Source: p 3, A Little History of Philosophy (2011 ed; but Reprint ed, 2012 extant) by PhD in Philosophy (Cambridge)

[...] ‘How can I be the wisest man in Athens when I know so little?’ he [Socrates] wondered. He devoted years to questioning people to see if anyone was wiser than he was. Finally he realized what the oracle had meant and that she had been right. [1.] Lots of people were good at the various things they did – carpenters were good at carpentry, and soldiers knew about fighting. [2.] But none of them were truly wise. [3.] They didn’t really know what they were talking about.

  1. I do not comprehend 2 and 3. How can one master something without wisdom or knowledge of what one says?

About 1, I can understand the argument that carpentry does not smarten someone because it does not teach one how to think (eg, unlike a philosopher who will have studied Informal Fallacies).

  1. But how do 2 and 3 apply to soldiers? Even after receiving orders, low-ranking commissioned (e.g. 1st or 2nd Lieutenants) and non-commissioned officers (e.g. Sergeants) must still think and reason for themselves?

2 Answers 2


Socrates demanded of wisdom more than the ability to reason. He demanded a clear knowledge of first principles, especially in the form of possessing well tested definitions of basic concepts.

For example, in Plato's dialogue Laches, a discussion starts between Socrates and two Athenian army generals, Laches and Nicias, concerning the question how to nurture courage in young people. The two generals turn out to have opposite opinions, and they cannot find a common ground. Then Socrates, in a typical move, steers the discussion in the direction of definitions: what is  courage?

SOCRATES: Then tell me, Nicias, or rather tell us, for Laches and I are partners in the argument: Do you mean to affirm that courage is the knowledge of the grounds of hope and fear?..

LACHES: Yes, Socrates; and the examination of such niceties is a much more suitable employment for a Sophist than for a great statesman whom the city chooses to preside over her.

SOCRATES: Yes, my sweet friend, but a great statesman is likely to have a great intelligence. And I think that the view which is implied in Nicias' definition of courage is worthy of examination...

As usual in the Socratic dialogues, an adequate definition of courage is not achieved, within the confines of Laches. Still, a new standard is set.


I'm assuming this is actually a question about Plato, since most of our knowledge of Socrates comes from him. In this case, it most likely has to do with Plato's exceptionally strong criteria for knowledge, which exclude anything that has to do with the sensible world.

This is most clear in his Analogy of the Divided Line [1], and in the part of the Seventh Letter (341b–345c) where he distinguishes "knowledge of a thing" from its "image", the latter of which consists in "that which is drawn and rubbed out again, or turned on a lathe and broken up – none of which things can happen to the circle itself" [2].

So a carpenter might be able to produce a table without having knowledge of it.

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