Understanding Socratic Ignorance

Knowing That You Know Nothing

Statue of Socrates located in Athens, Greece
Statue of Socrates -- Athens, Greece. Hiroshi Higuchi / Getty Images

Socratic ignorance refers, paradoxically, to a kind of knowledge–a person’s frank acknowledgment of what they don’t know. It is captured by the well-known statement: “I know only one thing–that I know nothing.” Paradoxically, Socratic ignorance is also referred to as "Socratic wisdom."

Socratic Ignorance in Plato's Dialogues

This sort of humility regarding what one knows is associated with the Greek philosopher Socrates (469-399 BCE) because he is portrayed displaying it in several of Plato’s dialogs. The clearest statement of it is in the Apology, the speech Socrates gave in his defense when he was prosecuted for corrupting the youth and impiety. Socrates recounts how his friend Chaerephon was told by the Delphic oracle that no human was wiser than Socrates. Socrates was incredulous since he didn’t consider himself wise. So he set about trying to find someone wiser than himself. He found plenty of people who were knowledgeable about specific matters such as how to make shoes, or how to pilot a ship. But he noticed that these people also thought that they were similarly expert about other matters too when they clearly were not. He eventually drew the conclusion that in one sense, at least, he was wiser than others in that he did not think he knew what he did not in fact know. In short, he was aware of his own ignorance.

In several other of Plato’s dialogs, Socrates is shown confronting someone who thinks they understand something but who, when questioned rigorously about it, turns out not to understand it at all. Socrates, by contrast, admits from the outset that he does not know the answer to whatever question is being posed. 

In the Euthyphro, for instance, Euthyphro is asked to define piety. He makes five attempts, but Socrates shoots each one down. Euthyphro, however, does not admit that he is as ignorant as Socrates; he simply rushes off at the end of the dialog like the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, leaving Socrates still unable to define piety (even though he is about to be tried for impiety).

In the Meno, Socrates is asked by Meno if virtue can be taught and responds by saying that he doesn’t know because he doesn’t know what virtue is. Meno is astonished, but it turns out that he is unable to define the term satisfactorily. After three failed attempts, he complains that Socrates has benumbed his mind, rather as a stingray numbs its prey. He used to be able to speak eloquently about virtue, and now he can’t even say what it is. But in the next part of the dialog, Socrates shows how clearing one’s mind of false ideas, even if it leaves one in a state of self-confessed ignorance, is a valuable and even necessary step if one is to learn anything. He does this by showing how an enslaved boy can only solve a mathematical problem once he has recognized that the untested beliefs he already had were false.

The Importance of Socratic Ignorance

This episode in the Meno highlights the philosophical and historical importance of Socratic ignorance. Western philosophy and science only get going when people begin to question dogmatically help beliefs. The best way to do this is to start out with a skeptical attitude, assuming one is not certain about anything. This approach was most famously adopted by Descartes (1596-1651) in his Meditations.

In actual fact, it is questionable how feasible it is to maintain an attitude of Socratic ignorance on all matters. Certainly, Socrates in the ​Apology doesn’t maintain this position consistently. He says, for instance, that he is perfectly certain that no real harm can befall a good man. And he is equally confident that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

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Westacott, Emrys. "Understanding Socratic Ignorance." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/socratic-ignorance-2670664. Westacott, Emrys. (2023, April 5). Understanding Socratic Ignorance. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/socratic-ignorance-2670664 Westacott, Emrys. "Understanding Socratic Ignorance." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/socratic-ignorance-2670664 (accessed June 2, 2023).