The following is a paper I did for my Philosophy class in Junior College. I got an A on it and it is an interesting read. Enjoy!
During his trial, Socrates said, “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” This is somewhat of a circular statement that denies itself, for if you know that you know nothing, then you know something. If you know nothing, then you cannot know that you know nothing, for you know nothing.
Maybe the word “know” needs defining. The Random House College Dictionary says that “to know is to be aware of something as fact or truth.” To know is “to perceive or understand clearly and with certainty.” These definitions suggest that to know something is to be closed to a change or different perspective of what it is that is known.
Socrates also said that virtue is knowledge. But if one knows nothing, how can one have knowledge? Knowledge is, according to the Random House Dictionary, “the fact or state of knowing, clear and certain perceptions of fact or truth.” The key word to this definition, I feel, is “perceptions.” This word allows for change, for as one’s “perceptions” change — sod does “fact or truth.” Therefore one cannot _know_ something in a clear-cut, concrete way, as a mathematician knows a triangle will always have three sides, but one can perceive what is fact or truth for the moment and for oneself. Therefore, one can know that what one knows now may change, and that one doesn’t know it for certain, but just perceives it for now. An example would be Newton’s law that any two falling objects fall with the same speed, because gravity is equal. Physicists are now finding other forces than gravity which can make one object fall faster than another.
Now the question is, how does not knowing help one gain perspective? Perspective is to see yourself as you really are, to get outside of yourself and see what you are and what you are doing. It is to be the face you see in the mirror looking back at you or to get outside your rose-colored glasses, as it were.
By finding out that you really don’t know anything, you might gain insight into what you thought you knew and how you were acting upon that knowledge. By gaining perspective, one hopes to be able to conduct life rightly. This is virtue. Thus, but gaining perspective, one hopes to gain virtue. If virtue is knowledge, and knowledge is the art of not knowing, then by realizing that you know nothing, you gain perspective and vice versa. Therefore, perspective and not knowing are linked in a circle.
This is somewhat like alchemy. The alchemist’s goal was to gain the philosopher’s stone by turning base metal into gold. But in order to turn base metal into gold, the alchemist needed the philosopher’s stone. The alchemist’s symbol was the snake eating its tail, which symbolized the idea that “the means is the end and the end is the means.” This is the relationship of perspective and the art of not knowing.