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On Socrates' "I know Nothing"

(The Philosocom Socrates Directory)

Perhaps one of Socrates' best-known quotes is the ironic quote "I know nothing." This is ironic because a philosopher is typically seen as wise and knowledgeable, a stereotype that seems to contradict this quote. Since it is impossible to be both very knowledgeable and very ignorant at the same time, along with other reasons I will soon mention, I tend to disagree with Socrates that he knew nothing in a literal way.

Rather, I believe he meant that he was open to new knowledge, even if it would contradict his current understanding of the world. In other words, knowledge can often be used as an obstacle to new knowledge, because people can become too confident in their own knowledge and unwilling to consider new ideas.

It is, logically, impossible to know nothing. The fact that we have at least one sense at our disposal means that we inevitably know at least one thing. Our senses are, after all, the initial sources of information, and even within the womb we cannot escape from receiving sensory knowledge, thus ending our pure ignorance, if there was ever such a thing.

The expression "I know nothing" can easily be debunked - it is sufficient to know at least one thing, in order for that expression to be incorrect. It is even enough, technically, to believe you know something, and for that something to actually be true, in order for you to not know nothing; if one knows that they know nothing, does that mean they know something, or know nothing?

Therefore, all complications aside, I am convinced that Socrates meant that he was open to finding his current knowledge to be incorrect, by any other knowledge he may receive from the external world.

In other words, by saying "I know nothing," Socrates might have meant that he was open to new ideas, which may be truer than the current ideas he possesses.

Socrates was the founding father of Western philosophy, and he was a truth-seeker. He would not intentionally mislead himself or others, because misleading oneself or others prevents one from finding the truth. Therefore, I am confident that Socrates did not mean what he said literally. "Knowing nothing" in this case might be an indirect indication of his willingness to learn more and to test his current knowledge against evidence.

It is not that "knowing nothing" is a sign of wisdom (because then ignorance would lead to wisdom, not knowledge). Rather, it is one's readiness to accept the truth, instead of finding ways to hide from it, such as denial, willful ignorance, or arrogance.

What we may receive as "knowledge" may be nothing more than a mistake that prevents us from realizing potential truths. By saying "I know nothing," Socrates might have meant that he does not hold anything as "knowledge" until he has received proof that either confirms or denies what we see as "knowledge." After all, being confident about a belief does not make that belief true, no matter how confident we are.

Perhaps Socrates admitted that we are all, in fact, imprisoned by ignorance. We can all be so easily misled by false rumors, our own zeal, and our inability to see the truth beyond the realm of belief. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that many of us do not know as much as we think we know, and that is perhaps the philosophy behind the Socratic method of inquiry.

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Tomasio A. Rubinshtein, Philosocom's Founder & Writer

I am a philosopher from Israel, author of several books in 2 languages, and Quora's Top Writer of the year 2018. I'm also a semi-hermit who has decided to dedicate his life to writing and sharing my articles across the globe. Several podcasts on me, as well as a radio interview, have been made since my career as a writer. More information about me can be found here.

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