Over the years, many people I know have referenced this famous (paraphrased) Socrates quote to me, whether it's been with the intent to lecture me in a debate or to discuss their disgust over the context of the quote. More often than not, I get the former scenario when involved in a debate, but most of the time, it's never used to actually get me to come to a self-realization or questioning of my stance like one would expect it to. It's not hard to understand why people bring up this particular quote; Socrates is up there as one of the most well-known philosophers of all time, and with how seemingly simple the quote is, it's easy for people to bring it up to try to turn the tide of a debate in their favor. I've found out over the years that the people who use this quote without thinking don't really try to explore the depth and the reasoning behind Socrates' usage of "I know nothing." After many years of hearing misinterpretations and complaints, I figured it's a good idea to explain the usage behind Socrates' words in layman's terms for people who misinterpret the context of the quote:
"All I know, is that I know nothing."
To start things off right, it's best to look at how exactly Socrates came to the the conclusion that he "knew nothing." As the story goes, a friend of Socrates asked the Oracle of Delphi who was wiser than Socrates. Her reply was frank and to the point: "no one is wiser." Socrates, unsure if the oracle was actually correct in her statement, decided to test whether or not he truly was the wisest. After publicly talking with politicians, poets, and craftsmen, he determined that although all of them were indeed wise (or at least APPEARED to be wise) in some manner, none of them seemed to understand that there was more for them to learn beyond what they already knew. This of course wasn't taken very well by his fellow Athenians, as the Athenians he questioned felt like they had been embarrassed in front of their peers, and it was what eventually led to his eventual trial and sentencing to death. He had multiple opportunities to escape trial and execution, but because he felt that it was a good time for him to die, he remained firm in his belief that he was the wisest Athenian around. It goes without saying that Socrates was considered a pain to begin with by the status quo of Athens at the time as well, but that's a story for another time.
Now, getting back to the modern era, I'm not afraid to admit that I've been schooled in a debate by an opponent who has brought this idea/quote up using the Socratic method. It's the kind of quote that has to be used properly to make someone stop and think whether his or her knowledge on a subject needs improvement or credibility. In that sense, it's a perfect tactic to use in a debate, and I don't discourage anyone from using it to cement one's argument/stance in a fair and reasonable matter that makes both sides expand their thinking to another level. The fundamental flaw of this quote by Socrates is the fact that it's a little too loosely worded; this might be attributed to the passage of time, as if you tell something long enough, it's bound to get diluted. Ironically enough, I've found that the same people who would be deemed by Socrates to be unwise are the same people who seem to flock to this quote in numbers. To illustrate this point, I'll bring up a scenario that recently happened to a friend of mine. He was engaged in a debate with some people in his class, and one of his opponents referenced the "I know nothing" quote in an attempt to disparage my friend's argument. The person my friend was debating was a type of person that's been described to me as stubborn in his beliefs and refusing to accept anything outside of the status quo that he knew. By using the "I know nothing" quote as a reference to his losing argument, he made an attempt to slander my friend's argument rather than making a logical point in the debate.
That person is the kind of person that gives strength to another quote by Socrates that I think needs more love than it gets:
"When the debate is lost, slander becomes the tool of the loser."
See, when people use this quote to slander rather than to educate, the entire meaning behind what Socrates was saying is lost. Although one can look at his reasoning as somewhat arrogant, Socrates himself never debated the people he did with the intent of trying to embarrass them; rather, he debated them because he wanted to test a theory. The Athenians took offense to it due to a lack of self-realization on their parts, and they failed to understand that they could have been just as "wise" as Socrates was if they expanded beyond their level of thought at the time. In fact, given the setting, telling people that they "know nothing" with the insinuation that they're stupid and that their stance on a matter is completely wrong compared to yours gives off a vibe of hypocrisy. If one uses this quote in the wrong context, two things happen:
1) It instead leads to an opposite effect of the other person coming to the self-realization that the person he or she is debating is the ignorant one.
2) The user of this quote/idea ignores his or her own ignorance and fails to come to the self-realization that there's still much more to learn.
I look at this quote like it's a double-edged sword; if there were more people at the time with the same beliefs of Socrates like there are today, he'd be looked at as arrogant for telling people he was the wisest, but since it was used at a time when the people of Athens weren't thinking outside of the box, it was a radical idea that has gained a lot of influence since then when used properly and improperly. One has to treat this quote by Socrates like all tools of debate; it's how one references the quote that can make or break an argument. Ideally, it's best for both people (or peoples) to walk away from a debate with a sense of gained knowledge and further understanding that there's still so much more for everyone to learn about life, the universe, and everything in general rather than any feeling of bitterness between individuals and staying close-minded. After all, debate can be a powerful learning tool if one takes his or her "wins" and "losses" with an optimistic outlook towards the future rather than ignoring the idea of perpetual self-improvement.