According to "Does the center hold?" by Donald D. Palmer, Socrates's main argument during his trial was that "he knew nothing". But Socrates discussed various topics with many people, he had knowledge in many areas. Can we then consider him a liar?

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    Socrates famously employs irony: an excessive humility and formal claims to ignorance, in order to draw out the unexamined beliefs — the questionable answers — of his interlocutors.
    – Joseph Weissman
    Aug 22 at 16:53
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    Socrates did not say that, the "I know nothing" quip is a late paraphrase. The literal translation of the passage is "what I do not know I do not think I know either". That aside, Socrates (or rather Plato) holds up "true" knowledge to a very high standard. One can discuss various topics without knowing anything, it's all opinion mill, so Socrates's humility can be quite sincere.
    – Conifold
    Aug 22 at 20:23
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    These are relative phrases, as used. Better to translate, Socrates says he knows nothing about ...... or nothing compared to...... and appeared knowledgeable about..... or concerning. Those aren't to be taken as absolute statements, they are incompletely stipulated ones. Like when any person says "I dont know anything". Not literal, and not to be taken as literal. Hence no, not a liar.
    – Stilez
    Aug 23 at 9:14
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    Only the knowledgeable truly appreciate how ignorant they are. Aug 23 at 16:35
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    @candied_orange yeah, Dunning-Kruger was my first thought...
    – RonJohn
    Aug 23 at 18:16

Not to dispute Dr. Palmer's account, but Socrates' main argument at his trial was that he was not trying to impose knowledge on the citizens of Athens. Instead — to use Socrates' analogy — he was like a horse-fly, biting at their presumptions and assumptions and forcing them out of the complacent drowsiness of mere 'knowledge' into philosophical engagement with their own beliefs and understandings. He was pushing the people of Athens to think for themselves, not trying to get them to listen to his ideas, and thus he could not rightfully be accused of corrupting anyone.

We might accuse Socrates of being a pain in the you-know-what — and it appears he would gladly agree with us — but I don't think it's correct to accuse him of lying.

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    I've heard Socrates' point summarized as "I don't provide my own knowledge, I nurture reasoning in others", which I think aptly describes it.
    – Flater
    Aug 23 at 10:18
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    politicians and members of the status quo of all ages have considered independent thinking an extremely "offensive" and dangerous behavior. Socrates wasn't screaming at people 'trust the science' but nibbling at unspoken assumptions without addressing them directly, giving a chance to the interlocutor to reach the contradictions by themselves, without disallowing the real possibility of understanding a new perspective, and weighting them under an enlarged context
    – lurscher
    Aug 25 at 14:42

Socrates might not have ever claimed this.

See here. An example of what he did say is:

I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know.

Socrates is saying here that he does not know anything great and good, not that he does not know anything at all.

In context here. He goes on to describe that craftsmen do have knowledge.

And in this I was not deceived; they did know what I did not, and in this way they were wiser than I. But, men of Athens, the good artisans also seemed to me to have the same failing as the poets; because of practicing his art well, each one thought he was very wise in the other most important matters, and this folly of theirs obscured that wisdom

Socrates is not denying the possibility of knowledge held by others, nor is he saying he holds no knowledge. He is simply saying no one has certainty on the big questions (such as politics and justice), and he thinks he is better because he acknowledges this.


You stumbled over the Socratic paradox.

It is a classical example of the Dunning–Kruger effect: You need a certain minimal competence to begin to perceive your own degree of incompetence.

Because reality is arguably infinitely complex chances are that any increase in competence only increases the insight into the vastness of our incompetence. Socrates, surely one of the brightest and smartest, was simply more aware of it than most of us.

It is only consequent that his preferred way of teaching was the Socratic method: He did not disseminate ready-made truths but ironically challenged what others thought was evident.

  • "chances are that any increase in competence only increases the insight into the vastness of our incompetence" It will do more than that. It will increase our competence and shed further light on our incompetence.
    – pygosceles
    Aug 25 at 18:25
  • @pygosceles Perhaps. But it may as well simply nurse a growing suspicion that we are entirely, fundamentally wrong in all respects except purely utilitarian ones. (Like, our bridges don't collapse often, but we become more and more aware that our concept of solid matter is mistaken.) Aug 25 at 20:33
  • To discard edification in favor solely of contradiction or uncertainty would be to miss the point of education. You might enjoy reading Phillip Armour's "Orders of Ignorance" paper; in it he argues that awareness of ignorance is itself a form of knowledge, and hence the increase of such awareness entails a strictly decreasing total amount of ignorance, and a corresponding monotonic increase in knowledge.
    – pygosceles
    Aug 26 at 17:26
  • @pygosceles Well, I suppose one could call an education (end research) that is undertaken in order to achieve a preconceived goal "guided" ;-). Not everybody may share this teleological approach. Aug 26 at 17:35
  • To a person who believes the truth, who is rational (this is presumed), the arguments are reducible to near equivalence. To a person who has already discarded rationality or does not believe what is true, there is no helping them with reason.
    – pygosceles
    Aug 26 at 17:38

This is similar to Descartes' "experiment" where he proposes to doubt everything. In the beginning of Pensées, he realizes that there is one thing he cannot doubt: his own existence. Hence "cogito ergo sum".

It is a strategy of self-examination, not an assertion.

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