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The Psychology of Socrates

October 7, 2010

Socrates was unarguably a wise man. However, the fame of his wisdom did not lie in his large expanse of knowledge, but rather, in his constant questioning of it. After a renowned oracle named him the wisest man, Socrates engaged in a search for one wiser than himself; his instinct was to reject the divine statement.

We might ask ourselves why he was in denial of this oracle. He was indeed very intelligent, and therefore must have realized his wisdom could possibly exceed that of every other man. However, that is not how the human brain operates. In fact, it functions in an almost opposite manner.

The thinking of Socrates, and of those he interrogated actually closely parallels a psychological hypothesis that was defined in this century. There exists a phenomenon known as the “Dunning-Kruger effect”; it is a paradoxical cognitive condition between those of different intelligence levels. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the condition in which those of lower skill and intelligence levels rate their abilities as  greater than they actually are, because they lack the intelligence to see their flaws, while those of higher intelligence and skill level rate their abilities as below average, because they underrate their abilities in light of the many flaws they can perceive. Concisely stated, it creates illusory superiority of the unskilled and illusory inferiority of the skilled.

While Socrates certainly did not suffer from a feeling of inferiority (in fact, some may argue that a dose of humbleness would have done him well), there are parallels that exist between this hypothesis and his manner of thinking.

In his attempt to locate a man wiser than himself, he found all others to contain less wisdom, because of one simple reason: they thought themselves to be wise. Socrates realized that his wisdom means nothing, and this realization in turn made his the wisest. For what source in this world can objectively confirm any fact as true, and not just perceived as true by the majority? Because he knew the only real wisdom was that “truth” is no more than an ideal, he was indeed wiser than all men, who believed they were superior, because they believed they knew knowledge that was not confirmable.

We can relate this to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Those of less intelligence (the citizens Socrates questioned) suffered from illusory superiority, for they were not smart enough to realize that their knowledge was worthless and should be constantly questioned, and therefore were not perceptive enough to sense their lack of wisdom. On the other hand, Socrates was insightful enough to sense this wisdom, which is what Dunning and Kruger expected of the intelligent.

The one important difference between Socrates and a usual suspect of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that he did not suffer from the lack of confidence that usually accompanies the wise. Perhaps he was actually perceptive enough to value his flaws, rather than condemn them. After all, he is supposedly the wisest.


One Comment
  1. Deepa permalink
    October 10, 2010 11:48 PM

    This post made me think of the popular suggestion that “The more we know, the less we know.” I have always interpreted this statement to mean that the more knowledge we attain, the more we know that we our knowledge is limited compared to the immense amount of knowledge that exists. I have ofen wondered whether Socrates would agree with this statement. He asserts that one attains wisdom by aknowledging that “when I do not know, niether do I think I know” (Apology, 21d). However, he defends that one is wise when they aknowledge that they know only what they know. Would Socrates extend this to the opinion that the more that one knows, the less they know that they know?

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