If a person says, "The only thing that I know is that I know nothing." What exactly does that mean (not metaphorically), literally?

If the only thing they know is that they know nothing, then they know 1 thing. (in which case: nothing ≠ 1.)

But looks like they are saying they don't know anything at all. So, they know exactly 0 things.

If they knew nothing, then they obviously wouldn't have known that they know the fact that they do not know anything at all.

Is this a self-contradicting statement, which meaning is the logical one? It looks like the statement is true AND false at the same time. I have never taken any philosophy classes so forgive my ineptness but I thought I'd ask. I tried to find and read similar questions but it's a bit too technical for me and I couldn't say if it's the same concept or not.

  • Socrates denied the possibility of knowledge of the sensible world. cambridge.org/core/journals/canadian-journal-of-philosophy/…
    – user47436
    Aug 14, 2020 at 7:32
  • 1
    "The only thing that I know is that I know nothing." has several interpretation. 1. I know that I know nothing, because I can’t trust my brain. 2. I know that I know nothing, because the physical world isn’t real 3. I know that I know nothing, because information can be uncertain 4. I know that I know nothing – the paradox 5. I know that I know nothing – a motto of humility reasonandmeaning.com/2019/11/03/…
    – user47436
    Aug 14, 2020 at 7:43
  • "The only thing that I know is that I know nothing." means you compare theory of knowledge with the theory of wisdom. In the theory of Knowledge you can know the staff but still be folish , because you might be too confident with what you know . In the theory of wisdom you can't be folish and wise at same time , becase being wise means knowing your limitation, incuding knowing when you don't know youtu.be/SwAq52cl_-A
    – user47436
    Aug 14, 2020 at 8:44
  • @HassanJolany thank you so much! This is a very good explanation and also very interesting. Aug 14, 2020 at 23:02

5 Answers 5


Socrates admits his ignorance, implicitly attacking pretenders to knowledge — namely the sophists, who were paid teachers of rhetoric, and from whom the earliest philosophers struggled to distinguish themselves. Socrates never took payment for his teaching. More generally this is the sense in which Socrates claims the oracle named him as the “wisest”: by knowing his own ignorance, and not pretending to know what he cannot, he is capable of learning — of becoming wise. He is therefore the wisest of his countrymen... precisely by knowing the limits of his wisdom, and not claiming to be able to teach what cannot be taught.

Nevertheless Socrates has a number of positive ethical and methodological doctrines, about the nature of the gods and the good and being itself; but the idea is that these are derived from honest questioning with an interlocutor, and finding what “language itself” has to say if it is to make any sense; these doctrines emerge dialectically, as it were organically, rather than being disclosed as though they were always known by him to be true.

See the Cratylus 397a for more on this construction of Socrates' philosophical activity -- ie, that he is simply after what words themselves must say if they are to hang together intelligibly:

So where do you wish for us to start examining [words]? For what we have done is embark upon a certain general project [so] that we will be able to see whether the words themselves will bear witness to us that they are applied to particular things in a way that does not come altogether from chance, but has a certain correctness about it (397a; Sachs -- see note)

How does Socrates himself typify his own philosophical practice? At least in this instance, as a methodological skepticism which relies on the intelligibility of language itself to resolve problems. He makes intentional use of "living speech" to isolate ideas clearly in dialogue; or at least to help delineate where that's no longer possible. The Cratylus in particular is a dialogue which explicitly dramatizes this conflict between what human beings wish words would say... and what words themselves "wish" to say.


You can find the exact translation above in "Plato's Cratylus" (Ewegen 2013) with some analysis and the original Greek for certain phrases. Full ref would be

  • Ewegen, S. M. (2013). Plato's Cratylus: The Comedy of Language. United States: Indiana University Press.

The 'famous quote' is actually a paraphrase. In Plato's The Apology the closest statement to it is:

I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either

Your phrase is not one that Socrates himself is ever recorded as saying, nor is attributed. You are taking up arms against a straw man, and doing so out of your own sense of how smart you are (smarter than the man the oracle at Delphi called the wisest human in Athens). That is deeply antithetical to Socrates' message.

You should try to understand the context. An introduction like John Vervaeke's, could help you understand why the embrace of tentative knowledge, had a profound impact. You can also begin to understand, Socrates must have been annoying as hell.


Personally, I interpret Socrate's words, in simple terms, as meaning that experience can teach us that we are not as clever as we once thought we were.


It is not a literal statement. Furthermore, the exact translation is disputed. Finally, Plato attributes words to this effect to Socrates. I take it to mean that a wise man knows the limits of his own meaning. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is the opposite of this humility. Statements can be true, false, or paradoxical. In my view, The statement of Socrates is metaphorically true.


While everyone in the world thinks they know everything, he’s wise because he admits he knows nothing “for sure.” The Universe is vast and most who think they “know” realize, at some point, they don’t really know, through experiences, spiritual awakenings and so on...

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