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I know that I do not know

29th April 2021

‘I know that I do not know’ (Socrates)

Last week the youngest ever contender won the 2021 Mastermind of Britain competition. His name is Jonathan Gibson, a student who is studying for a PhD in modern history at the University of St. Andrews. I for one found his enthusiasm and excitement at quizzing rather delightful and he credited his success down to curiosity and doing lots of quizzes. He also said that ‘I wouldn’t say it has anything to do with intelligence in a classical way’. I thought this showed a degree of humility but also was probably a true measure of his own intelligence, for the more you know the more you are aware of the amount you do not know!

Today’s quotation is attributed to Socrates, often regarded as philosophy’s martyr. Sentenced to death in 399BC for ‘corrupting the minds of the youth’, Socrates never wrote anything down but we know about his thinking through his pupil Plato’s writing.

Plato’s Socratic dialogues feature Socrates in lively conversation on a wide range of subjects, from justice and virtue to art and politics. However, the central theme in Socrates’ thinking concerns the nature of knowledge, specifically on how none of us really has any! As Socrates says in the dialogues.

True wisdom comes to each of us when we realize how little we understand about life, ourselves and the world around us.

Socrates encouraged his pupils to question everything (which is why he was suspected at corrupting the minds of the youth!) in order to gain deeper insight to a question or to suggest doubt to a previously held truth.

By using his method of bottomless questioning, Socrates soon discovered that, in fact, few people knew anything they claimed to know for certain.

There is much we can learn from the Socratic method, not least to be wise to the limits of our own knowledge and certainty. Certainty can make us feel secure , but it can also be a barrier to intellectual growth and discovery. We need to seek knowledge from the best and stay curious, but recognise in humility that we will only ever know a very small amount of what there is to be known. And keeping dialogue open is essential in a world with competing truth claims, so that we might gain greater understanding and exercise greater compassion towards those different from ourselves.

Christine Crossley.