The Classical Quarterly (New Series)

Research Article

Platonic Anamnesis Revisited

Dominic Scotta1

a1 Clare College, Cambridge

The belief in innate knowledge has a history almost as long as that of philosophy itself. In our own century it has been propounded in a linguistic context by Chomsky, who sees himself as the heir to a tradition including such philosophers as Descartes, the Cambridge Platonists and Leibniz. But the ancestor of all these is, of course, Plato's theory of recollection or anamnesis. This stands out as unique among all other innatist theses not simply because it was the first, but also because it is in some respects the strangest: Plato proposed not just a theory of innate knowledge, but of forgotten knowledge, and this, of course, goes hand in hand with his interest in the pre-existence of the soul. But my concern here is with another difference that makes Plato's theory unique, though it is not as clear as the previous one: in fact it has been for the most part over-looked by commentators and scholars. I wish to argue that while other theories of innate knowledge or ideas hold that much of what is innate in us is realized automatically and with ease, be it knowledge of moral principles, the idea of cause and effect or linguistic competence, anamnesis is concerned only with the attainment of hard philosophical knowledge, which most of us never reach.