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M. Gifford


Plato's doctrine of Recollection appears in several dialogues, and he presents two extended arguments in support of it. First, and most well known, in the Socrates dialectically guides an untutored slave to the discovery of an important mathematical theorem; and the purported fact that Socrates' guidance consists merely in the asking of questions is supposed to show that the slave actually possessed explicit but unconscious knowledge of the theorem all along. Then, in the after offering a general description of the dialectical process exemplified in the mathematical demonstration from the (73a7-b2), Socrates launches into a second argument in support of Recollection (73b3-76e8), which we might call "the argument from deficiency" (allowing that name to serve as shorthand for the more informative but less wieldy "argument from our ability to recognize the deficiencies in perceptible entities"). Plato illustrates this second argument for Recollection again with an example drawn from the field of mathematics, namely, the case of perceptible instances of equality and the Form of Equality which those perceptible instances exemplify but in comparison with which they can be seen to be, in some sense, deficient. And it is our ability to recognize these deficiencies in perceptible equals that Plato thinks can be explained only by positing the existence of innate knowledge of the non-deficient Form of Equality.

But what is vital for the purposes of the present study is that, in the course of developing this mathematical version of the argument from deficiency for innate knowledge, Plato pauses to note:

Our present argument is no way more concerned with the Equal than with the Beautiful itself, the Good itself, the Just, the Pious and ... everything else which we mark off with the expression "the-thing-itself-which-is- < both in our questions when we play the [dialectical] role of questioner and in our answers when we play the role of answerer. It is therefore necessary that we acquired knowledge of all these things before we were born. (75c10-d5)

Yet, although Plato tells us here that the mathematical argument from deficiency can be transferred to the sphere of ethics, he fails to go on to say anything about how exactly the general form of the argument from deficiency is supposed to fleshed out in order to prove the existence of innate moral knowledge. And commentators on the have typically had little more to say on the issue than Plato himself does in the quoted passage.

The general silence of Plato scholars on this matter is rather surprising, since it is not at all obvious what the argument from deficiency for innate moral knowledge was supposed to look like. Moreover, we have good reason to think that Plato was actually more concerned with innate moral knowledge than with innate mathematical knowledge; for, among other considerations that could be mentioned here (including the centrality of ethics to Plato's general worldview), even the mathematical demonstration of innate knowledge in the is not undertaken for its own sake, but is instead designed to serve as an encouragement for Meno to search for the innate knowledge of virtue that he is, by extension, supposed to have. Yet, as mere philosophical novices (i. e. undergraduate students) are quick to point out, even if Plato's arguments for innate knowledge are successful in the mathematical sphere, they do not thereby prove the existence of innate knowledge in the realm of ethics. Thus, for these reasons, although Plato may have thought the argument from deficiency is clearer and more compelling in the case of innate mathematical knowledge, and although he may for this reason have illustrated the argument with a mathematical example, he must have had some independent confidence in an ethical version of the argument deficiency, and hence he must have had a fairly definite idea of how such an argument would go. My task in this paper, then, will be to try to reconstruct this neglected Platonic argument from deficiency for the existence of innate moral knowledge.

Now, the key to reconstructing Plato's argument lies in understanding the sort of "deficiency" that the argument depends on. Traditionally, readers of Plato have thought that the sort of deficiency he thinks perceptibles suffer from is what we might call "gradational deficiency". According to this view, the deficiency of perceptibles consists in the fact that they only approximately but never instantiate the properties corresponding to Forms; so, for instance, no two perceptibles are ever perfectly equal to one another. But more recent commentators have argued that the sort of deficiency Plato thinks characterizes the perceptual world is what I will call "contextual" deficiency"[1]. On this view, the failing of perceptibles is that, although they can perfectly instantiate Form properties, they do not do so all contexts; so, for instance, two perceptible objects can be perfectly equal in the context of a comparison with one another, but they will not be equal in the context of a comparison between each of them and some third object of different dimensions. I agree with these more recent commentators that the mathematical argument expressly developed in the turns on the notion of contextual deficiency rather than on the idea of gradational deficiency. What I want to argue here is that it is the concept of contextual deficiency that we also need for our reconstruction of Plato's argument from deficiency for innate knowledge in the sphere of ethics[2].

First of all, let me show that Plato's argument could not have depended on the idea of gradational deficiency. This claim might seem surprising at first blush; for once the question of deficient perceptibles in ethics is raised, it might seem natural to think that Plato would have had in mind individual human beings and that his point would be that all human beings suffer to one degree or another from gradational deficiency in the sense that nobody is perfectly just. Plato's argument from deficiency for innate moral knowledge would then be based merely on such commonplace ideas as "To err is human" and "Nobody's perfect".

But this view encounters serious obstacles. For one thing, whatever sort of deficiency is at work in Plato's argument, it must be one that perceptibles suffer from. Yet why is it necessary that human beings be imperfectly just? Plato never says that a perfectly just human being is an impossibility. Indeed, the philosopher-kings of the whose real possibility Plato is at pains to insist upon, would seem to belie the suggestion; for it is the fact that these individuals perfectly just that entitles them to rule the state without the constraints of law and democratic oversight. What's more, the deficiency we are looking for in the moral realm is one that attaches to but in talking of human beings falling short of perfect justice we are talking about the state of their souls, and souls are things that for Plato are emphatically not perceptible.

In fact, all that we observe of human beings, ethically speaking, are their actions. So, if the argument from deficiency for the existence of innate moral knowledge depends on the idea of gradational deficiency, then the perceptibles that suffer from this defect would have to be actions. Yet the view that it is actions that are deficiently just in a gradational sense is likewise problematic; for at least some individual actions do not seem to be imperfectly just in this way. For instance, if Socrates today borrows ten drachmas from Callias with the promise to repay him tomorrow, and when tomorrow comes Socrates repays the loan, then, at least in normal circumstances, the action he has performed is perfectly just, suffering from no gradational deficiency whatsoever.

From these brief remarks, then, we can conclude that the view that Plato's argument from deficiency for innate moral knowledge turns on the idea of gradational deficiency, whether affecting individual human beings or individual actions, is one that faces major difficulties.

Now, since in the Plato tells us nothing directly about how the mathematical argument from deficiency is to be transferred to the ethical realm, in searching for the analogous form of deficiency that moral perceptibles are subject to, we will have to turn to other dialogues. And, fortunately, the Platonic corpus furnishes ample evidence for identifying the sort of deficiency we need for our reconstruction of the Plato's ethical version of the argument from deficiency.

Let's first turn to a text where we find Plato dealing with matters closely connected to those of the argument from deficiency, namely, V and Plato's attack upon a group of people whom he calls "the lovers of sights of sounds". As Plato describes them (476b4-c4, 479a1-5), the lovers are people who reject the Socratic idea that there is a single account to be given for all beautiful or just things that explains why they are beautiful or just; and this for Plato amounts to a rejection of Forms. But in rejecting such unitary essences, the lovers do not espouse relativism; rather, they think there are objective facts about the beauty and justice of particular objects or actions, but they hold that, instead of accounting for these facts by a single Socratic definition, we must offer a plurality of principles in order to explain why certain objects are beautiful or certain actions just. And, according to Plato, since they deny the existence of Forms, or unitary but imperceptible properties of beauty and justice, the lovers' explanatory principles will be confined to perceptible features of the world which we can know on the basis of experience - what Plato calls "the many beautiful things" or "the many just things". Indeed, it is because they restrict themselves to perceptibles in their accounts of things like beauty and justice that Plato gives them the name "lovers of sights and sounds". To illustrate their way of thinking, the lovers might say, for instance, that the fact that a particular ring is beautiful is due to its being composed of gold, whereas the fact that a particular statue is beautiful is due to its shapely proportions; but there is no single property of beauty that explains why each of these things is beautiful. Similarly, the lovers might say that one particular action is just because it was a matter of telling the truth, whereas another action was just because it involved the timely repayment of a loan, but again there is no single property of justice that explains why each of the actions is just.

Now, Plato's immediate aim in Book V is to show that the lovers lack the knowledge necessary to rule the state wisely, which he thinks is available only to true philosophers. His reasoning here is that, unlike the philosopher-kings who will base their judgements about which things are beautiful and just on knowledge of infallible principles concerning the Forms of Beauty and Justice, the lovers, by confining their accounts of beauty and justice to the perceptible world, will be unreliable in their judgements since none of the perceptible features picked out by their principles is always beautiful or just (479a5-b2). Or, to use the language of the the many perceptibles that the lovers appeal to in making judgements about what is beautiful or just are one and all deficiently beautiful or just.

So, since here in Book V too Plato is denying that perception can be the source of a certain type of cognition, we are plainly dealing with a text whose concerns are closely related to those on display in the But in order to put this passage from V to work in helping us reconstruct Plato's argument from deficiency for the existence of innate moral knowledge, we need to ask two questions: first, what are the perceptibles that Plato calls "the many beautiful things" or "the many just things"? and second, what is the deficiency to which they are subject? As for the first question, the following text, where Plato draws the conclusion of his discussion of the imperfections in the lovers' perceptibles, is decisive:

Thus, we have discovered, it seems, that the many accepted rules of ordinary people about beautiful [or "ethically appropriate"] and the rest are rolling around somewhere between what completely is not and what purely is (479d3-5).

Here Plato replaces his preceding metaphysical talk of "the many beautifuls" with linguistic talk of "the many accepted rules" about beauty that refer to those metaphysical entities. But what are these n mima? The term refers to the rules of law, in the broader sense of the Greek term n mow, which covers not only positive law but also traditional moral norms (such as the prohibition against lying) that need not be backed by penal sanctions (cf. 793a9-b4). And since such rules are general statements, the many beautiful things that they pick out will not be perceptible particulars but perceptible or And the types in question will be action-types, like telling the truth and repaying loans, which are the sorts of things picked out by the laws and the traditional moral norms of Greek society. In fact, in the above text we can see that Plato has actually shifted his focus from aesthetic to ethical matters, trading on an ambiguity in the Greek term kal w, which can indicate not only physical beauty but also ethical appropriateness (in which case the term is a virtual synonym in Plato's lexicon for d kaiow or "just"); for with his use of the term n mima here at the end of this discussion, Plato shows that he is most concerned with attempts to capture what is ethically appropriate and just in terms of rules that refer to perceptible features of the world, and in particular to action-types.

But I will return in a moment to this connection between moral rules and observable features of the world. Let's first answer our second question, about the deficiencies inherent in the lovers' many beautiful things or their many accepted rules about what is beautiful. Prior to our text Plato had made the point is made in metaphysical terms: the many beautiful things will in some cases appear ugly, the many just things unjust. In our text, the point is made in linguistic terms: the many rules about what is beautiful and just are not completely true. Thus, the point about the deficiency of the lovers' perceptibles is that they suffer from contextual deficiency: the perceptible properties to which the lovers appeal in order to explain why things are beautiful or ethically appropriate do not make things beautiful or ethically appropriate in all contexts, and hence the rules the lovers rely on (such as the rule that telling the truth is just) are not completely true, since in extraordinary circumstances the rules would lead one to perform an inappropriate or wrong action (as when a lie is needed to save an innocent life). In other words, the rules that attempt to capture what is ethically appropriate or just in observational terms are deficient in the sense that they all have

Let's give the name "moral rules" to such statements that attempt to capture what is right and wrong in terms of types of behavior, and hence in terms of concepts that can be mastered the basis of experience without prior moral knowledge. And, of course, Plato could well think that positive laws provide the paradigm case of such moral rules; for he generally thinks of positive law as an attempt to impose the rules of morality and virtue on a populace and to sanction those rules with penalties. Moreover, if we consider the function of positive law, we can further see that laws, in order to accomplish their function, must be couched in observational terms. For law is designed to inform the populace and give it clear expectations about what sort of behaviors are and are not socially acceptable. But in order to give clear guidance about how to act, the law cannot employ vague terms whose interpretation is left up to the individual citizen; and in order to eliminate vagueness and the need for moral interpretation on the part of individual citizens, laws must be formulated in observational terms, or in terms of action-types that can be understood solely on the basis of experience.

So, to sum up this examination of the argument against the lovers of sights and sounds, we can say that, for Plato, the deficiency of perceptibles in the ethical realm is a matter of contextual deficiency: all we could say about justice in purely observational terms would consist in moral rules, including laws, that prescribe or proscribe certain types of actions intelligible without moral interpretation; but, according to Plato, all such rules have exceptions.

Corroboration for Plato's view of the inherent fallibility of law comes from the following passage from the where the point is made in its full generality:

[L]aw [ n mow] could never capture at the same time what is best for everyone, and so could never prescribe in a precise way what is most appropriate and most just for each person ; for the dissimilarities among men and their activities and the fact that, in a word, all human affairs are in a state of constant flux precludes any form of expertise from speaking without qualification [ plo n] in any case about all people and for all times (294a10-b6)

What's more, even in the prior to the argument from deficiency for innate knowledge, Plato himself had made just this point about the contextual deficiency of moral rules. In the course of addressing the seeming tension between the philosopher's longing for "death" (i.e. the separation of soul from the body and the senses, which are hindrances to knowledge-acquisition), on the one hand, and the moral prohibition against suicide, on the other, Socrates says:

But perhaps it will seem surprising to you if this [rule against suicide] alone, among all the rest, is without qualification [ plo n], and that in the human realm it never happens that it is better to die than to live for some people at some times, as happens in the case of all other ... (62a2-5)

Socrates here expects his interlocutors to be surprised by the apparent fact that the rule against suicide, unlike all other moral rules, is true without exception or qualification. But this implies, of course, that his interlocutors were already inclined to accept the idea that all moral rules have exceptions. And as is clear from the remarks that he offers after our passage (cf. 62c6-8), Socrates himself does not subscribe to the view that the ban on suicide is true without qualification. But the most important point to note about this passage is that it shows Socrates' interlocutors, philosophical initiates that they are, were already well informed about and fully accepting of the Platonic idea that all moral rules are contextually deficient; and so Plato could expect that at least the philosophical sophisticates in his audience would bring this widely shared idea to bear in extending the mathematical argument from deficiency to the ethical realm.

Thus, I conclude, we have discovered that the sort of deficiency Plato thinks perceptibles are subject to in the ethical realm is a matter of contextual deficiency, and that the ethical perceptibles he has foremost in mind are action-types. Equipped with this information, we can now achieve the main goal of this paper, which was to reconstruct Plato's argument from deficiency for the existence of innate moral knowledge:

1. If we possessed no innate ethical knowledge, then the bases for our moral judgements would consist in moral rules.

2. But if the bases for our moral judgements consisted in moral rules, then we could not recognize the exceptions to (or the "deficiencies" in) all such rules.

3. Yet we can recognize the exceptions to (or the "deficiencies" in) all such rules.

4. Therefore, we possess innate ethical knowledge [1,2,3].

Space permits only very brief remarks about each step in the argument. The basic rationale for premise 1 should be clear from the idea of moral rules, which were defined above as statements that attempt to capture what is right and wrong in terms of observable types of behavior, and hence in terms of concepts that can be mastered the basis of experience without prior moral knowledge. As for premise 2, although it is possible to recognize the exceptions of some moral rules on the basis of other moral rules that are accorded greater weight, nonetheless, on pain of infinite regress, we will ultimately have to stop our appeals to higher-level moral rules with some moral rules that are primary; and our ability to recognize the exceptions to these primary rules cannot therefore be explained in terms of some further moral rules. Premise 3 simply affirms the ability Plato thinks we can explain only by positing innate moral knowledge (of Socratic definitions). And given those three premises, the conclusion in 4 asserting the existence of innate moral knowledge follows validly.

As for the assessment of its soundness, I can say here in closing only that the above argument is one that should have the characteristic (and, in many places, no doubt intended) effect of a Platonic argument; for although Plato's argument from deficiency for the existence of innate moral knowledge will be found convincing by few, it should challenge all to engage in the serious philosophical reflection that is needed to show exactly why it is wrong.

Mark - prof. Virginia Tech (USA)


[1] A. Plato on the Imperfections of the Sensible World // American Philosophical Quarterly. 1975. 12.

[2] Although in what follows I will be illustrating my points in connection with perceptible instances of justice and the Form of Justice, similar points could be made in connection with other ethical Forms.

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