What does Socrates mean by this quote?

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

Now, I am pretty sure that he doesn’t mean this literally, but what is the hidden meaning behind this?

By the way, this is not homework. I am just a Socrates fanboy.

You can’t learn anything if you think you know it already. Open your mind, realize that you might be wrong or mistaken, and you may be ready to learn.

Additionally, no matter how much you know, there is a nearly infinite amount of stuff that you don’t know.

"Let me explain their origins— Some of you know my good friend Chaerephon. Before he died he went to Delphi and asked the religious oracle there to tell him who the wisest man in the world was. The oracle answered that there was no man wiser than Socrates.

"When I learned this, I asked myself, ‘What can the god’s oracle mean?’ For I knew I had no wisdom. After thinking it over for a long time, I decided that I had to find a man wiser than myself so I could go back to the god’s oracle with this evidence. So I went to see a politician who was famous for his wisdom. But when I questioned him, I realized he really was not wise, although many people—he especially—thought he was. So I tried to explain to him that although he thought himself wise, he really was not. But all that happened was that he came to hate me. And so did many of his supporters who overheard us. So I left him, thinking to myself as I left that although neither of us really knew anything about what is noble and good, still I was better off. For he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows, while I neither know nor think that I know. And in this I think I have a slight advantage.

“Then I went to another person who had even greater pretensions to wisdom. The result was exactly the same: I made another enemy. In this way I went to one man after another and made more and more enemies. I felt bad about this and it frightened me.”

The idea is that one should not take ‘common knowledge’ as granted. Instead of accepting an idea and holding one’s self as an ‘expert’ on a given subject, a wise person would understand that he doesn’t know that thing. Thus, the wise man will gather facts and empirical evidence so as to actually know what he is talking about. In this way, he can show to himself that either ‘common knowledge’ on a particular subject is valid, or that it isn’t. The wise man knows that he does not know something, and so endeavours to know it.

For example, ‘common knowledge’ might say that the world is flat. Obviously, one cannot stand on the side of a ball. A wise man would know that he doesn’t actually know that the world is a spheroid, and gather facts to see if it is or isn’t. Eratosthenes famously used shadows to estimate the circumference of the world.

Taking the quote as written and without context, one might conclude ‘I am wise, because I don’t know.’ But a truly wise person would say ‘I do not know, so I must find out.’

I think he does mean it literally, in context. What he means by ‘knowing’ regards absolute certainty. When most people speak of knowing something, they speak with regards to relative certainty; ie, if facts X, Y, and Z are true, then what I think I know is true.

So Socrates is basically saying the only thing he knows, for sure, is that he doesn’t know anything and that this is better than the common man who thinks they know things, for sure, when they really do not.

Starting from a place of admitted ignorance feeds inquisitiveness, and thus first-hand wisdom. Socrates had a problem with all kinds of people who professed to having some kind of wisdom and who, upon closer scrutiny, had only wordsmithing gifts or phrases they’d picked up from others that sounded good. The true meaning of their words were unknown even to them, and thus they were not truly wise even though they seemed so. By observing and overtly avoiding that pitfall of false wisdom, Socrates became wiser by default.

You also need to differentiate between Wisdom and Knowledge. Knowledge is what is known, Wisdom is knowing what to do with that Knowledge as well as the limits of Knowledge.
Wisdom is opposed to Foolishness, while Knowledge is opposed to Ignorance. One can be very knowledgeable but still be a fool, just as one can be wise but unlearned.

Have a look at Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History of the World , particularly his section on Socrates. He depicts (in cartoon form) a Socrates who earnestly asks everyone questions about a thing until he finally gets that person to admit that he doesn’t know some critical thing at the root of the question. In exasperation, the questionee asks “So what IS the answer??”

To which Socrates replies “I don’t know. I’m as ignorant as you.”
This is one possible scenario – Socrates pointing out that one ought to question everything, and showing the limits of human knowledge, even in things we think we understand.
It’s also possible to see him as a canny and frustrating questioner, delighting in merely confusing his opponents (certainly some saw him this way). Or as a canny arguer who is thus hoping to show his opponents their own ignorance in the hopes that they’ll be thus persuaded to find the answers.

In any case, he’s ultimately a teacher, trying to get his students to think, rather than give glib and easy answers.

Is this not a strange and trivial conception of knowing? Sure, we don’t know with absolute certainty that hemlock is poisonous. Maybe it’s just a very strange coincidence that everyone who’s ingested significant quantities of hemlock happened die. So, why not have some, eh?

It is true that someone who is ignorant of something and realizes his own ignorance is better off than someone who is ignorant of something and doesn’t realize his own ignorance. It doesn’t follow that, for any meaningful/useful conception of “knowing”, all that we know is that we know nothing. Was this pointed out by the sophists or did Plato prefer his sockpuppets to be universally dumb?

“In any case, he’s ultimately a teacher, trying to get his students to think, rather than give glib and easy answers.”

Bit of a false choice, isn’t it? Either you have glib and easy answers or you just say “I don’t know”? It’s not possible to have non-glib and easy answers which can be wholly or partially accepted, rejected or built upon by others?

To understand the quote, look at the context. But I doubt that this is a quote.

It does correspond roughly to the story about the Oracle that Socrates tells in the Apology. The story is roughly (and be wary of me as you ought be of the quote); the Oracale says Socrates is the wisest around, so Socrates seeks to see why this could be so. Socrates studies other possibly wise men, but he thinks that neither of them really know anything. However, he thinks he has the advantage in that, contra these others, he doesn’t think he knows.

Missed The Other Waldo Pepper’s post (so mine was redundant). So the Apology, particularly the sections quoted by The Other Waldo Pepper, does look like the place to find the answer (in so far as there is an answer).

Exactly. I’ve found that the people who are truly experts, the ones respected by other experts, are the first to admit how much is yet to be discovered. I think once you reach that level and you say ‘I don’t know’, people respect that rather holding it against you. But if you’re not at that level and don’t have that luxury,it’s something that’s easy to lose site of since uncertainty can be associated with ignorance and even weakness.

This probably isn’t true in every area of professional endeavor, but I can tell you that as an attorney in private practice, you get judged on very superficial things like that. I would imagine physicians have similar experiences.

Yeah, clients often get this idea from TV shows that lawyers almost intuitively know the answer to a legal question when usually all we have to offer is: “This is a guess, at best an educated guess but I’d really have to get more facts, think about it for a while, get yet more facts, consult the relevant statutes and likely the case law, get some more facts and finally think it through to a conclusion that’s got good odds of being accurate”.

What means do you use to avoid both giving a wrong answer (which could trigger your liability) and also not coming off as a lousy lawyer?

If Socrates was around today surely he would be a member here.

And he would have been Banned for being a jerk, always asking questions and needling other posters until they got pissed off.

No, it’s the very basis of real understanding.

Socrates, in my mind, meant it very literally: We know nothing. We could be living in a computer simulation. Or we could have been created five minutes ago with a lifetime of false memories in our heads. Our senses could simply be playing a movie for us with no correlation to “reality”. We could be characters in a book. We simply don’t know.

In order to function in this world, we have to take certain things on faith, like the fact that there is an external reality separate from our own minds, and that our senses reveal that to us, however imperfectly. But deep down, we know it could all be bullshit. Nothing is sacred or certain or eternally “true”. It’s just a bunch of hunches and observations and logic and rules of thumb strung together until we’ve got a framework we can work with. But those frameworks change over time. Our theories and outlooks and philosophies are all in flux.

The foundation, the only thing we really know, the idea that puts all of our “knowledge” into perspective, is that we really don’t know anything. At best, we act like we do because it seems to work. But don’t forget that it’s all built on the shifting sands of ignorance.

This sort of scene is actually played out in some of the Socratic dialogues (by Plato), in which someone claims to know something (e.g. what “justice” is, or something like that), but Socrates questions and picks at his definition (in a way that occasionally comes across as mocking or snarky, at least in some translations), making the person look increasingly foolish and feel increasingly frustrated. It’s both thought-provoking and fun to read, but you kinda get an idea of why people wanted to get rid of him.

Relevant Dark Star clip. :wink:

Others have explained this well enough, but, you know, I don’t know how you can call yourself a Socrates fanboy if you do not understand this. This is absolutely basic, fundamental to what Socrates was about. If you don’t get this, you don’t get Socrates, and I do not think I understand why anybody who did not get it would even care about Socrates.