How does Plato know that he knows nothing?

Of not knowing

by Hans G. Müsse

“I know that I know nothing” is a popular saying that is attributed to the Greek philosopher Socrates as a falsifying shortening of a quote from Plato's apology. With Plato, the quote stands for the development of one's own knowledge from the unmasking of pseudo-knowledge via conscious ignorance to wisdom as knowledge of the good that constitutes virtue in its unity. If one consults later reports on the unwritten teachings of Plato, the essence of the good can be understood as identical with the absolute One (Aristotle, Metaphysik 1091 b 13-15). Genuine philosophizing presupposes the awareness of ignorance. The supposed knowledge is just an unmistakable taking for granted, which on closer examination turns out to be untenable pseudo-knowledge. Socrates tests the knowledge of craftsmen, politicians, speakers and poets. Their technical expertise is not of interest to him because they do not provide any ethical insight. His thinking revolves around the question of how life should be lived. Through him a conscientiousness of speech comes into the world, which demands higher than scientific exactness and which keeps the empty piety of nightfall and repeating unrest (Helmut Kuhn: Sokrates. An attempt on the origin of metaphysics, 1934, p. 46).

Socrates is concerned with the knowledge of virtues, he asks what is good for people. The greatest good for man is to talk daily about virtue and to test oneself and others. This creates concern for one's own life and for the soul that realizes the good in life and to which the good is related. A life without self-inquiry does not deserve to be lived (Plato, Apologie des Sokrates 38a). The ignorance of Socrates refers to the complete definition, accountable grasp of the good and the individual virtues, which he does not succeed either. “Socratic philosophizing sees its task in elevating this guessing understanding of the good, which admits of many errors, to clear knowledge; this knowledge is at the same time the self-knowledge demanded by Socrates, in which the self is teleologically understood from the point of view of good in the unity of his life. [...] What is sought in the good as the truly useful is the goal towards which the human being as human being, in which the self truly understands itself and realizes itself as the real self in life ”(Hanns-Dieter Voigtländer: The concept of knowledge des Sokrates, in: RhM NF 132 (1989) p. 31 and p. 38). A certain and absolute moral knowledge is fundamentally not found in humans. Their knowledge of a limited technical area leads them to overestimate themselves.

And you know how Chairephon was, how violent in everything he began. Just as he had once gone to Delphi, he dared to seek an oracle about this; - just, as I say, no mess you men. - So he asked if anyone was wiser than me. The Pythia now denied that anyone was wiser. And this his brother can testify to you here, since he has already passed away. Now consider why I am saying this; I want to explain to you where the slander against me came from. Because after hearing this, I thought to myself: What do you think God means? And what is he trying to suggest? Because I am aware that I am neither much nor little wise. So what does he mean by saying that I am the wisest? Because he will surely not lie; that is not allowed to him. And for a long time I couldn't understand what he meant; Finally, I did not like to turn to the investigation of the matter in the following way. I went to one of those who were believed to be wise, to convict the oracle there, if anywhere, and to show the saying: This one is wiser than me, but you testified on me. While I now looked at this, for it is not necessary to call him by name, but it was one of the statesmen who looked at me as follows, you Athenians. In conversation with him, this man seemed to me to be very wise to many other people too, but most of all to himself, but not at all. Then I tried to show him that he thought he was wise, but that he wasn't; which then made me hate himself and many of those present. So, as I left, I thought to myself that as this man I am of course wiser now. Because neither of us may know anything good or special; but he thinks he knows, since he does not know, but I, as I do not know, I do not mean it either. So I seem to be wiser than he about this little thing, that I don't think I know what I don't know either. Then I went to another of those who were thought to be even wiser than the former, and it just seemed the same to me, and as a result I was hated by him as well as by many others. After this I went one after the other, noticing admittedly and regretfully and also in fear that I was making myself hated; but it seemed to me necessary to set God's cause over everything else; and so I had to go, always thinking to the oracle what it means to everyone who was supposed to know something. (Plato, Apology of Socrates 21a-22a)


Negation as an enlightening attitude

For Socrates, wisdom begins with the unmasking of false knowledge. The means for this is his constant, probing endeavor to get to the bottom of things and not be satisfied with the superficial ones. He wants to bring up the “best logos”, the constant essence of the thing, independent of time and place. Socratic philosophy means an inner movement, an attitude that determines thought and existence, which is expressed in the translation of the word philosophy as "love of wisdom": love is the only thing that he understands (Plato, Theages 128a).

He is not interested in scientific or mathematical knowledge, but in the knowledge of good and bad. In addition to the problem of obtaining a generally applicable definition, there is the question of what certainty is possible about the essence of virtue. Moral truth is subjective, and for Socrates the only possible access to goodness lies in subjectivity. Only the ethics of Immanuel Kant showed that the moral quality of human action is incapable of knowledge. The negation of a certain knowledge of the values ​​by Socrates is not destructive. It leads to a conscious shaping of the future and frees from unreflectedly adopted, traditional ways of life. In the aporia, the dialogue partner is encouraged to set out on their own and look for the good. Socrates thus adopts an enlightening stance whose independence and independence can be perceived as offensive. Gernot Böhme described the type of Socrates as atopos: “Socrates the placeless. Socrates, the strange man, the stranger, the strange, the eccentric. Socrates, the conspicuous, the troublemaker, the anti-social. Socrates, the mismatched, the paradoxical, the absurd existence. Atopos is its epithet - that is, the placeless. [...] Socrates is the archetype of the philosopher. If that is true, then philosophy is something extremely strange ”(Gernot Böhme: Der Typ Sokrates, 1998, p. 19).

The special wisdom of Socrates consists in the constant readiness to examine the epistemological and logical bases of human virtue. In doing so, he is constantly aware of the limits of this knowledge. For him, philosophizing becomes an event in which the unity of person and knowledge is expressed and the seeking approach to the good in life is realized. The decisive characteristic of Socratic philosophizing is therefore adequately expressed in dialogue.


The way of dialogue

In his defense speech, Socrates names the god Apollo of Delphi as the guarantor of the truthfulness of his philosophizing. Apollo is the god of light and the eternal presence. He wages a constant battle against everything dark. For him everything is present and unhidden. It illuminates the dark, that which is not revealed and is hidden. He is therefore at the same time the God of truth. From this God Socrates was called to wisdom and was not called a wise man - this is how he interprets the oracle. He therefore consults others who are considered wise in order to learn from them. So it came to the disputes with the sophists, the wise men of his time, the Athenians in public office, acquaintances and friends. In contrast to the sophists, Socrates does not allow himself to be paid for his teaching work. For him it is important to find a solid foundation for human knowledge. He thinks that this foundation lies in reason. Man is able to make use of reason and should make use of it. Socrates is convinced that he who knows what is good will also do what is good. He believes that the right knowledge leads to the right action. And only those who do the right thing become the right person. According to Socrates, when a person acts wrong, he only does so because he does not know any better. That is why it is so important to increase wisdom. The inductive method introduced by Socrates is used to teach in an open-ended process in the form of question and answer. “In Socratic speech and thought there is forced renunciation, a renunciation without which there would be no Socratic philosophy. This only arises because Socrates does not get any further in the area of ​​knowledge and takes flight into dialogue. Socratic philosophy has become dialogic in its essence because exploratory discovery seemed impossible ”(Günter Figal: Sokrates, 2006, p. 97 f.).

Truth unfolds its effect in dialogue, gently and powerfully permeating the human spirit. In dialogue, people can share what they have discovered to be true - what they think they have discovered. In dialogue people can support one another in striving to truly grasp what is good in itself as the goal of all philosophizing. For Socrates, this form of conversation is the original form of philosophical thought and the only way to communicate with others. Reminder (protreptikos) and examination (elenchos) move in the form of questions. A good example of this is his defense speech:

I am devoted to you, you Athenians, and a friend, but I will obey God more than you, and as long as I still breathe and can do it, I will not stop looking for wisdom and admonishing and correcting which of you I find, with my usual speeches, such as: Best man, as an Athenian from the largest city and most famous for wisdom and power, you are not ashamed to care for money, as you get most of it, and for fame and honor ; but you do not care for insight and truth and for your soul that it is in the best of conditions, and you don’t want to think about that? And if someone among you denies this and claims that he is probably thinking about it, I will not let go of him immediately and go away, but will ask him and examine and investigate. And if I think he has no virtue, but assert it, I will tell him that he regards the most important things less and the worse things more highly. This is how I will deal with young and old, just as I meet them, and with strangers and citizens, but so much more with you citizens as you are more closely related to me. For so, just know, God commands it. And for my part, I believe that the state has never experienced greater good than this service that I render to God. Because I don't do anything else than go around to persuade young and old among you not to care for the body and for the property as much as for the soul beforehand. (Plato, Apologie des Sokrates 29d ff.)

In order to establish clarity, Socrates uses his own method, which is called Maeutics - a kind of "spiritual obstetrics" - by asking questions - and not by teaching the interlocutor, as the sophists practice towards their students - your own ability to understand should ultimately do that Knowledge of the good (agathón) and noble (kalón) oneself "give birth" or bring about. However, this goal cannot be achieved without understanding the questionable nature of one's own knowledge. “Socrates, the teacher, appears regularly as a student. He does not want to teach others, but rather to be taught by them. He is the ignorant, his philosophy appears in the form of ignorance. Conversely, he brings his interlocutors into the position of knowing. That flatters most and provokes them to spread their supposed knowledge. It is only when there is a consequent questioning that it becomes apparent that they themselves are the ignorant ”(Wolfgang H. Pleger: Sokrates, 1998, p. 57). This dialogical discussion should be free from envy and jealousy (cf. Plato, Seventh Letter 344b-d). The purpose of the dialogue is to help the interlocutor and to point out a mistake.

Socrates uses serious irony in his conversations. This encourages you to think for yourself without defining its meaning. It reveals the internal contradictions and leads to constructive uncertainty, which opens up a productive questioning of one's own perspective. His irony is not designed to make the other person look ridiculous, but rather to make him recognize his inadequacy as something that he can laugh at himself instead of being contrite. The platonic dialogues show how difficult, and often impossible, this is for many of his interlocutors. In case of doubt, those addressed do not find it helpful to be dismantled in public in the agora, especially since Socrates' students also practice this form of dialogue. The goal is not book knowledge, but wisdom as knowledge of virtues. Socrates proclaims the self-liberation, self-rule and self-sufficiency of the moral personality (Werner Jaeger: Paideia, 1989, p. 588). One of the results obtained by Socrates is that right action follows from right insight and that justice is a fundamental condition of salvation. “In the question of what is good actually lies the service for the Delphic God. The idea of ​​the good is ultimately the philosophical meaning of the Delphic oracle ”(Günter Figal, op. Cit., P. 71 f.).

The investigations of Socrates serve to bring about conceptual clarifications and mostly revolve around questions of ethics: What is piety? What is self-control? What is prudence? What is bravery? What is justice Socrates understands these virtues as excellence of the soul, just as strength, health and beauty are virtues of the body. Physical and mental virtue is a symmetry of the parts on whose interaction body and soul are based. True virtue is indivisible and one, one cannot have one part of it and one cannot have the other. In the good, Socrates recognizes what is truly useful, wholesome, and bringing happiness, because it leads man's nature to the fulfillment of his being. The ethical is the expression of properly understood human nature. Man is only free if he is not the slave of his own desires. Xenophon has his protagonist Socrates say:

You, Antifon, seem to put bliss in opulence and great expense; I, on the other hand, am convinced that needing nothing is something divine and therefore the best, and that the fewest needs have that which comes closest to the divine. (Xenophon, Memorabilia I 5, 5 - 6; IV 5, 2 - 5)

Man does not achieve harmony with the world as a whole by satisfying his sensual needs, but "only through perfect mastery over himself according to the law that he finds in his own soul through research" (Werner Jaeger, op. Cit., P. 586 and P. 609 f.). The true goal of life is to know what is good. Plato describes the necessary ascent to the truth of the absolute with the parable of the sun, the parable of lines and the parable of the cave (Plato, Politeia 508a ff.). The Socratic knowledge of ignorance initiates the dialectical path that leads to the knowing ignorance of absolute transcendence.

In this way we know the absolute, which gives the ground for all knowledge, precisely because it is itself beyond all knowledge, only in ignorance - of course in an ignorance that knows itself as ignorance and that therefore only reaches itself through the knowledge of the knowable, by transcending this. All thinking and speaking about the absolutely transcendent must therefore constantly revoke itself and dissolve into the unspeakable: this is the meaning of the "negative theology", of which Plato is the founder. Thus the self-aware ignorance of the absolute is the goal of Platonic philosophy; the knowledge of the knowable (the ideas) does not include itself, but points beyond itself to a beyond of all knowledge.Plato's “dialectical path”, based on the Socratic knowledge of ignorance, which initiates the search for knowledge, leads through the knowledge of the essential reasons and beyond to the self-aware ignorance of absolute transcendence; this does not exclude a principle theory leading there, culminating in the via negativa of the absolute one, but necessarily includes it (Jens Halfwassen: Der Aufstieg zum Eine, 2006, p. 225).