Plato argues in his dialogue Meno that the human soul possesses all knowledge from eternity, and learning just consists of us remembering those knowledge within us. This Platonic concept of knowledge is known as Anamnesis.
Now, this all may sound some bunch of hogwash, but I’m going to offer an interpretation of this concept which may turn out to be insightful for you—the readers, hopefully.
Firstly, let us be clear that by knowledge, Plato is referring to knowledge a priori, i.e. the knowledge which doesn’t depend on experimental or worldly evidence. The flip side of the coin is knowledge a posteriori, which does depend on the world and experiences. To make this distinction clear, let us take a few examples. Logic and Mathematics are de-facto example of knowledge a priori, whereas Physics, Chemistry, Biology or History are fields of knowledge a posteriori. Here in this article, by knowledge we’ll be referring to knowledge a priori—for example mathematics—unless specified otherwise.
An Interpretation of Anamnesis
The Soul — The eternal human soul can be interpreted as our mind, more specifically the part of our mind which deals with higher forms of intellect, such as reasoning, emotional responses, and ability to contemplate abstract ideas.
Reincarnation — Reincarnation and the immortality of soul can be interpreted as the “passing on” of the human genome, and thus the intellectual mind—the soul.
Possession of Knowledge — Eternal possession of all knowledge by the soul can be interpreted as the ability of the human mind—the soul—to reason.
Remembrance of Knowledge — Remembrance of knowledge by the soul can be interpreted as the reasoning process, the way we can ask questions to ourselves and reason, arriving at knowledge a priori without it coming from any external source.
To give a background for all of this, we can refer to the famous examination of a slave, who is asked to solve a problem in geometry. Interestingly, Plato chooses to take the topic of geometry to convey his idea, which can be clearly categorized as a priori knowledge. In the dialogue, Socrates asks the slave questions regarding the relationship of the area and the length of the sides of a square, and eventually makes him arrive at the the truth. Socrates doesn’t tell him the answer directly, but rather guides him in his reasoning and points out the faults in his logic. By this, Socrates aims to prove his point about Anamnesis, that the slave—rather his soul— already knew the answer, he just had to remember it.
Now applying the interpretation I provided to this part of the dialogue, it becomes clear how it holds up. Socrates is trying to make him remember—reason towards the truth—by asking him questions and guiding his reasoning. His soul—his intellectual mind—already knows the answer, i.e it has the ability to arrive to it—remember it—by sheer contemplation. And his soul possesses this knowledge eternally, through reincarnations, as the genes contributing to the human intelligence survives through generations.
I will conclude this vignette with a comparison of my interpretation of Amnesia to another similar theory of the human mind and linguistics, the hypothetical Language Acquisition Device, put forth by Noam Chomsky. From Wikipedia,
… the LAD concept is an instinctive mental capacity which enables an infant to acquire and produce language. This theory asserts that humans are born with the instinct or innate facility for acquiring language. The main argument in favor of the LAD is the argument from the poverty of the stimulus, which argues that unless children have significant innate knowledge of grammar they would be unable to learn language as quickly as they do …
Similar to LAD, my interpretation of Amnesia also points towards an innate ability of the human mind, which explains a paradoxical situation. In the case of Meno, it is The Learner’s Paradox, also known as Meno’s Paradox or The Paradox of Inquiry. Similarly in the case of LAD, it aims to solve the paradox of Poverty of the Stimulus.
Check out the following links, insightful as they are regarding this topic.