Socrates: “I know that I know nothing”

Delphi tholos cazzul.JPGThe Delphic Tholos

© Paul Bonea (Reprinted with Permission)
https://hastyreader.com/the-only-thing-i-know-is-that-i-know-nothing/

I know that I know nothing –  5 interpretations

A good friend of Socrates, once asked the Oracle at Delphi “is anyone wiser than Socrates?”
The Oracle answered “No one.”

This greatly puzzled Socrates, since he claimed to possess no secret information or wise insight. As far as Socrates was concerned, he was the most ignorant man in the land.

Socrates was determined to prove the Oracle wrong. He toured Athens up and down, talking to its wisest and most capable people, trying to find someone wiser than he was.

I know that I know nothing

What he found was that poets didn’t know why their words moved people, craftsmen only knew how to master their trade and not much else, and politicians thought they were wise but didn’t have the knowledge to back it up.

What Socrates discovered was that none of these people knew anything, but they all thought they did. Socrates concluded he was wiser than them, because he at least knew that he knew nothing.

This at least is the story of the phrase. It’s been almost 2500 years since its longer form was initially written. In that time, it has caught a life of its own and now has many different interpretations. [Here are five of them.]

1) I know that I know nothing, because I can’t trust my brain

One interpretations of the phrase asks if you can be 100% certain if a piece of information is true.

Imagine this question: “Is the Sun real?”

If it’s day time, the answer is immediately obvious because you can simply point your hand at the Sun and say: “Yes, of course the Sun is real. There it is.”

But then, you will fall into something called the infinite regress problem. This means every proof you have, must be backed up by another proof, and that proof too must be backed up by another one.As you go down the infinite regress, you will reach a point where you have no proof to back up a statement. Because that one argument can’t be proven, it then crashes all of the other statements made up to it.

infinite regress chain

French philosopher Rene Descartes went so far with the infinite regression, that he imagined the whole world was just an elaborate illusion created by an Evil Demon that wanted to trick him.

As the Evil Demon scenario shows, the infinite regression will often go so far down it will challenge whether any of the information entering your brain is real or not.

Thus, if all the information you’re receiving through the senses is an illusion, then by extension you know nothing.

Counterarguments: Descartes came up with the phrase “I think, therefore I am”. This puts a stop to the infinite regress since it’s impossible to doubt your own existence because simply by thinking, you prove that your consciousness exists.

Another philosophical counter argument is that some statements do not require proof in order to be called true. These are called self-evident truths, and include statements such as:

  • 2+2 = 4
  • A room that contains a bed is automatically bigger than the bed.
  • A square contains 4 sides.

These self-evident truths act as foundations stones that allow knowledge to be built upon.

2) I know that I know nothing, because the physical world isn’t real

Socrates never left behind any written texts (mostly because he hated writing, saying it would damage our memory). All of the things we know about Socrates comes mostly from Plato, and to a lesser extent, Xenophon.

However, Plato wrote his philosophy in dialogue form and always used Socrates as the voice for his own ideas. Because of this, it’s almost impossible to separate the true Socrates from Plato.

One interesting interpretation of “I know that I know nothing”, is that the phrase could actually belong to Plato, alluding to one of his ideas: the theory of forms.

According to theory of forms, the physical world we live in, the one where you can read this article on a monitor or hold a glass of water, is actually just a shadow.

The real world is that of “ideas” or “forms”. These are non-physical essences that exist outside of our physical world. Everything in our dimension is just an imitation, or projection of these forms and ideas.

theory of forms analogy

Another way to think about the forms, is to compare something that exists in the real world vs. its ideal version. For instance, imagine the perfect apple, and then compare it to real world apples you’ve seen or eaten.

The perfect apple (in terms of weight, crunchiness, taste, color, texture, smell etc.) only exists in the realm of forms, and every apple you’ve seen in real life is just a shadow, an imitation of the perfect one.

That being said, the theory of forms does have some major limitations. One of them is that a human living in the physical / shadow realm, you can never know how an ideal form looks like. The best you can do is to just think what a perfect apple, human, character, marriage etc. look like, and try to stick to that ideal as much as possible.

You’ll never know for sure what the ideal looks like. In this sense, “I know I know nothing” can mean “I only know the physical realm, but I know nothing about the real of forms”.

3) I know that I know nothing, because information can be uncertain

A more straightforward interpretation is that you can never be sure if a piece of information is correct. Viewed from this perspective, “I know that I know nothing” becomes a motto that stops you from making hasty judgement based on incomplete or potentially false information.

This interpretation is also connected with the historical context in which Socrates (or Plato) uttered the phrase. At the time, Pyrrhonism was a philosophical school that claimed you cannot discover the truth for anything (except the self-evident such as 2+2=4).

From the Pyrrhonist point of view, you cannot say for sure if a statement is correct or false because there will always be arguments for and against that will cancel each other out.

For instance, imagine the color green.

A Pyrrhonist would argue that you cannot be sure this is the color green because:

  1. Animals might perceive this color differently.
  2. Other people might perceive the color differently because of different lighting, color blindness etc.

A non-philosopher would just say “it’s green dammit, what more do you need?” and close the problem.

What makes Pyrrhonists different is that instead of saying “yes this is a color, and that color is green”, they will simply say “yes, this is a color, but I’m not sure which so I’d rather not say.”

pyrrhonist philosophy and skepticism

For Pyrrhonists however, such a position was not just a philosophical exercise. They extended this way of thinking to their entire lives so it became a mindset called epoché, translated as suspension of judgement. This suspension of judgement then led to the mental state of ataraxia, often translated as tranquility.

From the Pyrrhonist point of view, people cannot achieve happiness because their minds are in a state of conflict by having to come to conclusions in the face of contradictory arguments.

As a result, Pyrrhonists chose to suspend their judgement on all problems that were not self-evident, hoping that thus they will achieve true happiness.

Ultimately, from the Pyrrhonist perspective, “I know that I know nothing” can mean “truth cannot be discovered”.

4) I know that I know nothing – the paradox

A more conventional approach to the phrase is to simply view it as a self-referential paradox. The most well-known self-referential paradox is the phrase “this sentence is a lie”.

Pair of drawing hands by M.C. Escher

When it comes to science and knowledge, paradoxes function as indications that a logical argument is flawed, or that our way of thinking will produce bad results.

A more interesting overview of self-referencing paradoxes is the book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstader. This book explores how meaningless elements, (such as carbon, hydrogen etc.) form systems, and how these systems can then become self-aware through a process of self-reference.

5) I know that I know nothing – a motto of humility

Socrates lived in a world that had accumulated very little knowledge.

As a fun fact, Aristotle (who was born some 15 years after Socrates died), was said to be the last man on Earth to have known every ounce of knowledge available at the time.

From the perspective of Socrates, any knowledge or information he did have was likely to be insignificant (or even completely false) compared to how much was left to be discovered.

From such a position, it’s easier to say “I know that I know nothing” rather than the more technical truth: “I only know the tiniest bit of knowledge, and even that is probably incorrect”.

The same principle still applies to us, if we compare ourselves to humans living 200-300 years in the future. And unlike Socrates, we have a giant wealth of information to dive in whenever we want.

_______________________________________________________________________

My brief reflections – I have always intrepreted the Socratic limitation on knowledge as Socrates’ recognition that there was so much he didn’t know. And he was wiser than others in precisely this way—he was aware of his own ignorance. That’s how, corectly or not, I taught the issue to generations of students.

[For more see: Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I know_that_I_know_nothing ]

Etymology[edit]

The phrase, originally from Latin (“ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat[2]), is a possible paraphrase from a Greek text (see below). It is also quoted as “scio me nihil scire” or “scio me nescire“.[3] It was later back-translated to Katharevousa Greek as “[ἓν οἶδα ὅτι] οὐδὲν οἶδα“, [èn oîda ótioudèn oîda).[4]

In Plato[edit]

This is technically a shorter paraphrasing of Socrates’ statement, “I neither know nor think that I know” (in Plato, Apology 21d). The paraphased saying, though widely attributed to Plato’s Socrates in both ancient and modern times, actually occurs nowhere in Plato’s works in precisely the form “I know that I know nothing.”[5] Two prominent Plato scholars have recently argued that the claim should not be attributed to Plato’s Socrates.[6]

Evidence that Socrates does not actually claim to know nothing can be found at Apology 29b-c, where he claims twice to know something. See also Apology 29d, where Socrates indicates that he is so confident in his claim to knowledge at 29b-c that he is willing to die for it.

That said, in the Apology, Plato relates that Socrates accounts for his seeming wiser than any other person because he does not imagine that he knows what he does not know.[7]

… ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι.
… I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either. [from the Henry Cary literal translation of 1897]

A more commonly used translation puts it, “although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know” [from the Benjamin Jowett translation].

Whichever translation we use, the context in which this passage occurs should be considered; Socrates having gone to a “wise” man, and having discussed with him, withdraws and thinks the above to himself. Socrates, since he denied any kind of knowledge, then tried to find someone wiser than himself among politicians, poets, and craftsmen. It appeared that politicians claimed wisdom without knowledge; poets could touch people with their words, but did not know their meaning; and craftsmen could claim knowledge only in specific and narrow fields. The interpretation of the Oracle’s answer might be Socrates’ awareness of his own ignorance.[8]

Socrates also deals with this phrase in Plato’s dialogue Meno when he says:[9]

καὶ νῦν περὶ ἀρετῆς ὃ ἔστιν ἐγὼ μὲν οὐκ οἶδα, σὺ μέντοι ἴσως πρότερον μὲν ᾔδησθα πρὶν ἐμοῦ ἅψασθαι, νῦν μέντοι ὅμοιος εἶ οὐκ εἰδότι.

[So now I do not know what virtue is; perhaps you knew before you contacted me, but now you are certainly like one who does not know.] (trans. G. M. A. Grube)

Here, Socrates aims at the change of Meno’s opinion, who was a firm believer in his own opinion and whose claim to knowledge Socrates had disproved.

It is essentially the question that begins “post-Socratic” Western philosophy. Socrates begins all wisdom with wondering, thus one must begin with admitting one’s ignorance. After all, Socrates’ dialectic method of teaching was based on that he as a teacher knew nothing, so he would derive knowledge from his students by dialogue.

There is also a passage by Diogenes Laërtius in his work Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers where he lists, among the things that Socrates used to say:[10] “εἰδέναι μὲν μηδὲν πλὴν αὐτὸ τοῦτο εἰδέναι“, or “that he knew nothing except that he knew that very fact (i.e. that he knew nothing)”.

Again, closer to the quote, there is a passage in Plato’s Apology, where Socrates says that after discussing with someone he started thinking that:[7]

τούτου μὲν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐγὼ σοφώτερός εἰμι· κινδυνεύει μὲν γὰρ ἡμῶν οὐδέτερος οὐδὲν καλὸν κἀγαθὸν εἰδέναι, ἀλλ᾽ οὗτος μὲν οἴεταί τι εἰδέναι οὐκ εἰδώς, ἐγὼ δέ, ὥσπερ οὖν οὐκ οἶδα, οὐδὲ οἴομαι· ἔοικα γοῦν τούτου γε σμικρῷ τινι αὐτῷ τούτῳ σοφώτερος εἶναι, ὅτι ἃ μὴ οἶδα οὐδὲ οἴομαι εἰδέναι.

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

It is also a curiosity that there is more than one passage in the narratives in which Socrates claims to have knowledge on some topic, for instance on love:[11]

How could I vote ‘No,’ when the only thing I say I understand is the art of love (τὰ ἐρωτικά)[12]

I know virtually nothing, except a certain small subject – love (τῶν ἐρωτικῶν), although on this subject, I’m thought to be amazing (δεινός), better than anyone else, past or present[13]

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8 thoughts on “Socrates: “I know that I know nothing”

  1. I think it was Yeats who said “ The fascination of what’s difficult
    Has dried the sap within my veins
    And rent spontaneous joy and natural content
    Out of my heart”
    And there is an ancient Sinhalese saying that
    “ An overlearned man ( Pandithaya) cannot get across even a short raft ( Edanda)
    So I am content to take Omar Khyyam’s advice
    “ Come fill the cup
    What boots it to repeat
    How time is slipping
    Underneath our feet
    Dead yesterday unborn tomorrow
    Why fret about them if today be sweet”

  2. Thanks for the excellent essay, Paul. I’ve made a few comments below that I nearly decided to delete, because some of them are broad and a bit undisciplined. But I’ve decided to include them since I think a couple of the talking points are still worthwhile in this type of forum.

    ———————————————————————————————————————-

    It’s interesting that Socrates does seem to have an unbending faith that rational examination is still worthwhile. It’s conceivable that the real Socrates views such reflection as worthwhile for reasons similar to the reasons proposed by the Pyrrohonists — that such reflections can generate tranquility. But the Platonic character, Socrates, of the Middle and Late dialogues views such reflection as able to facilitate true knowledge of the forms. Rational thought aimed at clarifying concepts, according to Plato, can lead to a true understanding of these ideas.

    It’s interesting to contrast this with the Taoism credited to Laozi. His general epistemology, like Buddhist epistemology, is much more instrumentalist. Rational thought, in the view of Taoist and Buddhist philosophers — like Schopenhauer in the West much later — will not get us to any truths whatsoever. As Laozi is reputed to have written of “the master”: “What he desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn.” The Taoists assume a role in the history of China as social critics of the typically prevailing Confucian worldview(s). The ideas passed on as truths are viewed more as social constructs that divert us from a truer understanding of the underlying unity of the Tao. Such social constructs also work to generate social goals that are vain and foolish.

    The Taoists do claim to know that the Tao is unspeakable, that is, that it cannot be adequately articulated. Yet, unlike Socrates they do not suggest that rational examination of the world is the path forward. Instead, they ultimately
    embrace a form of nature mysticism. That said, like the Socrates of the early Platonic dialogues, the fundamental truths that it seems possible to know are few indeed.
    In the end they affirm that the Tao, as nature’s way, is the underlying unity behind all appearances. It operates on basic principles of opposition, the yin and yang. A simple and ethical life of cultivating harmony with nature is the path to human well-being.

    The Taoists’ rejection of the purported knowledge of the Confucians and others in ancient China has at least some similarities to the position on knowledge of the Socrates of Plato’s early dialogues. But in their rejection of reasoning as a fundamental goal, they are one group of thinkers that help put China on a different cultural trajectory from that of Socrates, Plato’s and the others in the West who follow their lead.

    That said, their instrumentalist epistemology, according to which our everyday understandings are not indicative of ultimate truths, has a currency today.

    A few will still follow them in dropping out of the human rat race altogether and abandoning all purported views of human progress. But a similar epistemological instrumentalism to that which the Taoists propose is adopted today by various social constructivists or pragmatists. Nietzsche’s perspectivism, with its various postmodern offshoots, is one basic direction. Another is taken by some postmoderns who more recently have embraced a spirit more friendly to science, such as we see in James’ pragmatism. These postmoderns, like Plato’s early Socrates, and like the Taoists, are still skeptical of certain knowledge claims. Whatever the concerns with these forms of thought, they do preserve a kind of epistemic humility. Those who I find most compelling are motivated similarly to Socrates and the Taoists by a moral critique — the view that especially dominant social claims to moral knowledge are often spurious and ill-conceived. Culturally dominant moral claims are indeed very often expressions of hubris.

  3. If Socrates actually knew “nothing,” that would be a lot! That seemed to be the starting point for Heidegger’s phenomenology, but Heidegger is rather difficult. I believe that the west got the zero, on which computers depend from India, via the Arabic world. “Nothing” is the linguistic equivalent of zero, and may have significance we have not yet imagined. “Nothing” exists as a concept, but does not stand for anything. Knowing nothing is knowing something. Aristotle seemed to think that the physical is all that is real. “Nothing” exists, and is not physical.

  4. Interestingly, Parmenides thought the phrase “nothing exists” was a contradiction. He thought nothing couldn’t exist by defintion. JGM

  5. I only have a cursory understanding of Taoism, but the comment “What he desires is non-desire; what he learns is to unlearn” in regards to Taoist masters, resonated with me.

    From my point of view, all religion and philosophy seeks to find an answer to a question that cannot be answered in life: what happens after we die?

    In my belief, an individual human life is like a plastic bottle, filled with water and then thrown into the ocean. It is at the same time both in the water but separate from it. In the case of humans, the plastic bottle is our biological body and all its instincts: fear, love, lust etc.

    During our existence, we are painfully aware of how limited and separate we are from everything else. In this analogy, the Taoist master sees desires and learnedness as the plastic of the bottle, the thing that keeps him separate from the ocean in which he exists. Through non-desire and unlearning, he aspires to join his water with the water from the ocean and become one again with the unity. A similar thought process is also at play when it comes to Buddhism and its varied and complex meditation practices.

    If materialism is to be believed, once we die we transform from something into nothing. But in this interpretation, once we die we transform from something into everything.

    Apologies if this can interpreted as a form of rambling, but the problem of our biology and how it limits our rationality from interacting with everything else has interested me from some time.

  6. I am conscious. It seems I cannot permanently avoid this state.
    Are there qualities of this state of consciousness I wish to avoid? Yes, I would prefer to avoid agony.
    I have little confidence I can simply choose to ignore the state of agony.
    There are rules to the “game of reality” (believing your senses) that seem to make agony more or less likely. So reality matters to the extent I am confident it will forestall a period of agony.

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