Plato’s Problem

Plato’s problem is the term given by Noam Chomsky to the gap between knowledge and experience. It presents the question of how we account for our knowledge when environmental conditions seem to be an insufficient source of information. It is used in linguistics to refer to the “argument from poverty of the stimulus” (APS). In a more general sense, Plato’s Problem refers to the problem of explaining a “lack of input.” Solving Plato’s Problem involves explaining the gap between what one knows and the apparent lack of substantive input from experience (the environment). Plato’s Problem is most clearly illustrated in the Meno dialogue, in which Socrates demonstrates that an uneducated boy nevertheless understands geometric principles.



What is knowledge? What is experience? How do they interact? Is there a correlational, causal, or reciprocal relationship between knowledge and experience? These and other related questions have been at the forefront of investigation by problem solvers, scientists, psychologists, and philosophers for centuries. These questions, but particularly the problem of how experience and knowledge interrelate, have broad theoretical and practical implications for such academic disciplines as epistemology, linguistics, and psychology (specifically the subdiscipline of thinking and problem solving). Gaining a more precise understanding of human knowledge, whether defined as innate, experiential, or both, is an important part of effective problem solving.

Plato was the first philosopher who systematically inquired into issues such as those noted above. He wrote many dialogues, such as Euthyphro and the Apology, but it is from the Meno that the modern instantiation of Plato’s Problem is derived. In the Meno, Plato theorizes about the relationship between knowledge and experience and provides an explanation for how it is possible to know something that one has never been explicitly taught. Plato believed that we possess innate ideas that precede any knowledge that we gain through experience.

As formulated by Noam Chomsky,[1] accounting for this gap between knowledge and experience is “Plato’s Problem.” The phrase has a specific linguistic context with regard to language acquisition but can also be used more generally.

Plato (427 B.C. – 347 B.C.)



Plato was born into an aristocratic Athenian family. When Plato was a young man, Athens was defeated in the Peloponnesian War, a tragedy he attributed to the democracy (Russell). Plato was principally opposed to democracy, as he believed “democracy passes into despotism” [2]. Several of the political calamities of the day led Plato to propose an ideal form of government in his most famous work, The Republic, which still has profound influences on modern Western political philosophy.

Early work

Plato’s early philosophical endeavors involved poetry discussing many ideas, such as the differences between knowledge and opinion, particulars and universals, and God and man. These early dialogues do not utilize conventional notions of reason. Rather, they appeal to the emotions, the allegorical, the spiritual, and the mythological interests of an ancient speculative mind.

Controversy surrounds the early dialogues in how they are to be interpreted. Some claim that Plato was truly trying to discover objective reality through these mystical speculations while others maintain that the dialogues are stories to be interpreted only as parables, allegories, and emotional appeals to religious experience. Regardless, Plato would come to formulate a more rigorous and comprehensive philosophy later in his life, one that reverberates in contemporary Western thought to this day.

Some of Plato’s famous works are Phaedo, the Crito, and, as noted earlier, the Meno. Within these works are found a comprehensive philosophy that addresses epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, theology, and logic. As noted, most of the writing is in the form of dialogues and arguments to pursue answers to difficult questions and concepts. Plato’s teacher and mentor, Socrates, always plays a significant and formative role in these dialogues.

Socrates (470 B.C. – 399 B.C.)



Most of Plato’s philosophical ideas were communicated through his beloved teacher Socrates as a presence in the dialogues. Though Socrates never wrote anything himself, it is evident through Plato’s works that Socrates had an incredible ability to explore the most intense analytical discussions. However, for some there is controversy regarding how much historical fact can be derived from Plato’s Socrates (Russell). Some doubt Socrates ever existed. Others are skeptical as to the accuracy of some of Plato’s dialogues but nonetheless maintain that we can learn a substantial amount of historical information about Socrates from the dialogues. Still others take practically everything Plato wrote about Socrates as veridical history. Regardless, it may be safe to say that Plato never meant to record Socrates verbatim and it may plausibly be concluded that his general ideas were communicated in the dialogues.

Socratic method

As delineated in various writings, the meticulousness, articulation, and sophistication with which Socrates spoke supplies an outstanding problem solving technique – the Socratic Method. The Socratic method may be described as follows: it usually involves others with whom Socrates directly engages (not merely pontificating to an audience), it involves a deep philosophical or ethical question to which an answer was sought, and it usually involves Socrates asking questions either to affirm his understanding of others or to seek their understanding.
If someone disagreed with him, Socrates would execute this process in order to bring about his interlocutor’s reluctant admission of inconsistencies and contradictions. Either Socrates would ask his debators questions about their claims that would lead them to admit their fallacy or Socrates would answer questions by posing questions meant to lead the other to answer their own query.

The Socratic Method


One such dialogue of Plato’s that utilized the Socratic Method was the Meno. The participants were Socrates, Meno, Anytus, and one of Meno’s slave boys. The dialogue begins with Meno asking Socrates whether virtue can be taught. Socrates responds by stating that he does not know the definition of virtue. Meno replies by stating the characteristics of a virtuous man, to which Socrates responds that the characteristics of a virtuous man may be the by-products of virtuousness but they by no means define virtue. Meno is obliged to agree; to wit, he tries to modify his explanation of virtue. Socrates counters each attempt by pointing to inconsistencies and circular arguments.
Meno seems to commit two fallacies when trying to define virtue. He either defines it using some form of the word itself, or he defines it using other words that call for definitions and explanations themselves. Eventually, Meno is lead to confess his shortcomings as he tries to define the enigmatic term (the Socratic Method is the mechanism that brings about this confession). Socrates claims that a definition of virtue must consist of common terms and concepts that are clearly understood by those in the discussion.
A crucial point in the dialogue is when Socrates tells Meno that there is no such thing as teaching, only recollection of knowledge from past lives, or anamnesis. Socrates claims that he can demonstrate this by showing that one of Meno’s servants, a slave boy, knows geometric principles though he is uneducated. Socrates states that he will teach the boy nothing, only ask him questions to assist the process of recollection. Socrates proceeds to ask the slave boy a series of questions about the size and length of lines and squares, using visual diagrams to aid the boy in understanding the questions. The crucial point to this part of the dialogue is that, though the boy has no training, he knows the correct answers to the questions – he intrinsically knows the Pythagorean proposition.

Innate knowledge

Shortly before the demonstration of Pythagoras’ theorem, the dialogue takes an epistemological turn when the interlocutors begin to discuss the fundamental nature of knowledge. The general question asked is how one can claim to know something when one does not even know what knowledge is. Via the Socratic method, it is shown that the answer to the question posed is innateness – one possesses a priori knowledge.
This is derived from Socrates’ belief that one’s soul existed in past lives and knowledge is transferred from those lives to the current one. “These [ideas] were revealed in a former state of existence, and are recovered by reminiscence (anamnesis) or association from sensible things” [3]. The claim is that one does not need to know what knowledge is before gaining knowledge, but rather one has a wealth of knowledge before ever gaining any experience.

Contemporary parallels

There are contemporary contexts that provide input for the various questions posed here: how to account for the gap between experience and knowledge, what are some of the sources of knowledge, or how much knowledge is possessed prior to experience or without conscious awareness. There are many areas in contemporary linguistics and psychological research that have relevance to these epistemological questions. Linguistic analysis has provided some strong evidence for innate cognitive capacities for language and there are many areas of cognitive psychology that yield hard data from investigations into sources of knowledge. In addition, there are some claims in the Meno that have connections to current research on perception and long-term memory (LTM).


Noam Chomsky


Linguistics is the scientific study of language. Chomskian linguistics (an inclusive, though perhaps informal, label for the theories and methodologies of linguistic study spearheaded by Noam Chomsky, meant to encompass his extensive work and influence in the field) includes everything from Chomsky’s earliest work in transformational grammar to more recent work in the Minimalist Program. More exactly, it is the study of the structure of language, or grammar. Chomskian linguistics is defined by a particular theoretical foundation and methodological approach that sets it apart from other linguistic perspectives, such as those described by functional grammar or structuralism (per Leonard Bloomfield) for example. This particular approach to the study of language is also often referred to as Generative linguistics, which is attributed to Chomsky and his early generative grammar work.

Universal grammar

There are several concepts important to the Chomskian (or generativist) approach to linguistics. The most fundamental of these ideas is the theory of universal grammar (UG). Simply put, and as implied by the name, UG refers to those grammatical properties thought to be shared by all (to be universal to all) derivations of human language (anything from Amharic to Zhuang).
Per this conceptualization, UG is innate to all humans – people come “pre-wired” with this universal grammatical structure. A person’s individual grammar (that which is unique to the person) develops from the interaction between the innate universal grammar and input from the environment, or primary linguistic data. This “analytic triplet” (McGilvray, ed., 2005, p. 51), UG + input = grammar, is the functional core of the theory.
Language acquisition
Several questions (or problems) motivate linguistic theorizing and investigation. Two such taken up in Chomskian linguistics are the process of language acquisition in children, and “Plato’s Problem.” These subjects are interrelated and viewed as evidence in support of the theory of UG.
One of the simplest ways to approach the concept of universal grammar is to pose a hypothetical question about an aspect of language acquisition in children – why does a child learn the language that it does. As a specific example, how can a child of Asian descent (say, born of Chinese parents) be set down in the middle of Topeka, Kansas and acquire “perfect English?” The answer is that the child does not start with “Chinese,” or any other conventionally defined language, in its head. The child does start with general grammatical rules that determine linguistic properties.
Children come equipped with universal grammar, from which any natural human language will develop – without instruction. All that is needed is passive input. If what the child predominantly hears (or sees via sign) as it is maturing through the critical period (in linguistics, that period within which a child must have necessary and sufficient exposure to human language so that language acquisition occurs; without sufficient exposure to primary linguistic data, the UG does not have the necessary input required for the development of an individual grammar; this period is commonly recognized as spanning from birth to adolescence, generally up to 12-years-old, though a shorter or longer critical period is possible on a person-by-person basis) is the English spoken in Topeka, Kansas, then that is what the child will acquire. This is why, regardless of a child’s ethnic/racial background (or any other of a variety of non-relevant factors), the child will know Cockney English, Egyptian Arabic, or isiZulu if the child’s primary linguistic input is Cockney English, Egyptian Arabic, or isiZulu, respectively.
The hypothetical question posed addresses a common misconception about what, exactly, is instantiated in the mind/brain of an individual when it comes to language. It does not address the “logical problem” of language acquisition, i.e., how children transition from ostensibly having no knowledge of language to having full knowledge, in what may be described as a very limited time with apparently limited input.
Plato’s problem
To address the issue of apparently limited input, one must turn to what is possibly the most quoted of all arguments in support of universal grammar and its nativist interpretation – Plato’s Problem. The phrase refers to the Socratic dialogue, the Meno; Noam Chomsky is often attributed with coining the term. Plato’s Problem particularly refers to a point in the dialogue when Socrates is talking with an uneducated servant and shows, through this interaction, that the servant knows the Pythagorean Theorem though he has never been explicitly taught any geometry. How does the servant know without having ever been taught? Plato’s suggestion is, essentially, that people have innate knowledge.
In the field of linguistics, Plato’s Problem is the problem of finding an explanation for how a child acquires language though the child does not receive explicit instruction and the primary linguistic data (input, or stimuli, from the environment; PLD is necessary for the development of an individual’s grammar – language – via input into UG) a child does receive is limited. This limited
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