How could he know that he really doesn't know anything ? Did he check everything to rule it out ? I think he should have said that he "Believe" he doesn't know anything and by that he would also avoid the paradox of knowledge and state that the only thing that exists is belief and not knowledge.

  • 2
    I'm wondering whether he did actually say that; I've read a few of the dialogues and in those he never said this... Apr 24, 2015 at 6:29

3 Answers 3


In my opinion, you should understand it as admitting we can't know anything for sure. No matter how confident we are about the validity of some statements, theorems etc., we can never reach 100% certainty. You might say, well, why do we generally believe things are not certain instead of believing in them with no criticism or doubts - I guess that's just the way we were 'built'.

We should ask another question - why me, you and most, if not all, other people tend to think confidence about validity of theorems in any science (biology, physics, and even mathematics that we may consider unfalsifiable) is unreachable? And then, why you asked this question even if you feel you can keep asking such questions forever, that's why you will never get the ultimate answer (and then ask the question if it's true there are no ultimate answers).

  • Are you sure that's how we are built? Apr 23, 2015 at 21:09
  • No, I can't be sure about anything. Can you? But I assume there's an explanation and this is my opinion.
    – user107986
    Apr 23, 2015 at 21:20
  • When you say "reach 100% certainty" it makes me wonder what is 80% certainty. Apr 24, 2015 at 14:55
  • I should have said just 'certainty'.
    – user107986
    Apr 24, 2015 at 18:53

I like the interpretation of this position given by Sextus Empiricus: That the best approach to knowledge is to continually set aside one's concern for whether or not something is true. Thus it is not just belief replacing certainty, it is continual avoidance of belief, and seeking to hold all opinions in appropriate perspective.

I think it is likely to be what Socrates and the Cynics had in mind when they said the wisest man was the one who knew nothing, because believing something wrong was worse than being ignorant.

Of course, this, like many other Golden Mean interpretations is a self-contradictory position, if you believe it. Moderation in all things but moderation, tolerance of everything but intolerance, etc. But it escapes this paradox in practice, because if you apply it to itself, you don't really believe it, and it does not bother you to act upon it.


user107986's said that Socrates was suggesting that we cannot have certainty, and this is a possible reading. I'm not sure I agree that this is what Socrates had in mind, but it is a worth-while consideration; and whether or not that's what Socrates was saying I do think it's a good thing to think about anyway. It certainly is an answer to your question, since it demonstrates one way in which Socrates wouldn't have to check everything in the world to see whether he knows none of it.

I would suggest, however, that another reading of Socrates is that he means to tell us some mixture of the following two things: One, there is nothing he can identify, which he can claim to know it. This is subtly different from saying that there is nothing that he knows. Two, he may also be indicating that we don't even know what knowledge is--we do not have a definition of it, although in one dialogue he may eventually accept that justified true belief defines knowledge. After that point, it seems that perhaps one thing he knows is what knowledge is. But before this point, he might have meant to say that without knowing what knowledge is, then you cannot be justified in claiming knowledge of anything.

Also, especially when dealing with the ancients, if you could take their claims and replace a single nearly-synonymous word to make the claim more sensible, you should probably assume that this was or could have been the person's original intent. After all, you're getting a translation of a language that is no longer even in use (ancient Greek is sufficiently dissimilar from modern Greek that we're not even completely sure how to translate certain loaded words like knowledge or belief). So the English that you're looking at is, at best, an approximation.

  • How can you "justify" knowledge ? Apr 24, 2015 at 14:59
  • @SharonSalmon you can justify a knowledge claim by demonstrating that it meets the criteria for knowledge. For instance if I claim to know the answer to a riddle I can say what the answer is, and then explain how I came to have the answer, and argue that my method for answering was sound and therefore I really do know the answer.
    – Addem
    Apr 24, 2015 at 15:06
  • Ok ,but when you answer a riddle there are many assumptions you take.in mathematical world they are axioms and you have the right to define them and state that they are true.but in reality they are assumptions.so your building blockes are assumptions,that can't yield truth but only another combined assumption. Apr 24, 2015 at 15:13
  • @SharonSalmon You seem to be arguing that justification is always impossible. Even if that is so--which I'm not sure it is, but I'll assume it for the sake of argument--under Socrates's scheme, the impossibility of justification would imply the impossibility of knowledge. Which is exactly what Socrates was claiming. So this doesn't seem to undermine what he was claiming.
    – Addem
    Apr 24, 2015 at 15:43
  • Even though I think this argument doesn't undermine Socrates's claim, I doubt this is the set of reasons he had for his claim. I believe he thought that some justifications do not need further, more primitive justifications, so that it really is possible to justify certain claims. But the actual reason why I think he said that he didn't know anything was as I said above, namely, that until the definition is explicit you cannot justify claim to knowledge--and even once you define it, you may still find out that nothing satisfies your definition.
    – Addem
    Apr 24, 2015 at 15:46

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