Socratic Wisdom

Awareness of One's Own Intellectual Limitations

marble carving of Socrates
Socrates. Leemage/Getty Images

Socratic wisdom refers to Socrates' understanding of the limits of his knowledge in that he only knows that which he knows and makes no assumption of knowing anything more or less. Although never directly penned by Socrates' as a theory or treatise, our understanding of his philosophies as they relate to wisdom derive from Plato's writings on the subject. In works like "Apology," Plato describes the life and trials Socrates that influence our understanding of the truest element of "Socratic wisdom:" We are only as wise as our awareness of our ignorance.

I Know That I Know...Something?

Although attributed to Socrates, the now famous "I know that I know nothing" really refers to an interpretation of Plato's account of Socrates' life, though is never directly stated. In fact, Socrates often highly asserts his intelligence in Plato's work, even going so far as to say he would die for it. Still, the sentiment of the phrase echoes some of Socrates' most famous quotes on wisdom.

For instance, Socrates' once said: "I do not think that I know what I do not know." In the context of this quote, Socrates is explaining that he does not claim to possess the knowledge of artisans or scholars on subjects he has not studied, that he bears no false pretense to understanding those. In another quote on the same topic of expertise, Socrates once said, "I know very well that I possess no knowledge worth speaking of" on the topic of building a home.

What's actually true of Socrates is that he has said quite the opposite of "I know that I know nothing." His routine discussion of intellect and understanding hinges upon his own intelligence.

In fact, he does not fear death because he says "to fear death is to think that we know what we do not," and he is absent of this delusion of understanding what death could mean without ever seeing it.

Socrates, the Wisest Human

In "Apology," Plato describes Socrates at his trial in 399 B.C.E. where Socrates tells the court how his friend Chaerephon asked the Delphic Oracle if anyone was wiser than himself.

The oracle's answer — that no human was wiser than Socrates — left him bewildered, so he embarked on a quest to find someone wiser than himself in order to prove the oracle wrong.

What Socrates found, though, was that although many people had particular skills and areas of expertise, they all tended to think they were wise about other matters too — such as what policies the government should pursue — when they clearly were not. He concluded that the oracle was right in a certain limited sense: he, Socrates, was wiser than others in this one respect: that he was aware of his own ignorance.

This awareness goes by two names that seem virtually opposed to one another: "Socratic ignorance" and "Socratic wisdom." But there is no real contradiction here. Socratic wisdom is a sort of humility: it simply means being aware of how little one really knows; how uncertain one's beliefs are; and how likely it is that many of them may turn out to be mistaken. In the "Apology," Socrates doesn't deny that true wisdom — real insight into the nature of reality — is possible; but he seems to think it is enjoyed only by the gods, not by human beings.