Writing teasingly under the pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, and echoing the ironic and stubbornly maieutic stance of Socrates, Kierkegaard provides an idiosyncratic commentary on the paradox of Meno. He cites (1985: 37) Socrates’ “pugnacious proposition” (in Meno 80):
a person cannot possibly seek what he knows, and, just as impossibly, he cannot seek what he does not know, for what he knows he cannot seek, since he knows it, and what he does not know he cannot seek, because, after all, he does not even know what he is supposed to seek.
According to Kierkegaard, Socrates’ partial resolution to the paradox is “recollection”
the ignorant person merely needs to be reminded in order, by himself, to call to mind what he knows. The truth is not introduced into him but was in him.
This notion informs Socrates’ maieutic approach to pedagogy (1987: 23-24). Specifically the teacher “stands in reciprocal relation to the pupil and “is the occasion for the pupil to understand himself.” Kierkegaard admires Socrates’ dogged determination to act as a midwife rather than didact. Like Socrates, he sets up intriguing learning moments and conundrums rather than overtly revealing what he himself is thinking. He writes that Socrates formed his judgments with the “unbribability of one who is dead.” Socrates declares (in Theaetetus 150) that “god constrains me to serve as midwife, but has debarred me from giving birth.”
In the Socratic world, truth is reserved for the gods. Mere mortals obtain fleeting glimpses by recollection. The existence and immortality of the soul are assumed. In a rare didactic moment Socrates purports (in Meno 81) that:
the soul, since it is immortal and has been born many times, and has seen all things both here and in the other world, has learned everything that is.
As is usual with Socrates this by no means solves the paradox. Kierkegaard reminds us (1987: 37) that we should “not think ill” of this: for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. For Kierkegaard any encounter with truth has the potential “to will its own downfall.” The “ultimate passion of the understanding” is to “will a collision.” Echoing but not aping Meno, he proposes:
The ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.
For Kierkegaard (1987: 37) the “situation of understanding” is “terrifying”; but it is “less terrifying to fall on one’s face while the mountains tremble at god’s voice than to sit with him as his equal.” In a brutally sarcastic passage he contrasts this awesome and fearful encounter with the banality of unexamined, everyday life:
the human act of walking, so the natural scientists inform us, is a continual falling, but a good steady citizen who walks to his office mornings and home at midday probably considers this an exaggeration… how could it occur to him that he is continually falling, he who unswervingly follows his nose.
Kierkegaard, Søren (1985) Philosophical Fragments: Johannes Climacus. Edited and Translated By Hong, Howard V. and Hong, Edna H. Originally published in 1843. Princeton University Press.