Philosophy 12 - 1.3.2 Human Wisdom Is Worth Little or Nothing

In the excerpt from Plato’s Apology, Socrates investigates the oracle’s strange response that he is the wisest of men. First, Socrates attempts to prove the oracle wrong by finding someone wiser than he. But, after a time, he comes to realize that the oracle’s response was a kind of riddle. He interprets the oracle as saying that Socrates is wisest because he alone realizes that human wisdom is worth little or nothing. This realization is important for Socrates’s own self-examination and provides an important lesson for philosophy students.

Understanding the Limits of Knowledge

Perhaps one of the greatest lessons you can learn from a well-rounded college education is just how much more there is to know about the world. Even the most respected scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, and historians recognize that the scope of their expertise is extremely limited. A lifetime of study can, at best, give a person deep insight into a tiny fraction of the universe of human knowledge. Beyond that, there is a vast domain of things that no human has yet discovered or understood. Consequently, it is a good idea to practice Socrates’s advice: to be aware of what you do not know and not to assert knowledge where you lack it. People are often resistant to taking this position because they want answers. Someone who can convince others that they know the solution to their problems or personal dilemmas can exert a great deal of power over them. But we ought to recognize the dangers of asserting knowledge where we lack it. In technical areas, a refusal to admit ignorance can result in the failure of equipment, the malfunctioning of machines, and in the worst cases, injury and loss of life. In the moral and political arenas, asserting knowledge where you lack it may lead to unnecessary disagreements and polarization, or it may result in ill-considered actions that result in ethical mistakes or harm to others. Most importantly, if you are not aware when you lack knowledge, you will not seek to acquire the knowledge you lack. If you believe you already know something, you will not listen to the evidence that disproves what you believe. As a result, you will miss out on learning the truth.

The Socratic Method

Socrates engaged in a particular method of questioning, sometimes known as the Socratic method, that was characterized by his asking questions of others rather than explaining his own beliefs. Socrates is typically hesitant to offer his own ideas about the topic under discussion. Instead, he asks the people he is questioning to supply the subject matter for their discussion. Socrates’s use of this strategy may be puzzling. One explanation may be that he is following the god’s command, as he says in the Apology. Another explanation is that he does not claim to have knowledge about the topic in question and is genuinely happy to learn from others. Yet another possibility is that Socrates feigns ignorance and is being insincere. Perhaps his true goal is to trap or humiliate the other person by discovering some inconsistency or obvious falsehood in what they believe. It is hard to know which of these is the most likely explanation, but we will focus for a moment on a fourth possibility, namely, a pedagogical one.

In two different Platonic dialogues, Socrates explains what he is doing by using an analogy: he compares his method of questioning to the role taken by a midwife during childbirth. In fact, Plato tells us that Socrates’s mother was a midwife and that he assumes her role in philosophical conversation. The goal of Socratic questioning, then, is to assist the person being questioned in discovering the truth on their own. By asking questions and examining the claims made by another person, Socrates allows that person to go through a process of self-discovery. This method provides an interesting lesson for teaching and learning. Often, students believe that their role is to simply receive knowledge from the teacher. But Socrates reminds us that real learning comes only through self-discovery and that the role of the teacher is to be an assistant, providing the kind of critical examination and evaluation necessary to help the student discover truth on their own.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax