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The Structure of Dialectic in the Meno

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In this paper I offer a new interpretation of the philosophical method of the Meno. In the opening discussion of the dialogue, Plato introduces a restriction on answers in dialectical inquiry, which I call the Dialectical Requirement (DR). The DR is applied twice in the Meno, in different ways (75d5-7, 79d1-3). In the first section of the paper, I argue that the two applications of the DR represent the beginning and end of dialectic. This shows that dialectical inquiry starts from our linguistic competence with the name of the property we investigate, and ends only when we have an account saying what is common to and explanatory of the bearers of that property. Dialectic begins in our ordinary ability to speak and think about the world, and ends in genuine grasp of the underlying causes of nature. In the second section, I describe the resources of linguistic competence, and their role in dialectical progress. Our linguistic competence with the name of a property enables us to make a wide variety of statements about the property and its bearers in ordinary discourse. In dialectic, these ordinary statements act as a portfolio in which the property under investigation is presented to us writ large, through its instances, types, species, etc. We seek to develop an account that says what is common to, and explanatory of the phenomena in the portfolio. When an account is inconsistent with one of the things we tend to say, this demands revision either in the account, or in the portfolio of statements. In this way, the process by which we develop our account also helps to organize and revise the statements in our portfolio so that they and the account ultimately form a coherent, explanatory body of statements.

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