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2009-03-31
Socrates and spatial concepts
My scholarly colleagues will enjoy by this witty passage from Oxford psychologist Susanna Millar's recent book, Space and Sense.

"The idea that spatial concepts are known before birth was taught by the Athenian philosopher Socrates some two and a half thousand years ago.  It is nicely paradoxical that we really ought to credit that arch 'rationalist' philosopher with the first empirical study of spatial reasoning.  Unfortunately, an Athenian court condemned Socrates to poison himself with hemlock for teaching philosophy to the young.  So we can only go by the writings, as construed by later scholars, of his friend and student Plato (c. 429-347 BC). According to Plato, Socrates' questions elicited perfectly correct geometric deductions from an untaught, ignorant slave boy.  As any editor of a self-respecting scientific journal would, no doubt, have pointed out, the finding is flawed as empirical evidence for an innate concept of space.  Socrates would have to alter his method, and use better controls for leading questions and graphic demonstrations drawn in the sand, if he wanted it published.  Socrates actually anticipated the objection and refuted it, at least to Plato's satisfaction.  The view that concepts of space are innate has been with us, in some form, ever since."

I was tickled by Millar's snarky asides about scientific method.  After all, Socrates does let Meno pick the youth, and he admonishes him thus: "Do you observe, Meno, that I am not teaching the boy anything, but merely asking him each time?"

2013-03-18
Socrates and spatial concepts
Reply to Mohan Matthen
The argument doesn't depend on an innate concept of space (what does that mean? An a priori form of sensibility? If there is innate knowledge in Plato, it's not itself anything spatial).
Two things matter:
1. He need not be taught that an answer is right or wrong, he sees it by himself.
2. The slave boy grasps the ratio: 2 X x = 4 X 1/2 . But in a sense, to get this you must stop staring at the geometric figure...