What can Socrates teach us about cognitive science? (Pt 1.)

The Platonic school, learning as ‘recollection’ & the Theory of Forms

The Theory of Forms is a school of thought attributed to Plato. First of all this theory concerns itself with how we know what we know, and can be considered epistemological in this regard.

Plato and his ilk put forth the worldview that everything that exists in this plane of existence is merely an imitation, albeit an imperfect one, of an eternal ‘Form’ or ‘Idea’ that exists simply somewhere out there, in the aether somewhere.

The theory goes that we are only able to identify all things and learn certain things because at some point in our pre-life we had been exposed to the perfect Idea or Form that inspired that object or concept.

How can we differentiate between a chair and a table? They both have 4 legs. Well somewhere in the primordial goo from whence everyone comes you have been exposed to what a ‘perfect’ chair or a ‘perfect’ table looks like. You are able to identify a chair from a table due to the fact that it looks more like the ‘perfect’ concept of a chair than the ‘perfect’ table.

Following from this, therefore, Socrates, and his disciple Plato and many other philosopher of the Academy of Athens were led to the belief that there is no learning, and that everything you know is simply remembering what you had been shown before your soul came into the physical realm.

What Plato and his Academy hypothesised as Forms or Ideas (perhaps almost sensibly, in the absence of anything else) we may equate with ‘schema’.

My partner, working in Early Years Teaching, will always talk in terms of schema when speaking on a child’s progress. The idea that there are so many schema that must be built up from an enveloping schema, to a trajectory schema and so on, indicating that schema and schemata are the way we now understand learning.

Platonic philosophy does not take into account schema as we understand it or the neuroplasticity of the human brain (how could it?). There is so much to know in this world and so the idea that one must start learning the perfect Forms as a shapeless soul, far in advance of physical birth might even have seemed like a reasonable option. Therefore memory and cognition as the Ancient Greeks understood it would not allow for the possibility that the human mind is adaptable enough to know because it has been exposed to certain Forms and Ideas in the physical world.

Historical considerations

The dialogue in which Socrates speaks with Meno, to me, is one of the most fascinating dialogues as it ties in with a long-standing fascination on what memory is, what knowledge is and the fickle way in which one must grapple with one’s own memory in order to be able to recall information most relevant for one’s specific life an experiences.

However, Socrates did not produce any of his own writing, and so many writings that are handed down to us about him are written by his adoring disciple, Plato. Suitably, as historians, we realise that Plato’s perception of Socrates was always destined to be rose-tinted and as such is unable to give us a consistent and reliable view on the things that he did and said. In fact, many of the dialogues that Plato reports are ones for which he was never present and so would have had to be cobbled together by a series of second or third-hand witness statements.

However, the truth of what actually happens in each dialogue is secondary to the messages that are contained within them. I think it fitting, and perhaps Socrates would have thought so as well, that the ideas espoused in each dialogue is in and of itself far more important than whether or not it actually occurred.

3 thoughts on “What can Socrates teach us about cognitive science? (Pt 1.)

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