What is Plato's Problem?

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

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.

Plato philosophized on knowledge, experience, and how the two relate.
Plato philosophized on knowledge, experience, and how the two relate.

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.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Noam Chomsky coined the term “Plato’s Problem” when looking at early childhood language learning.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguist Noam Chomsky coined the term “Plato’s Problem” when looking at early childhood language learning.

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

Diane Goettel
Diane Goettel

In addition to her work as a freelance writer for wiseGEEK, Diane is the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press, an independent publishing company based in upstate New York. She has also edited several anthologies, the e-newsletter Sapling, and The Adirondack Review. Diane has a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and an M.A. from Brooklyn College.

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@burcidi - I would love to read these articles (and it reminds me of the movie "Nell").

I work with children who don't develop verbal language, most of the time it is because they have a profound intellectual disability. Sometimes though, you see them develop other skills, but they do not talk. Sometimes it seems to be a part of their disability of autism, which particularly affects the communication areas of the brain.

But mostly I am curious about how these people who had never seen civilization did communicate, because although many of the children I work with do not have verbal language, many communicate through other means such as facial expressions, gestures, or simple vocalizations.

So i wonder if the people who had never been a part of civilization tried to communicate in some way or if that was not innate...


This is a really interesting subject. I started thinking about Plato's Problem when I read an article about people being discovered in remote parts of the world who had never seen civilization.

There might still be people on earth who live this way but individuals who have been discovered all by themselves in the past had little or no language capacity whatsoever. What this means is that people not only learn language through experience, but they also learn from other people. If we grew up on our own without our parents and other people around us, we wouldn't know how to speak. Without people, even experiences would not help us much.

I'm very interested in knowing more about this aspect of Plato's Problem.

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