we’d forgotten. (Once it has been brought back it is true belief, to be turned into genuine knowledge by understanding.) And thus Socrates (and Plato) sees himself, not as a teacher, but as a midwife, aiding with the birth of knowledge that was already there in the student.

The theory is illustrated by Socrates asking a slave boy questions about geometry. At first the boy gives the wrong answer; when this is pointed out to him, he is puzzled, but by asking questions Socrates is able to help him to reach the true answer. This is intended to show that, as the boy wasn’t told the answer, he could only have reached the truth by recollecting what he had already known but forgotten.

Plato goes on to develop the theory further in Phaedo by combining it with the theory of Forms, which as we saw earlier is exemplified by the Allegory of the Cave.

I don’t pretend to have any deeep insight into these concepts. I am fairly new to them, and these posts are more a kind of note-taking than anything else. I invite others to lend me their own insights, and thus further my own process of anamnesis along 🙂