Socrates and knowing not-knowing

Socrates had a great influence on European philosophy. Socrates was not always clear. Precisely because of this he has become a founder of various philosophical movements. With the arrival of Socrates, a new period in philosophy begins. Man and man’s position in society become the subject of philosophy. Socrates challenges his interlocutors and often politicians to get closer to the truth by answering questions.

Cultural-historical background

Before the arrival of Socrates, the natural philosophers from 6oo BC put an end to the hitherto mythical worldview. The natural philosophers tried to find natural explanations for changes in nature. The natural philosophers are also called pre-Socratics. This indicates how great the role of Socrates has been for philosophy. From 450 BC, Athens became the cultural center of the Greek world. A democracy developed in Athens. A number of teachers and philosophers came to Athens from the Greek colonies. They were called Sophists and their aim was to educate the people. Popular education was considered a prerequisite for democracy. The philosophical project now became man and man’s place in society. By initiating a discussion about the question of what is determined by nature on the one hand and what is created by society on the other , the sophists laid the foundation for social criticism. According to the sophists, there are no absolute standards regarding right action. What is right depends on social customs. Socrates has expanded on the social criticism of the Sophists and will demonstrate that some norms are absolute and apply to everyone. Athens is slowly entering a crisis, corruption is rampant and Socrates puts his finger on the sore spot.

Socrates’ methode

Socrates lived from 470 to 399 BC. Unlike the Sophists, Socrates was not an appointed and paid teacher. Socrates’ method was dialogue. He could be found in the market and on the streets of Athens, where he mainly asked questions. As a result, he initially showed the other person that he knew nothing. However, as the conversation progressed, Socrates cornered his interlocutor, leaving him feeling insecure, ignorant and incompetent. He would have said that he knows only one thing and that is that he knows nothing. Through this knowing not-knowing, Socrates tries to get as close as possible to the truth. This method is also called Socratic irony; pretending you don’t know anything or pretending to be dumber than you are. Socrates wanted to help people give birth to right understanding, just as his mother, as a midwife, helped give birth to a child. His method is also called Maieutica, the art of midwives. According to Socrates, only insight that comes from within is true insight.


According to Socrates, man has a conscience and reason determines the distinction between good and evil. By this he means, unlike the sophists, that making a distinction between good and evil is not inherent in society. For Socrates, the goal of knowledge is man’s self-knowledge. For example, he states that the person who knows who he is, knows what to do. He who then knows what is good will also do what is good. In other words; right insight leads to right action. His ethics say that virtue rests on knowledge and insight. According to Socrates, the basis of our thinking lies in reason. This makes him an outspoken rationalist. According to Socrates, anyone who uses his reason can fathom philosophical truths. He also claimed that a slave has the same cognitive powers as a nobleman.

Poison cup

Socrates is said to have regularly said that a divine voice spoke within him. Through his dialogues, which led to self-knowledge and the discovery of the truth, he pointed out the weaknesses of the people and not least the weaknesses of the state, with which those in power were particularly unhappy. For example, a statement by Socrates that contains a good dose of social criticism is: ,Athens is like a slow horse and I am the gadfly that tries to wake it up and keep it alive,, (Jostein Gaardner, 1998, p. 77 ). He strongly opposed death sentences and has refused to report political opponents of the state. Socrates was accused in 399 of introducing new gods and misleading the youth. He was found guilty , albeit by a narrow majority . Socrates could have requested pardon or exile. However, he has valued the truth, or his own conscience, more than his own life. He toasted the gods and drank the poisoned cup in the presence of his closest friends. Socrates was said to be perfectly just. “One can search in the present and one can search in the past, but one will never find someone like him,” (Jostein Gaarner, 1998, p.75).


Socrates did not put a word on paper. It is thanks to Plato, a student of Socrates, that we know Socrates’ philosophy. Plato’s first philosophical act was to write down Socrates’ defense speech. He has also written a number of dialogues in which Socrates appears as the most important character. Plato’s writings have been preserved.

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