Friday, April 30, 2010

"I Know That I Don't Know"?

If you stroll through the Plaka tourist district in Athens, you'll have ample opportunities to buy t-shirts and other items with the slogan "en oida oti ouden oida," most of which will attribute this saying to Socrates.  It means "I know this one thing: that I know nothing."

Of course, it is a little silly and possibly self-contradictory, since knowing one thing means knowing something, while knowing nothing precludes knowing something.

Still, if Socrates said it, it's worth repeating, right?  (For kicks, Google it and see how many times it is quoted authoritatively.)

But I wonder if Socrates ever said it at all.

Yes, I know that we don't know exactly what Socrates said.  Socrates left us no writings, and as for transcriptions of his conversations, we have only three first-hand sources to rely on: those of Plato and Xenophon his students, and of Aristophanes his ostensible rival.  It seems likely that Aristophanes did not attempt to represent Socrates accurately, nor as a philosopher.  Plato may well have invented much of Socrates' dialogue as well, but he also had a stake in continuing and defending the philosophical work of Socrates in Athens.

For this reason, when philosophers refer to Socrates, we are usually referring to the Socrates found in Plato's rather extensive writings.

So did Plato's Socrates ever say "en oida oti ouden oida"?  It appears not.

The closest thing I've found is a passage in Plato's Apology of Socrates, where Socrates says something that should really be translated as something like this: I do not claim to know those things that I do not know. 

This is not only more reasonable, it's also good advice: don't pretend to know what you don't know and you'll avoid a lot of trouble.

It's important for another reason, though.  The "en oida oti ouden oida" quote seems to be something of a staple of frosh philosophy texts and classes.

The danger here is that we will present an ancient philosopher (two of them, in this case) as though he were fairly foolish; and as a result, we will not take ancient philosophy seriously.

All it should take to cure this is a quick look at the Greek text of any of Plato's dialogues.  The Phaedo, for instance, bears a slow and careful read in Greek, since no translation I've found captures all the wordplay.  And as Peirce pointed out, when one reads the Greek, one discovers something else that the translators often veil from our sight: Plato's Socrates uses the language of syllogism in a way that shows that he was doing Aristotelian logic before Aristotle was.

By relying on hearsay rather than on engagement with the primary texts, we close off a path of inquiry into a whole set of ancient philosophical texts.  "Doesn't their being ancient mean that they are exhausted?" you may ask.  Old trees, it seems to me, may still bear rich fruit.  And just as we find that old caves sometimes have rich troves of ancient unread texts, what else might we find if we take the time to read the ancients closely?


  1. The saying that I know one thing that I know nothing is NOT contradictory or SILLY>>>>
    As opposed to "I know something, here it is, this 'thing.'" He is stating his wisdom is that he realizes his own not knowing.

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    2. I have to disagree with your assessment here. 'I know this one thing: that I know nothing,' indicates a contradiction if I can trust the translation into English. On the other hand, it could be a joke, or it could be a poke at someone who had similar thoughts in that day. I don't know enough context to say either is true (or false). Is there any indication that Socrates satirized any of his contemporaries, or prodded them for things he thought were silly or inaccurate?

      If you know nothing, you cannot know you know nothing.
      If you know one thing, you must know at least one thing, but that thing cannot be that you know nothing.
      You could know one thing, but not know you know that thing, which gets you to the same place...

      The other quote seems more sensible, and if Socrates was anything, he was sensible.

      I know this is a VERY late post, but I just saw Dave post something on Facebook about it and thought it was interesting.

      I initially posted anonymously, which was not my intention.

    3. Thanks for your comment, Josh. (I'm not sure which Josh this is.) What's at issue here for me is captured in your phrase "if I can trust the translation into English." My point is that the translation into English isn't even a translation. Plato's texts don't have Socrates saying that; the phrase is a later addition or a *very* poor translation of what Socrates says. In fact, Socrates makes several knowledge claims in Plato's dialogues, and in the Apology, he says (twice) that his wisdom consists in not claiming to know what he does not know.

    4. It's certainly not unheard of to have a quote corrupted by the popular imagination. It's not too much of a stretch to think. "I do not claim to know those things that I do not know," could have been corrupted in this way.

      An example that leaps to mind:
      Clint Eastwood (as Dirty Harry): 'Do ya feel lucky punk?' was never uttered in the movie.

      It's actually, "You gotta ask yourself, 'do I feel lucky?'" "Well do ya punk?"

      I know, it's a crass example...but it was the first thing that popped into my head.

      By the way, this is Josh Harris.

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