Before Rene Descartes uttered his famous “I think therefore I am” quote, there was Socrates. That man was never the wiser than the moment when he chuckled and responded to the oracle of Delphi “If I am the wisest man alive, it is for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.” Now it’s important to point out that this quote is only attributed to Socrates through a second hand (Plato) because Socrates, famously, never actually wrote anything down. The actual quote can be read below.
Did he say it?
Probably. This quote appears in a second-hand account of dialogue with his protege Plato.
Who did he say it to?
The quote appeared in Plato’s work Apology. Particularly Apology 21b, Apology 21c, and Apology 21d.
When did he say it?
The book by Plato was written in 399 BC.
Socrates (probably) Said It. So What’s the Story?
All we have from Socrates is that which Plato wrote down and other contemporaneous historical accounts. Perhaps ironically, this is why Socrates is often associated with Jesus, for whom there are also only second-hand accounts of his existence. Perhaps something for readers to think about is whether it matters whether either existed at all, what matters is their ideas for which (at least in regards to Socrates) we have reliable sources that document it.
On the claims to knowledge, this entire passage, and the subsequent discussions of the passage, can be found in Plato’s work Apology, specifically sections Apology21b, Apology21c, and Apology21d. Here Socrates asserts and doubles down on his claim to knowledge (or lack thereof). Arguing that, at least in Henry Cary’s 1897 translation, “I seem, then, in just this little thing to be wiser than this man at any rate, that what I do not know I do not think I know either.”
What was Socrates Talking About?
Prior to the actual study of knowledge, we thought we knew everything. There were elements that “repelled” and “attracted,” and that explained everything. Only when we began to ask the meta-question “what do you mean when you say you know?” that we began to realize that we actually knew nothing about the world.
This quote by Socrates is often thought of as getting this discussion started in building a rigid epistemic (how we arrive at knowledge) process for the things we claim to know. Socrates would be followed by Descartes, who acknowledged the reality of conscious experience. However, after having a dream that he felt was so real it could not be fake, he eventually concluded that all one could know is that they existed “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I know.”
First-year philosophy students who are likely searching for information on this quote may not need to know all of this however as we’re interested in timelines here, let’s go one step further. Immanuel Kant would eventually come along and improve Descartes’s formulation for those whose interest is piqued. He would ask, “Is that really all you can know (that one exists)?” He would use the same logic Descartes used to establish a larger theory of knowledge.
In modern approaches to epistemology, the views are all over the place. From some sides believing that we can know nothing (see Gettier cases) to some believing that those claims are ridiculous and a waste of time (see Tamler Sommers). However the current thinking still holds that a “truth” claim must be a) justified and b) true for something to actually count as knowledge.