The Recollection Argument in Plato’s Phaedo (2005)

Even on his last day of existence, Socrates did not surrender his exploration of the nature of the soul. Using the Socratic Method and the Recollection Argument, he cleverly proved that the soul exists before birth and that it is immortal. In this paper, I will explain Socrates’ line of reasoning by using the words of the philosophers engaged in the discussion recollected in Phaedo and a metaphor of my own. Secondly, I will point out some limitations in the Recollection Argument, such as its exclusive definition of all learning as recollection and the negative perception of the body. Finally, I will assess the strength of Socrates’ premises and the conclusion to reach an overall evaluation of the argument that established a strong foundation for future examination of the nature of the soul.

Our inquiry begins with the analysis of the premises upon which the Recollection Argument is established. Plato’s Theory of Forms is a pivotal aspect of the Recollection Argument. Forms are ideas that are imperceptible through the senses. They are eternal and independent of human existence. Examples of Forms include the Equal, Beautiful, Good, and Size. Our understanding of the Forms provides a standard for measuring how much something possesses or lacks a particular Form. For instance, we can only know how small something is by relating it to a reference, presumably something big. Moreover, we cannot measure darkness directly, but only the amount of light present, thus measuring how it would lack the "Form of Light." Plato adds that Forms are constant and absolute in the invisible world, but in the physical world, they never manifest in the same way, which means that they are hard to distinguish (Plato, 78d-79a). Due to their intangibility, Forms cannot be understood using the senses. This means that empirical understanding, which includes scientific understanding and reasoning, is useless to comprehend the Forms as it is based on the perception of the world with our senses.

The philosophers engaged in the discussion recollected in Phaedo understand the soul as a separate entity of the body. Even though science has not provided concrete evidence of this division, without this premise the discussion of what happens after death would most likely collapse to a conversation about the decomposition of the body. Moreover, they unanimously agree that our senses, which begin to function since birth, do not provide a reliable foundation for true knowledge. They are the source of "impure thought," which does not lead to the truth or the understanding of reality. Because the body constantly deceives the soul, it does not allow the soul to acquire wisdom while they are connected (Plato, 65c). If pure thought could be achieved while they are joined, all knowledge could result from the physical realm, thus making the task of all philosophers world-oriented, and proving that the soul exists before birth would require a different approach. The idea that our senses deceive us has been thoroughly explored in psychology, an area that is mostly concerned in explaining why the mind makes such erroneous attributions. However, Socrates’ goal is to engage in pure thought while the soul is dissociated from a body, a context where no adverse consequences from sense-perception would arise. A question immediately arises from Socrates’ reasoning: what makes Socrates believe that the soul’s perceptions when it separates from the body will not be deceived, even though it would not be by the trickery of the five senses?

Next, we need to consider Socrates’ Recollection Argument. So what exactly is recollection? Recollection involves bringing memories back to conscious awareness. In Socrates’ words, "as soon as the sight of one thing makes you think of another, whether it be similar or dissimilar, this must of necessity be recollection" (Plato, 74d). Moreover, "we must at some previous time have learned what we now recollect" (Plato, 72e). The object currently being observed must be compared to the recollected memory, and then evaluated to assess their similarities and note any deficiencies (Plato, 74a). Based on our definition of recollection, Plato’s statements follow irrefutable logic.

Socrates reaches his first conclusion from this argumentation when he states that the Forms and the objects that posses the Form are not the same. This conclusion joins all the previous premises, and becomes a pivotal premise to prove the Recollection Argument. For Socrates, knowledge about the Forms cannot be gained simply by comparing objects that possess the characteristics of that particular Form. Knowledge about the Forms cannot result from the physical realm: it can only result when the soul is separated from the body, because in the visible existence, Forms do not exist in the pure state. Due to the extreme importance of the previous premise for the whole argument, I believe that the reader deserves more than the concise explanation that Plato decided to give us (Plato, 65c, 74b). Because we have knowledge of the forms in this life, and because it was proven before that this knowledge did not result from the physical realm, Socrates concludes that our understanding of the Forms must exist from before we were born. Therefore, he concludes that the soul came into existence before our birth. As Socrates’ transparently puts it, "our souls also existed apart from the body before they took on human form, and they had intelligence" (Plato, 76c).

The purpose of the Recollection argument was not only to show that the soul existed before birth, but to establish a premise in the dialogue on which Socrates could further demonstrate to Cebes that the soul is immortal (Plato, 87a). This will somehow motivate Socrates’ followers to further explore philosophy once Socrates drinks the hemlock, separating his soul from the body and leaving them behind. On a deeper level, the argument creates peace of mind on those who are left since they are assured that their souls will transcend death, while at the same time knowing that Socrates will live in a constructive setting. This argument that the soul is immortal leads us to believe that Plato would argue that because all that dies has a beginning, and the soul is immortal, the soul therefore has always been in existence. However, this deduction would only be a speculation as the philosopher chose not expand on this matter.

I have been able to grasp the Recollection Argument through a metaphor of my own, similar to those that Plato employed in his texts. Our minds tell us that in dreams we can see, smell, or even levitate. All dreams have some foundation on reality, but they are nothing more than a distortion of the waking reality. Applying this idea to the Recollection Argument, we are currently in a dream-state brought on by the deceit by the senses, and that when our body and soul separate, we will wake up, gaining understanding of reality. Thus, we could argue that we will not understand reality if we try to do so while in that dream-state. Moreover, thoughts that arise during dream-state are "impure" as they do not represent reality accurately because of the clever deceit of which we are victims while in it. The Recollection Argument states that we can’t understand reality until we wake up from our bodily lives.

What gives us the ability to dream? Our dreams are based on our everyday actions, and therefore, without these actions we would not be able to dream. In the same way, Socrates argues that the only reason we can try to understand our dream-state is because we were once awake, awake, and thus knew Reality, the realm of the Forms. How would we comprehend completely a situation that happens in a dream if we couldn’t connect it to our daily lives? Finally, Socrates interprets death as the waking up from the dream state, the final release from the chains of dreaming, that allows direct observation of reality.

I believe one of the main weaknesses of the Recollection Argument is the negative outlook of the dream-state. Plato believes that being in the dream-state only brings unfounded truths as it is based on deceived perceptions, which are completely irrelevant to understand reality. This means that Plato depicts the dream-state as a non-independent entity from which no knowledge can be gained. If this is so, then what is the purpose of experiencing the dream-world? Plato never explains why the soul initially joined with the body. The arguments presented by Socrates seem to support the idea of reincarnation; however, he makes no statements about how and why the soul chooses to reincarnate.

Plato goes further in this line of reasoning and states that all learning is a form of recollection because the dream-state is only a distortion of reality. Life is reduced to recollecting what we already know and nothing else, making our lives simply a nostalgic remembering. Why couldn’t some of our learning be gained with the body instead of through recollection? Why couldn’t we define beauty by simply comparing all the objects we have known in our lives and figure out what overall characteristics are more valuable or trigger our emotions? Socrates could answer this question since he implies that we cannot set our own standards as they would be based on our sense-perception.

There is another possible loophole in Plato’s argument. He argues that we must have acquired the knowledge of the Forms before we were born but lost it at birth and then, the knowledge was gradually recovered with our senses as we start to recollect. However, Socrates does not have any guarantee that when he dies, and thus gains access to the true reality, the realm of Forms, he will remember what happened during his dream-state. If Socrates’ position that no knowledge can be gained in the dream-sate, then this would not make a difference. But if the argument of reincarnation is retaken and we enter the dream-state to learn a lesson, remembering what happened in that life becomes essential. Memories are of no use if they can’t be remembered consciously, the same way dreams are useless if we can’t remember them. If he were to forget his dream-state, he could cyclically spend his lives trying to remember what he dreamt, without realizing he already woke up.

Putting aside the dream metaphor, Socrates’ conception of free will and individuality calls my attention. Socrates takes as a fact that he will still exist as an independent, fully-conscious being with decision-making capacity. He may have proven that what coexists with the body persists even after death, but he does not prove that it continues to exist as a whole. What if the elements that make his soul separate, leaving away his egotistic conception of reality, and recombine with other elements to form new combinations of souls?

The conclusion that Socrates reaches is perfectly valid as it logically follows the premises that were agreed upon by all the philosophers that were present the day of his execution. However, in this case the soundness of the argument is relative, depending on the reader’s perception on how knowledge can be gained. All the premises are true if Socrates’ logic is strictly followed. As an alternative approach to demonstrate that the soul is immortal, Socrates could have decided not to prove that the soul exists before birth. This would mean that no knowledge would be a form of recollection, which would give a broader significance to existence. As a definition, not all that is immortal has to be inherently eternal.

I agree completely with Socrates’ conclusion, since I strongly believe in the immortality of the soul, although I did not arrive at the same conclusions by applying the Socratic Method, but based in meditation and self-awareness. The Recollection Argument is a thought-provoking sequence of ideas, but they are all exclusively based on reason. I believe that our understanding of reality beyond the body can be enhanced with our experiences in this dimension. We will surely not know until our souls separates from our bodies. Until then, we can use logical arguments, or simply follow our intuition to understand the nature of the soul and of reality.

Plato. . Phaedo.. . Five Dialogues. Translated by G.M.A Grube. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co., 1981. 93-155.