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.
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.
I know that I know nothing – 5 interpretations
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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:
- Animals might perceive this color differently.
- 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”.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
A noble lie to encourage learning
Socrates’s student, Plato, extensively developed an idea in The Republic called “the noble lie”. In essence, this was a lie told in order to promote certain virtuous behaviors or as a foundation to a healthy way of thinking.
One possibility is that the phrase “I know that I know nothing” can also be considered a noble lie.
In this case, Socrates does know something and he too has his own beliefs and convictions about how the world works. However, Socrates’s goal isn’t to replace someone’s beliefs and ideas with his, but to encourage others to think critically and embrace philosophy as a way of life.
For instance, Socrates has a philosophical debate with a handsome boy called Charmides about the meaning of the word sophrosyne (translated in English as temperance, moderation, prudence, self-control, or self-restraint).
Charmides proposes several interpretations of the word such as: modesty, quietness or minding one’s own business. Socrates dismantles all of these definitions, but doesn’t propose a definition of his own. This is because Socrates wants to encourage the young Charmides to approach life critically and philosophize upon the nature of things.
Socrates often applied this same “noble lie” to every philosophical discussion he had with Athenians in order to convert them to the ways of philosophy, and not simply so they can adopt his own ideas.
A foundation to the Socratic method
The Socratic method is a method of dialogue involving question and answering in order to expose hidden ideas, reveal false beliefs and improve a person’s understanding of a certain subject.
Socrates used this method to understand concepts that didn’t appear to have a solid definition such as important moral ideas from his time: justice, temperance, wisdom etc.
Because Socrates’s debate partners claimed to know something about these concepts (while he himself knew nothing), Socrates used the question and answer method to figure out exactly what the other person knew, or thought they knew.
In almost all cases, this method of examination found flawed logic and inconsistencies in the arguments of the people he talked philosophy with.
This usually resulted in a state called “aporia”, which can be described as feeling in doubt, being puzzled by a problem, the desire to obtain an answer.
After his many long conversations with Athenians and inner debates, Socrates did come to the conclusion that the best way to live life is to seek moral truth, to ponder the world and its workings, and seek moral goodness.
“I know that I know nothing” – some ideas are worth dying for
Socrates is partly remembered in history by the way he died – sentenced to death in democratic Athens, by a jury vote that likely numbered in the hundreds. Essentially, Socrates was a martyr to philosophy.
That is more or less how it happened, but the complete history and context of how Socrates came to die is much more engaging, and reveals the motivations of the Athenians and Socrates in a better light.
Athenians were suspicious of Socrates for multiple reasons. One was Socrates’s criticism of democracy. He believed democracy was a poor way of running a state, and that policy should instead be decided by an educated few. While seemingly reasonable, this idea could be easily warped so that the few actually meant tyrants or oligarchs.
Socrates was also accused of “corrupting the youth”. This might seem like a very ambiguous charge, but the Athenians had a few specific students of Socrates in mind: Alcibiades and Critias, among others.
Alcibiades was a famed Athenian general and politician who betrayed Athens in favor of its war enemies, Sparta and the Persian Empire. He eventually rejoined Athens, but not before plotting to overthrow its democratic government with an oligarchic one.
Critias was also a student of Socrates. After Sparta won the war against Athens, he became the leading member of the pro-Sparta puppet government called the Thirty Tyrants. This bad of usurpers led Athens for one year. During this time, they executed 5% of the city’s population, stole massive amounts of property through confiscation, and dismantled Athenian democratic institutions.
Unfortunately for Socrates, he was on relatively decent terms with the Tyrants, so Athenians assumed he was a collaborator. Once the Thirty Tyrants were overthrown, the Athenians were looking for someone to blame and somehow decided on Socrates.
The trial was mostly a farce. Even the jurors knew it and would have been willing to pronounce Socrates innocent. All Socrates had to do was
Socrates however wanted the people of Athens to fully realize the consequences of their actions, and refused to cooperate. He antagonized the jury by claiming he would still wander the streets of Athens, prodding people with impossible questions and revealing their lack of knowledge.
When the jury found him guilty, they asked Socrates to choose a punishment for himself. Socrates further antagonized the jury by saying he served Athens faithfully all his life, and that he should thus be rewarded with free meals at the public dining halls for the remainder of his years.
This irritated the jury, who refused to consider such a request. Socrates then dismissed all other alternative forms of punishment: imprisonment, exile or paying a large fine.
Essentially, Socrates forced the hand of the jury so that they could give him only one possible sentence: death.
According to the accounts of his students, Plato and Xenophon, Socrates approached his trial as a man determined to die.
It’s possible that Socrates used his trial to do to Athens what he did to the people he debated: force the city to confront its own internal contradictions, reform, and see that the best way to live life is to seek goodness, pursue virtues and gain knowledge even if it can be painful doing so.
In the end, Socrates died for his philosophy and belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living”.