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One of the oldest epistemological problems is how do we obtain true wisdom. To reach a state of wisdom we must amass a substantial amount of knowledge. How do we distinguish true knowledge from misconceptions and opinions in our pursuit of the virtuous ideal? I have often asked myself what is the difference between common sense and ignorant old “wives’ tales”?  Same principle different wording. Both inquiries reflect the larger premise. How do that the knowledge I have obtained is true knowledge?

 

The renowned classical philosopher Socrates believed he had the answer. That was to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge. However, he did this to the extreme. This principle has been enshrined in the Socratic Admission of Ignorance. Professing to know nothing being of the highest virtue. This is counter intuitive considering we would expect a man anointed as the father of Western Philosophy to have answers. Certainly, a man proclaimed by the oracle at Delphi as the wisest man on the planet would know something? (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [1]. Conversely, maybe it takes a supremely wise man to see his knowledge deficits. Rather than blithely putting on the pretense that he knows more than what he does. Reflecting upon the Hayekian Pretense of Knowledge. The hubris that has consistently foiled the plans and aspirations of central planners. Would Hayek have ever formulated such a concept without any Socratic precursors?

 

Perhaps, a truly wise individual sees the process of learning as a continual process. Not a linear destination, that once reached it cannot be expanded upon. It is an ongoing search. Especially when we are confronted with the fact that there is too much knowledge for one person to possess. Making education a lifelong process. We need to be open to this fact of reality. To some capacity, we need to humble ourselves and be honest about what knowledge we lack. In the example of the central planner, admitting that they do not know what the long-term impact of rent control will be on the housing market. Here is where the Socratic omission comes into play, acquiesce the fact that you truly do not know. Socrates claimed that we do not possess any precise knowledge other than that of our ignorance. This may seem somewhat gratuitous. Isn’t it enough to admit our ignorance on topics that we do not have any expertise?  Socrates was arguably an “expert” when it came to virtue yet he still claimed to be ignorant true virtue.

 

“ “I am wiser than this man,” as Socrates says of one of Athens’ respected politicians, “for neither of us knows anything fine and good, but this man thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas I, as I do not know anything, do not think I do, either” (Apology 21d). (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [2].”

 

This does seem like an outlandishly absurd thing for a man who has decided his life to morality to claim. It is important to note that while the truth isn’t fluid, what our perception of truth is. Old scientific theories are often debunked by new evidence. Social norms change in-lock step with the evolution of our social morality. For example, it is the abolition of slavery. A practice that was at one time viewed as being appropriate. Then years later was viewed as being immoral. However, was it ever truly moral? Through admitting to being ignorant of everything Socrates sidesteps this fatal error. Through claiming ignorance we have the freedom to reevaluate social practices without being labeled as a hypocrite. Beyond our reputation it also enables us the foresight to examine and abolish moral practices. If we believe we are on the moral high ground we are less apt to be critical of our current customs. By place an air of doubt around all knowledge we are enabling the flexibility for necessary revisions. Doubt is what gives malleability to the scientific claims. It also is what makes the U.S. Constitution a governing charter that grows with the country. Rather than keeping the U.S. held captive by the sins of the past. In my estimate, both the scientific method and the founding principles of the United States owes gratitude to Socratic thinking.

 

Socrates questioning the validity of everything helps delineate true knowledge from opinions (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [3] In our mind, we often conflate opinion with fact. How often is advocacy for political policies based on facts?  Infrequently. In the mind of the advocate, their position on the issue is the only correct stance.  This separation is an important one to make. It is a common fallacy to combine facts with opinions and to present opinions as facts. An increasingly prevalent problem in the area of news reporting. Whether a news outlet is right-leaning or left-leaning they do more editorializing than presenting the information. Making it impossible to be informed after watching the evening news. Rather we are inculcating ourselves with partisan talking points. Providing another modern example of why the Socratic Admission of Ignorance is still pertinent.

 

Over the years, people have taken liberties with ethics.  Some could argue since the advent of modern philosophy pragmatism has slowly come to supplant true ethics. People are starting to see morality from more of a subjective point. Per a 2015 survey, 74% of all millennials surveyed agreed with the only true truth is doing what works best for you (Silvermintz, 2020, P.11) [4]. Rejection of there being a true morality or ethics is profoundly problematic. Naked pragmatism can lead to a litany of reprehensible policies. Past regimes have utilized pragmatism to justify genocide. Morality is far from being black and white. However, that does not mean morality is relative. Treating morality as relative can be calamitous for humanity as a whole.

 

4 thoughts on “We are all Ignorant and That is Okay- Wise Words from Socrates

  1. Powerful and insightful! I agree with your perspective on this! A lot of people operate from a Self- righteousness angle; but who can be certain of anything? What is true today can be untrue tomorrow because things changes all the time!

    Liked by 1 person

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