The term “Plato’s Problem” was invented by Noam Chomsky, a famous and ground-breaking linguist. The term is applied to questions regarding how humans know what they know, and how our knowledge relates to our experience. Chomsky invented the term when trying to account for the ability that children have to use language. By the age of four, most children have the ability to construct complex sentences. This ability usually precedes literacy, mathematical skills, and even some motor skills. How is it, then, that children can use language so early in life? This is Plato’s Problem.
The reason that this question has been termed “Plato’s Problem” is that Plato, an aristocratic Athenian who lived from 427 B.C. to 347 B.C., philosophized on the topics of knowledge, experience, and how the two interrelate. The questions behind how language is learned and to what extent experience has to do with that knowledge relate directly to many questions that Plato posed. It is in the philosopher’s work Meno that these issues are addressed. Plato’s Problem is something that is grappled with by scholars and researchers in the fields of linguistics, psychology, and epistemology.
The term “Plato’s Problem” was originally invented by a linguist and was used in terms of linguistics. However, as mentioned above, the questions that the term stands for are relevant to other fields of study as well. Therefore, while the term is most commonly used in the field of linguistics, it may also be applied in other arenas. The question that is at the crux of Plato’s Problem is not specific to language, although it does relate directly to questions of how we acquire language. Rather, the main question has to do with knowledge and experience. What is experience? What is knowledge? How can we define these two things in exact terms? Moreover, how can we define the meeting and interaction of knowledge and experience?
If you are interested in learning more about Plato’s Meno dialogue, Noam Chomsky’s work with the questions regarding language acquisition, or how Plato’s Problem has been applied to other fields of study, you may want to refer to the following texts:
• Perception - Randolph Blake and Robert Sekuler
• Modular Approaches to the Study of the Mind - Noam Chomsky
• Thinking, Problem Solving, Cognition - Richard E Mayer
To read from Plato’s works for free, you can visit the following website which includes Meno: http://plato.thefreelibrary.com