Skip to main content

Socratic Humility

Philosophers aren’t the only ones who love wisdom.  Everyone, philosopher or not, loves her own wisdom: the wisdom she has or takes herself to have.   What distinguishes the philosopher is loving the wisdom she doesn’t have.   Philosophy is, therefore, a form of humility: being aware that you lack what is of supreme importance.   There may be no human being who exemplified this form of humility more perfectly than Socrates. It is no coincidence therefore, that he is considered the first philosopher within the Western canon.

Socrates did not write philosophy—he simply went around talking to people.  But these conversations were so transformative that the second philosopher, Plato, devoted his life to writing dialogues that represent Socrates in conversation.  These dialogues are not transcripts of actual conversations, but they are nonetheless clearly intended to reflect not only Socrates’ ideas but his personality. Plato wanted the world to remember Socrates.  Generations after Socrates’ death, warring philosophical schools such as the Stoics and the Skeptics each appropriated Socrates as figurehead.  Though they disagreed on just about every point of doctrine, they were clear that in order to count themselves as philosophers they had to somehow be working in the tradition of Socrates.  

What is it about Socrates that made him into a symbol for the whole institution of philosophy? Consider the fact that, when the oracle at Delphi proclaims Socrates wisest of men, he tries to prove it wrong: 

“I went to one of those reputed wise, thinking that there, if anywhere, I could refute the oracle and say to it: “This man is wiser than I, but you said I was.” Then, when I examined this man— there is no need for me to tell you his name, he was one of our public men—my experience was something like this: I thought that he appeared wise to many people and especially to himself, but he was not. I then tried to show him that he thought himself wise, but that he was not. As a result he came to dislike me, and so did many of the bystanders. So I withdrew and thought to myself: “I am wiser than this man; it is likely that neither of us knows anything worthwhile, but he thinks he knows something when he does not, whereas when I do not know, neither do I think I know; so I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” (Apology21cd)

If Socrates’ trademark claimis this protestation of ignorance, his trademark activityis the one also described in this passage: refuting people.  These are the conversations we find in Plato’s texts.  How are the claim and the activity related? Socrates denies that his motivations are altruistic: he says he is not a teacher (Apology 33a), and insists that he is himself the primary beneficiary of the conversations he initiates (Charmides 166d).  This adds to the mystery: what is Socrates getting out of showing people that they don’t know what they take themselves to know?  What’s his angle?

Over and over again, Socrates approaches people who are remarkable for their lack of Socratic humility—which is to say, for the fact that they feel confident in their own knowledge of what is just, or pious, or brave, or moderate.  You might have supposed that Socrates, whose claim to fame is his awareness of his own ignorance, would treat these self-proclaimed “wise men” (Sophists) with contempt, hostility or indifference.  But he doesn’t.  The most remarkable feature of Socrates’ approach is his punctilious politeness and sincere enthusiasm.  The conversation usually begins with Socrates asking his interlocutor, “Since you think you know, can you tell me, what is courage (or wisdom or piety or justice…).”  Over and over again, it turns out that they think they can answer, but they can’t.  Socrates’ hope springs eternal: even as he walks towards the courtroom to be tried (and eventually put to death) for his philosophical activity, he is delighted to encounter the self-important priest Euthyphro, who will, surely, be able to say what piety is.  (Spoiler: he's not.)  

Socrates seemed to think that the people around him could help him acquire the knowledge he so desperately wanted—even though they were handicapped by the illusion that they already knew it.  Indeed, I believe that their ill-grounded confidence was precisely what drew Socrates to them.  If you think you know something, you will be ready to speak on the topic in question.  You will hold forth, spout theories, make claims.  And that, combined with Socrates’ relentless questioning, is a recipe for actually acquiring the knowledge you had previously deluded yourself into thinking you already had.  

Let me sketch a little dialogue you might have with Socrates.

Socrates: What is courage?
You: Courage is endurance.
Socrates: Are people who foolishly endure great risks courageous?
You: Yes. 
Socrates: Is courage a virtue, something good?
You: Yes.
Socrates:  Is courage something you would want for yourself and your children?
You: Yes.  
Socrates: Would you want your children to foolishly subject themselves to danger…?  You: No. Perhaps I should have said that foolish endurance is not courage.  
Socrates:  Ok.  So you think courage is wise endurance?  
You: Yes.  
Socrates: If a man were to show endurance in spending his money wisely, knowing that by spending it he would get more, would you call this man courageous?

You would probably not. Both of your pathways are blocked. You do not have a way forward. You are in what Socrates’ interlocutors called “aporia”, a state of confusion in which there is nowhere for you to go. 

Suppose the conversation goes no further than this—suppose, as is typical for Socrates’ interlocutors, that you storm off in a huff at this point.  Where does that leave you, and where does that leave Socrates? Let’s start with you.  You might be in a worse mood than you were when you encountered Socrates, but he hasn’t harmed you.  In fact, you are better off than you were: you’ve learned that courage isn’t as easy to define as you initially thought it was.  Being improved isn’t always pleasant.  Second, Socrates has learned something.  Courage seems to involve something like endurance or holding fast, but it cannot straightforwardly be identified with such a state—not even when we add some other ingredients to the state, such as wisdom.  Before this conversation, Socrates didn’t know what courage was.  Now his ignorance can take a more specific shape: he doesn’t know what the connection between courage and endurance is.  He still knows that he doesn’t know what courage is, but his knowledge of his own ignorance has been improved, made more precise.

It’s one thing to say, “I don’t know anything.”  That thought comes cheap.  One can wonder, “Who really and truly knows anything?...” in a way that is dismissive, uninquisitive, detached.  It can be a way of saying, “knowledge is unattainable, so why even try?”  Socratic humility is more expensive and more committal than that.  He sought to map the terrain of his ignorance, to plot its mountains and its rivers, to learn to navigate it.  That, I think, is why he speaks of knowledge of his own ignorance.  But this is a paradoxical project.  It’s one thing to be missing your wallet—that seems like something you can know.  But suppose you’re missing not only your wallet, but also the knowledge that you ever had a wallet, and the understanding of what a wallet is.  Can you know that you don’t know all that?  Can you map in total darkness?

Socrates’ answer was no. Or at least: you can’t do it alone. What appears as a sea of darkness when approached introspectively turns into a tool when deployed on the knowledge-claims of another.  The right response to noticing one’s own ignorance is to try to escape it by acquiring someone else’s knowledge.  But the only way to do that is to explain to them why you aren’t yet able to accept this or that claim of theirs as knowledge—and that is what mapping one's ignorance amounts to.  It’s when he refutes others’ claims to knowledge that Socrates' own ignorance takes shape, for him, as something he can know. 

Socrates was an unusual person.  Consider his response to the oracle.  Most people who are proclaimed wise by a trusted authority don’t have the impulse to disprove that authority.  Instead, they bask in the glory of the assessment of themselves that they have spend their whole lives longing to hear.  Most people steer conversations into areas where they have expertise; they struggle to admit error; they have a background confidence that they have a firm grip on the basics.  They are happy to think of other people—people who have different political or religious views, or got a different kind of education, or live in a different part of the world—as ignorant and clueless.  They are eager to claim the status of knowledge for everything they themselves think.

But Socrates did not take this difference as grounds to despise or dismiss this group, Most People (hoi polloi).  He saw, instead, that he and Most People were a match made in heaven. Most People put forward claims, and Socrates refutes them.  Most People see the need to possess truths.  Socrates saw the danger of acquiring falsehoods.  Most People feel full of rich insights and brilliant thoughts. Socrates saw himself as bereft of all of that.  Without the help of Most People, Socrates wouldn’t have anything to think about.  Socrates’ neediness did not escape Socrates’ own notice.  In the Theaetetus, he describes himself as a kind of midwife—barren of knowledge himself, but engaged in ‘delivering’ the wisdom-babies of Most People.

Socrates saw the pursuit of knowledge as a collaborative project involving two very different roles.  There’s you or I or some other representative of Most People, who comes forward and makes a bold claim.  Then there’s Socrates, or one of his contemporary descendants, who questions and interrogates and distinguishes and calls for clarification.  This is something we’re still doing—as philosophers, as scientists, as interviewers, on Twitter and Facebook and in many casual personal conversations.  We’re constantly probing one another, asking, "how can you say that, given XYZ."  We’re still trying to understand one another by way of objection, clarification, and the simple fact of inability to take what was said as knowledge.  It comes so naturally to us to organize ourselves into the knower/objector pairing, that we don’t even notice we are living in the world that Socrates made.   But as remarkable as the scope of his influence is the means by which it was achieved: he did so much by knowing, writing and producing nothing at all.

Plato depicts Socrates’ final moments in the Phaedo.  Before he fulfills his death sentence by drinking the hemlock, he offers up a series of arguments about the immortality of the soul.  Each argument attempts to improve upon the previous one’s failure to show the people around him that his death is not something to be mourned.  Despite the brilliance, refinement and detail of argumentation, he does not convince his interlocutors.  From much experience teaching and reading the dialogue I can say that he does not convince its readers, either.  Arguably, he does not even manage to convince himself.  He died as he lived, ignorant and inquisitive.

(Edited 7/18/18)


  1. An interesting thought. I had never thought of Socrates as being humble. It has been a long time since I read Plato though so I may be getting him wrong.

    Whether Socrates was really humble (almost a wise-fool) and honestly asking others to please share their wisdom with him so he can understand, I think that is not what is commonly meant by the Socratic Method. Rather than being a way to share the load of thinking, these days it seems to have come to mean a way of a teacher guiding the thought of a student by repeatedly asking questions and critiquing the answers. The assumption seems to have become that the student will not ever get a good answer, but the format will also save the teacher from ever having to answer the question and be exposed in his ignorance.

    So, a point for Socrates in puncturing the egos of self-important "experts". But a point against him in that his method can be used by those same "experts" to maintain their status as long as they are willing to say, "It's difficult."

    1. I learned this firsthand when a student in one of the first courses I taught complained in a course evaluation about the fact that I sometimes ask questions to which I expect a particular answer. Good point, and thank you anonymous student! I have tried to stop doing that. I have found that if I ask only questions where I am genuinely curious about the answer, I get much better answers.

  2. There is a little or nothing said about Socratic irony. But I do like very much this read of Socrates.

  3. Wonderful piece, thanks!

    In my mind, the piece places Socrates as responsible for one of the building blocks of the scientific method; a community of researchers who attempt to refute competing theories to hone in on the correct one. Through their emphasis in correct modes of reasoning, Socrates / Plato also contributed a process by which theories could be checked for internal consistency; all they were missing was the process by which they could be checked for external validity (empirical verification).

  4. A brilliant and insightful piece. Thanks a lot. Reminds me of of the point Yuval Hariri made in "Sapiens" about the Europeans conquering the world because they were the first ones to acknowledge their ignorance, and went exploring - physically and metaphorically - to try and answer questions that had never been asked before.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

51 Tips For a Successful Life

(1) Get married.  Then get divorced.  Then get remarried. (2) Every day, ask yourself, do I feel like showering today?  If the answer is, “yes,” shower. (3) Be in environments with the right amount of light. (4) Subtly vary your bedtime and waking times every day, so that you never quite settle into a pattern. Same for mealtimes. (5) Respond to emails immediately, except if they seem important, then trust that you’ll remember them at some indeterminate moment in the future. (6) Be afraid for your children: Will they become good people?  Will bad things happen to them? Will they love me when they grow up? These are good questions to ponder. (8) Floss for the first few days after every dentist appointment. (9) Sometimes, write all day, from morning to night.  Other times, read all day.  Yet other days should be nothing but meetings, as payment for the days of the first two kinds. (10) Make sudden, unexpected changes in your appearance every few years. (11) Allow yourself to admire (som…

Progress in Philosophy

In a recent post on his blog Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen talks about whether there has been progress in philosophy. Tyler approaches this question by describing some ways other fields have taken on philosophical problems, approaches or insights. One might still wonder: what have philosophers done for philosophy itself? This question is related to another: why do we (still) read old books of philosophy?  In what follows, I try to answer these questions, and also to consider what the demand for progress reveals about the relationship between philosophers and non-philosophers.
Academic disciplines regularly export technologies, ideas and practices outside the ivory tower, or to other parts of it.  Tyler’s list consists mostly of what I would classify as (sometimes second- or third-hand) philosophical exports.  I don’t deny the value or the philosophical character of any of those items, but I do deny the implication that philosophy should be judged by what gets exported from it—…


When I’m alone late at night on a deserted road, I like to walk on the double yellow lines.  One time I decided to stop and lie down, right there in the middle of the road.  I kept myself narrow, arms pinned, so cars could pass on either side.  But I wasn’t invisible, and I alarmed a kind policeman who happened to drive by me.  After determining that I was not dead, drunk or high, he concluded I was suicidal.  We had a long talk. It didn’t help for me to explain that if I had wanted to be run over I would’ve moved several feet in one direction or the other.  And picked a busier road.  He wanted to know, why, if I didn’t want to be run over, was I lying in the middle of the road?  
There were so many reasons. I wanted to see the night sky from the perspective of the road; I wanted to be in this secret spot that always got passed by and never occupied; most of all, I just wanted to feel what it was like to lie there, with the double yellow lines running under me from head to heels.  But …