The uses of aporia: the torpedo-fish analogy in Plato’s Meno


MENO: Socrates, I certainly used to hear, even before meeting you, that you never did anything else than exist in a state of perplexity (aporia) yourself and put others in a state of perplexity. And now you seem to be bewitching me and drugging me and simply subduing me with incantations, so that I come to be full of perplexity. And you seem to me, if it is appropriate to make something of a joke, to be altogether, both in looks and other respects, like the flat torpedo-fish (narkē) of the sea. For, indeed, it always makes anyone who approaches it grow numb, and you seem to me now to have done that very sort of thing to me, making me numb (narkan). For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you. And yet thousands of times I have made a great many speeches about virtue, and before many people, and done very well, in my own opinion anyway; yet now I’m altogether unable to say what it is. And it seems to me that you are well-advised not to sail away or emigrate from here: for, if you, a foreigner in a different city, were to do this sort of thing, you would probably be arrested as a sorcerer. (Plato’s Meno 79e-80b This and future citations will be from the translation of Berns and Anastaplo, Focus Philosophical Library, 2004)

In this passage, Meno likens Socrates to a torpedo fish, a likeness with respect both to appearance (i.e. Socrates’ famous snub nose) and to his numbing effect on those who come into contact with him. Socrates accepts the aptness of the analogy with the proviso that the numbing shock of his questioning be understood as applying to himself as well. Given that Socrates has sanctioned the comparison (albeit in an amended form), how is one to understand it? Is it simply Socratic doubt that is at issue or is the analogy revelatory of other aspects of what Plato is up to in this dialogue?

The fish in question is the crampfish, or electric ray, which administers a paralyzing shock upon would-be predators as a means of effecting its escape. It is this latter aspect of its shock, the purpose of evasion, that Socrates perhaps finds objectionable in the the original analogy. On the contrary, Socrates admits to being as perplexed as his “victim.” Rather, it is Meno himself who, soon after drawing the analogy, attempts a “paralysis-and-escape” gambit of his own with his “contentious argument” (eristikon logon, 80d6-10). Socrates accuses Meno’s argument — that one cannot inquire into that which one does not already know — of creating the same kind of torpor attributed to the torpedo fish, an argument against which he contrasts his own theory of recollection:

So then one must not be persuaded by this contentious argument. For it would make us lazy and is pleasant only for fainthearted people to hear, but the other argument makes us both ready to work and to seek. (81d-e)

Socratic questioning, unlike the shock of the torpedo fish, is not a means of evasion. On the contrary, Socrates’ shock has other uses — uses that get to the very essence of learning itself.

The Greek name for the torpedo fish is narkē, so called because of its power to benumb (narkan). This latter Greek word is the source of our English word, “narcotic.” A narcotic induces numbness and paralysis if applied is sufficient measure and Meno complains of just such symptoms:

For truly, both in soul and in mouth, I am numb and have nothing with which I can answer you.  (80 a-b)

Indeed, his mouth has been paralyzed; he is at a loss to give the kind of speech about virtue he given before to some acclaim. He incorrectly infers however that his soul also has been numbed by Socrates’ questioning. Meno has assumed too close a linkage between voice and soul. He is quite correct to feel his soul numb, but it is the feeling and not the numbing that is the result of the Socratic shock. We may speculate that it is only when he is prevented from talking that he notices the paralysis of his own soul. Meno’s name means in Greek, “I remain.” Meno is the one who stays put, who fails to move, the one who is, in a deep sense and at the level of the soul, paralyzed — paralyzed by its own self-concealed ignorance. The encounter with Socrates makes such ignorance manifest; it forces Meno to “feel” his soul’s paralysis, perhaps for the first time.

Another English word descended from the same root is “narcissism.” Lest this connection appear spurious, notice how Socrates immediately responds to Meno’s torpedo-fish analogy:

SOCRATES: I’m aware of why you portrayed me in a likeness.
MENO: Why, indeed, do you suppose?
SOCRATES: So that I would make a likeness of you in return. And I know this about all beautiful people, that they delight in having images made of them; it pays for them. But I will not make an image in return.  (80c)

This is not the first time in the dialogue that Socrates has remarked on the physical beauty of Meno — he repeatedly invokes a stereotype of the Beautiful One, pampered and indulged by others. Meno the narcissist approaches the Socratic pool with a view to acquiring a reflected glimpse of himself through the reaction of a potential admirer. Indeed, Socartes reflects back quite a lot. We have already seen how Socrates reveals Meno’s torpedo-fish comparison to be a perverse reflection of Meno himself, a Meno who paralyzes inquiry through eristic arguments in an attempt to evade being refuted. But Meno also sees reflected back a person finally ignorant about the deepest concerns of humanity, a reflection painful and yet potentially redemptive. Indeed, Socrates proves to be a crueler mirror than Meno had hoped by so exposing the real man, and not the superficially handsome aspect he had expected.

One of the chief aspects of the dialogue is to warn against what may be called a “narcissism of learning.” The narcissist is one who tries to love without entering into a relationship with someone or something other. His comportment toward other beings is one of possession rather than relation. This carries over even in his approach to wisdom. Wisdom is an object of possession, something that he appropriates with the purpose of making him shine before others. Meno’s admiration of the sophist Gorgias and his adoration of his own speeches has little to do with the substance of what is said, but rather with its cosmetic value and the effect it has on an enraptured audience. The sophist is one who claims to possess wisdom, whereas the philosopher is the one who claims to love it, relate to it, and to submit to its claims. The style of speech that characterizes the sophist is the monologue, an essentially non-relational form in which the speaker is always in command of what is said. The philosopher, on the other hand, engages in dialogue, a relational give-and-take in which no one participant may claim to be in charge, in which each must adopt a posture of submission to the other and to truth when it appears. The slave-boy proves to be a better learner than Meno precisely because he knows what it means to submit; his learning is in no way bound up with narcissism.

A third English derivative from narkē, besides “narcotic” and “narcissism,” is “narcosis,” a word associated with sleep and drowsiness. After Socrates completes his dialogue with the slave boy, he discusses with Meno the advantage of the narcotic shock to the process of recollection:

SOCRATES: And now those very opinions have just been stirred up in him, like a dream. But if someone were to ask him these same questions many times and in different ways, you know that he will finally understand them no less precisely than anyone else. (85c)

Socrates says that the advantage of the shock is that it agitates the opinion, that it induces a dreamlike state in its patient. Indeed, the myth of recollection, with its cyclical notions of life and death, suggests that one’s life may be a sleep from which one must awake. The difference between opinion, even true opinion, and knowledge corresponds to the difference between dreaming and wakefulness:

SOCRATES: If then both during the time in which he is and the time in which he is not a human being, true opinions will exist in him, which after being aroused by questioning become matters of knowledge, then will not his soul for all time be in a condition of having learned? (86a)

However if the ascent to knowledge is likened to the process of waking up, what is the value of the shock of the narkē, the shock that stirs up opinions as in dreaming? Aren’t dreaming and waking contraries?

There are two ways at least advantages of the sleep-inducing narcotic that Socrates peddles. First, dreams can be a fertile repository of notions that the conscious mind has either failed to see or actively repressed. Consciousness, guarded by an army of opinions, filters experience into a manageable shape. This filtering works perhaps to eliminate those aspects of experience that give rise to the anxiety of not knowing what to do or how to act. A consciously-held opinion is that which allows the agent to act without the paralyzing arising from a complete consideration of those things abstracted from. Consciousness so conceived is designed not to cure doubt but to eliminate it, to bar its disruptive entry into the polis, even, metaphorically, to bar Socrates. When Meno complains of the Socratic shock that paralyzes his soul, perhaps what has been paralyzed is the filter of consciousness. As long as consciousness is given free reign, no new idea is allowed to interrupt the self-satisfied, self-loving torpor of the narcissistic soul. The narcosis introduced by Socratic questioning is an enticement to reverie, which serves as a womb for the birth of rival hypotheses. It is a tiptoed entry into the soul’s garrison past the sleeping guards of consciousness.

Another way of thinking about the kinship between Socrates and narcosis is that the shock is not one that induces sleep but rather makes it evident — the victim of the shock is already asleep, but becomes aware of it after the sting — just as we described the encounter with paralysis. This idea harmonizes with the previous contrast between opinion/sleep and knowledge/wakefulness. The shock does not wake the victim, but facilitates an awakening and it therefore places him in an intermediate position between knowledge and naive opinion — a state of having an opinion that recognizes itself as mere opinion. Thus, the narcosis that Socrates induces serves not only to inspire new potencies for knowing, but also to put one beliefs into question, to ascend from a tenuous belief (pistis) to a self-interrogating hypothesis (dianoia). The shock doesn’t force the abandonment of one’s opinions (since it is clear that one can on act on their basis), but calls them into question, and invites in rival opinions.

There are then, within this one comparison, three different paths of what the aporetic shock of the narkē may make known:

i) numbness, which is (ironically) a sensitivity towards the paralysis of one’s own soul;

ii) narcissism, which has its cure by means of a (again ironic) mirroring effect that Socrates reflects back to his interlocutor; and

iii) narcosis, which is the dream-state (ironically also an awakening) that allows one to detach from the fictions that rule one’s behavior in preparation for new habits of cognitive engagement.

The shock of the torpedo-fish is not an end, but a beginning, which overcomes a complacent fixity of belief that has no occasion for beginning and therefore can strive toward no end. True opinion can only arise if one loosens one’s grip on the false. But in the ascent to true knowledge, once must even release one’s grip on true opinion. The “tying down” of knowledge is an effect finally not of possession, but of relationship.




The limits of skepticism

Skepticism is an important component of Socratic/Platonic reasoning, perhaps even its distinguishing part. (A later iteration of the Academy founded by Plato, an iteration which began with a shift of emphasis by its then director Arcesilaus around the middle of the 3rd Century BCE, was called in fact “The Skeptical Academy”.) It must be noted however that the root verb skeptsesthai means something more like “to conduct an investigation” than “to deny all positive assertions.” To be skeptical in the Platonic sense does mean to tease out the negative features, the defects, that haunt all honest attempts to assert what is true. But such skepticism, on discovering the dubious and defective, does not necessitate an unqualified denial. Thinking through opinion, a mode of cognition that Plato called dianoia, requires that we continue to hold the limited positive senses of assertions while remaining open to the anterior norms that make awareness of the negation possible. Opinion is an intermediate, a metaxy, between ignorance and knowledge. Participating in both, opinion always both reveals and conceals, indicates and detracts from knowledge. From the Divided Line, it is clear that as image stands to object, so in dianoia does opinion stand to truth. Both the positive anticipation and the nagging doubts are signs that witness to the true and “we have no power of thinking without signs” (C.S. Peirce).

A failure to understand a medium as a medium, a mistaking a means for an end, does enormous epistemological mischief. This failure is particularly acute when coupled with strong enforcement of the “Law of the Excluded Middle” — the “law” that claims that a proposition is either true or false simply with no third option. Descartes’ chief error is in restricting the realm of truth to those things that could be known with certainty, rejecting as false all statements that are in any way dubious. It is an error to reject as wholly false that which is in some sense true. But the realm of the excluded middle, the realm of what could be true but may not be, is a rejection of doxa as such, a rejection of the the only medium through which knowledge of the existentially vital may be approached. Although the abstract can be known with certainty, even this certainty breaks down when we attempt to apply it to the concrete world. Dianoia is a moderate position between rival errors: to reject as wholly false what is in some sense true, and to accept as uncritically true what is still open to doubt or error. Either of these stances is arbitrary and blind.

Thinking has a from-to character of the type that Michael Polanyi describes: “The subsidiaries of from-to knowing bear on a focal target, and whatever a thing bears on may be called it’s meaning. Thus the focal target on which they bear is the meaning of the subsidiaries.” (Personal Knowledge, p. 35)  To look *at* the opinion without looking *through* it (the “dia-” of dianoia) is a failure to understand what it is. (Plato’s hypothesis of the Forms is often a victim of this type of misreading.) In a Platonic examination — the skepsis of an honest opinion — the misgiving/doubt that inevitably results is not a bug but a feature.


Some Meno quotes bearing on the difference between opinion and knowledge

I am at work on a precis of my entire argument and hope to a have a rough draft of it in a few weeks. (This is why my posts have been few and far between of late.) Currently I am at work on the section dealing with the nature of doxa, i.e. opinion. To state my nutshell opinion on opinion: while it certainly differs from knowledge, as the quotes listed below make clear, it is not a matter of knowledge instead of opinion as much as knowledge through opinion. Opinion is the proper medium of knowledge and the trick that Plato would have us learn is to employ it as a means and not the end of thought. Opinion is not enough to satisfy a healthy intellectual eros — it is defective — and the thought that encompasses both opinion as satisfying belief and dissatisfying doubt is a lens toward the noetic light that illumines knowledge.

Anyway, here are some quotes from Plato’s Meno that bear partially on my thesis. (The translation I am citing is that by Anastaplo and Berns, published by Focus Philosophical Library, 2004.) Feel free to comment on any of these.

1. True opinion, therefore is no worse a guide to right action than prudence. (Meno 97b)
2. He who has knowledge would always hit the mark, whereas he who has right opinion would sometimes hit it sometimes not. (Meno 97c)
3. True opinions, for as long a time as they should stay put, are a fine thing and accomplish all kinds of good things. Yet much of the time they are not willing to stay put, but run away out of the human soul; so that they are not worth much until someone should bind them with causes by reasoning. And this, my comrade Meno, is recollection, as we agreed before. And whenever they have become bound, first they become knowledge and then steadfast. And this is why knowledge is worth more than right opinion, and by its binding, knowledge differs from and excels right opinion. (Meno 97e-98a)
4. I too speak, not as one who knows, but as one who makes images and conjectures. But I certainly do not think I am making images or guessing this, that right opinion and knowledge are different things. But if there is anything I could affirm that I know, and there are few that I could affirm — one of those at any rate which I set down that I know is this. (Meno 98a-b)
5. If…true opinions will exist within him [i.e. the slave boy], after which being aroused by questioning become matters of knowledge, then will not his soul for all time be in a condition of having learned? (Meno 86a)
6. And in what way will you seek, Socrates, for that which you know nothing at all about what is? What sort of things which you do not know are you proposing to seek for yourself? Or, even if, at best, you should happen upon it, how will you know it is that which you do not know? (Meno 80d)
7. I would not assert myself altogether confidently on behalf of my argument; but that in supposing one ought to seek what one does not know we would be better, more able to be brave and less lazy than if we supposed that which we do not know we are neither capable of discovering nor ought to seek — on behalf of that I would surely battle, so far as I am able, both in word and in deed. (Meno 86b-c)
8. Inasmuch as all nature is akin and the soul has learned all things, there is nothing to prevent someone who recollects (which people call learning) one thing only from discovering all other things, so long as he is brave and does not grow tired of seeking. For seeking and learning therefore consist wholly in recollection. So that one should not be persuaded by this contentious argument. For it would make us lazy and is pleasant only for fainthearted people to hear, but the other argument makes us both ready to work and to seek. Trusting in this one to be true, I am willing with you to seek for whatever virtue is. (Meno 81d-e)

More on Protagoras

I want to continue some thoughts about what may be gleaned about Protagoras’ reputation in preparation for reading the dialogue named after him. (Link to previous Protagoras post.) The dramatic date of the Protagoras is around 433 BCE. Since the character Protagoras was probably the most famous intellectual in the world at the time, an adequate reading of the dialogue demands that we review what has been said about Protagoras outside the text itself, even if the source material is somewhat dubious. What follows are a few quotations from Diogenes Laertius’ “Life of Protagoras” along with my comments on them. Of course, it must be remembered that Diogenes Laertius lived 600 years after Protagoras, so these passages should be taken for what they are — legendary vestiges of popular rumors:


1. He was the first person who asserted that in every question there were two sides to the argument exactly opposite to one another. And he used to employ them in his arguments, being the first person who did so.

COMMENT: The sophists were notorious for being willing and able to defend either side of an argument. Protagoras was accused of “making the weaker argument stronger,” a charge often leveled at Socrates as well. But all genuine thinking must (more…)