To Know, Is To Know That You Know Nothing


"TO KNOW, IS TO KNOW THAT YOU KNOW NOTHING. THAT IS THE MEANING OF TRUE KNOWLEDGE" — SOCRARTES
To know is to know nothing - may sound paradoxical. After all, how can one know if things are unknowable? Concept of knowledge is widely discussed but little understood. At one level, it is having more information. Then comes the understanding of that information. Socrates go beyond these and point to an aspect where knowledge brings modest about one's self and the limitations of self and human beings.
In the present context, Socrates has great relevance. It can be understood in following terms -
 
 
As source of scientific temperament and intellectual skepticism - We live in an era of rapid scientific and technological progress. The life cycle of knowledge is coming down and theories are constantly challenged and new ones proposed. In such a scenario, understanding the human limitation to know things can serve two purposes - first, it helps us develop intellectual skepticism towards our preconceptions and makes us receptive to new knowledge, second, it helps us embrace the myriad uncertainties involved in daily life.UPSC Prelims 2024 dynamic test series
 
 
For humility in human behaviour - Knowledge can be a source of great modesty, but can also be a source for great arrogance too. But Socratic assertion that one can know nothing is humbling in its true sense. While we may revel in our new found understanding of physical laws, we have been humbled time and again by natural forces. Natural hazards like Earthquakes, cyclones, etc. and ups and downs of business and political fortunes remind us again and again of our limitations. Dynasties which were considered formidable like Mughals, Mongols found themselves in tatters in a few centuries. Similarly, the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in 2008 showed that for all brilliance, merit and financial power, human err. Fortunes have changed quickly too with 'small-town boys' making it big in sports like Mahendra Singh Dhoni. This quote that we know nothing is a way to humble all individuals.
 
 
For tolerance and mutual respect - Today, we find intellectual fisticuffs in social media and news regularly. These debates are cacophonous and hardly lead to any productive outcome. In fact, among intelligentsia a contempt for public sentiment is often seen in the name of rationality and their own academic and professional credentials. This goes against the public spiritedness and democratic spirit of times. In fact, acquiring some knowledge does not give anyone a right to bulldoze through others' opinions or privilege over others. While merit must be rewarded, mutual respect must be shown. One great example is FBI kidnapping negotiator Chris Voss who earned a name for his negotiating skills without having a degree in the subject, and even gave lessons later at Harvard.
 
 
Social perspective, against elitism and inequality - Educational resources are not equally distributed. In fact, research shows wide disparity in educational outcomes based on family background and wealth. Therefore, Socratic opinion has a deep social side to it. We do not know the challenges faced by people separated across geographies, cultures, class and countries. We may master a subject or topic or skill, our acquisition remains minuscule as compared to the universe of knowledge and human understanding.
It is particularly relevant for individuals in policy making decisions. Often top-down approaches and schemes are un-optimal and even repercussive in their results. Therefore, the correct approach would have been Socratic in its spirit with constant evaluation and monitoring of the performance and outcomes.
 
 
A statistical perspective - Nassim Nicholas Taleb questions the very idea of knowledge. In fact, the example of Swans' being considered White by definition for centuries until a Black Swan was discovered in Australia shows the limitations of our knowledge. What is considered axiomatic can quickly fall apart on discovery of new facts. Taleb goes on to show how a small number of events disproportionately affects the world around us. A small act of throwing a brown outside the train could lead to the making of a Gandhi ! Such Black Swan events question our assumptions regarding life and the world. Therefore, even from a statistical perspective the Socratic dictum makes sense. Karl Popper asserts that science is about constantly putting your knowledge to test.
 
 
Reform agenda and anti-superstition movement - Going in the same vein, the idea that "we know nothing" is a nudge towards reforms and anti-superstition movements. News of witch-hunting where women are burnt, killed, maimed because they are blamed for some unfortunate event are seriously disturbing. Putting our own thoughts to reflection can help us shed such superstitions. It can further the reform agenda, breaking stereotypes and building a society conducive for welfare of all.
 
 
Fake news and social media - has led to flooding of false information and dubious narratives across the world. Such discourses often aggravate social tensions and lead to vituperative discourse in the public undermining ethos of our nation. Therefore Socratic thought might be a small step towards promoting fact-checking and constant evaluation of evidence.
Socratic quote - you know nothing - is a rather powerful quote today. Today more than ever before we need the world to be humble in its knowledge and evaluative in its actions. Only then, perhaps, true knowledge of human life shall suffuse.

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