A Second Defense of the Immortal Soul - Learning as Recollection - Paragraphs 73-77 from "The Phaedo" by Plato

Learning as Recollection

Wouldn't it make sense then, that if our souls existed in the Realm of the Forms (or Hades), that it was there that they learned of the forms in their pure state? And that when they were embodied again they were forced to forget everything until some semblance of the forms was encountered again in this life? Therefore, learning is nothing other than the soul recalling what it used to know. "According to this, we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect. This is possible only if our soul existed somewhere before it took on this human shape. So according to this theory too, the soul is likely to be something immortal." 

This was the conclusion of our previous post, here, from Plato's Phaedo where Socrates began his defense of the immortal soul. In this post we pick up with the following passage where he moves into his second argument for the soul. This time he uses the argument which people famously associate with Plato's idea of learning as recollection, or memory. 

In so many words, Plato argues that we know these very abstract realities which have no direct physical existence in the world. For example, the notion of perfect Equality, Justice, Beauty, Goodness. Everyone knows to a degree what these abstract concepts are ... yet they have never seen them with their eyes, or touched them with their hands. Rather, all of us have see reflections of them in physical things, as when we compare the sizes of things, or examine the pleasure of artwork, etc. But how could an abstract reality like those be conferred to us through our eyes and ears? Rather, the only logical conclusion is that these realities must already be present in our souls, in our minds. It is these physical sights, sounds, and touches that are triggers by which we recollect that which our soul always knew. And if our souls already knew these things then they too must have preexisted with these universal forms before the physical body. Learning then is the recollection or memory of the soul. 

Association of Memories
Socrates begins by arguing that when people are guided with the right instructions, that they always arrive at the same conclusion. And how could they do this unless the correct information already existed inside them, and all they needed to do was remember? "... when men are interrogated in the right manner, they always give the right answer of their own accord, and they could not do this if they did not possess the knowledge and the right explanation inside them." To further this point, Socrates gives the example of the association of memories. 

Recollection, all would agree, entails that someone knew something before, but it was forgotten and not present in one's consciousness until something jogs the person's memory. The knowledge or memories are associated together in the person, just not always consciously. 1 Likewise, when we see things that are connected through their dissimilarity, they can bring each other to memory. Now when this happens we cannot help but to compare the two things that are recollected, their similarities and dissimilarities. In doing this, though, we are brought to know a reality which has never been directly experienced in this life at all. What does this mean exactly? What reality? 

The Equal
Plato uses the example of "the Equal." Let's say someone saw two stacks of money which were different sizes, or two trees that were of different heights. In knowing these things there is a reality that is brought to our mind that transcends these stacks of money or these trees, this is the idea of "Equality itself." By seeing trees we are innately brought to know the idea of Equality in the abstract sense. How could this be? How could we have such a conception of the Equal if we had never known such a reality? After all, we only saw some trees. So where did we learn it? 

"Whence have we acquired the knowledge of it? Is it not from the things we mentioned just now, from seeing sticks or stones or some other things that are equal we come to think of that other which is different from them? Or doesn't it seem to you to be different? Look at it also this way: do not equal stones and sticks sometimes, while remaining the same, appear to one to be equal and to anther to be unequal? - Certainly they do. But what of the equals themselves? Have they ever appeared unequal to you, or Equality to be Inequality? Never, Socrates. These equal things and the Equal itself are therefore not the same? I do not think they are the same at all, Socrates. But it is definitely from the equal things, though they are different from that Equal, that you have derived and grasped the knowledge of equality? Very true, Socrates. Whether it be like them or unlike them? Certainly. It makes no difference. As long as the sight of one thing makes you think of another, Whether it be similar or dissimilar, this must of necessity be recollection? Quite so." 

And so, again, the similarity and dissimilarity of things bring to the mind the recollection of Equality itself as a perfect and abstract form. But how could this be so if everything we known only originated from the senses, from physical and deficient things? The idea of Equality, itself, must be innate to our souls. These trees must then only be a reminder of the pure form of quality which the soul must have known before being embodied. "We must then posses knowledge of the Equal before that time when we first saw the equal objects and realized that all these objects strive to be like the Equal but are deficient in this. ... Then before we began to see or hear or otherwise perceive, we must have possessed knowledge of the Equal itself if we were about to refer our sense perceptions of equal objects to it, and realized that all of them were eager to be like it, but were inferior." 2 

The Implications of this Truth
If this is true about the Equal, that it was innate in us before birth, then too the other abstract forms like the Equal could only have been innate in us as well. Our soul then is only remembering things it already knew when we are "learning" by perceiving the physical world. This is true of Beauty, Goodness, Justice, Piety, the Greater and the Smaller, etc. When we identify what a thing is, we always make reference to these forms. "...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." 

And so if when we lose knowledge we call it "forgetting," likewise when we learn knowledge we can really call it "remembering." It is not that people have the knowledge innate in them where they can spout that knowledge directly without prompting. Rather, they must have known it before this life and it is the senses that are jogging the knowledge of the soul. "When did our souls acquire the knowledge of them? Certainly not since we were born as men. Indeed no. Before that then? Yes. So then, Simmias, our souls also existed apart from the body before they took on human form, and they had intelligence." 

Therefore, if the Good, the True, the Beautiful, and every other non physical reality, which most all would certainly agree that they do, when how did we ever know them with our physical senses? The only explanation is that they existed before this physical world, and that our soul existed too and knew them then. Our soul is of the same nature as these eternal and abstract realities. 

"If those realities we are always talking about exist, the Beautiful and the Good and all that kind of reality, and we refer all the things we perceive to that reality, discovering that it existed before and is ours, and we compare these things with it, then just as they exist, so our soul must exist before we are born. ... I do not think, Socrates, and Simmias, that there is any possible doubt that it is equally necessary for both to exist ,and it is opportune that our argument comes to the conclusion that out soul exists before we are born, and equally so that reality of which you are now speaking. Nothing is so evident to me personally as that all such things must certainly exist, the Beautiful, the Good, and all those you mentioned just now. I also think that sufficient proof of this has been given." 3
1 - Miller, Patrick and Lloyd Gerson. Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2006. Pg. 115
2 - 116
3 - 117