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Socratic Method of Inquiry: The Difference between Knowledge and Wisdom

Socrates was a Greek philosopher (470BC-399BC) in Athens. He did not author any texts, but his disciple, Plato captured his thoughts in the Dialogue

The Socratic method of inquiry was a method of deep questioning which he used to have with his students on topics like beauty, justice, virtue, etc. He never gave direct answers to his questions but expected his students to figure out their own answers. 

Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, worshipping false gods, and not worshipping the state religion. A 100-member jury was arranged to pass a verdict on his crimes. After a day-long trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death by administering hemlock, a poison. Socrates was told that he could be pardoned, provided he expressed an apology for his deeds. However, he refused to beg for his life on the following grounds:

– This is my life.

– If I had to stop doing what I am doing, I might as well stop living.

– Who knows? Death may not be so bad, as I have no idea of death.

– I am 71 and may not live much longer.

The Oracle of Delphi has delivered hundred-odd injunctions, inscribed on the temple walls, which include: ‘nothing in excess’ and ‘know thyself.’ One of the famous quotes ascribed to Socrates is: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living.’

How is this relevant to us? Most of the decisions; be it the type of education, the place to settle, the choice of spouse or career, are often not taken consciously but are either dictated by parents, society, or the circumstances. When we review the decisions, it inspires us to reconsider our most firmly held beliefs. It may also help us to appreciate other’s viewpoints. 

Circa 1975, a British Manager from GKW (Guest Keen Williams) was visiting a premier Engineering and Research Institute in Bombay (now Mumbai) to interview and select Graduate Engineer Trainees (GETs). Seven candidates from the metallurgy dept were shortlisted. For the group discussion (GD), the topic was the future of cricket in India. The GD was quite animated, the students striking off each other’s arguments with ease. After the GD was over, the interviews commenced. The manager asked the first candidate, “how much phosphorous is there in phosphor-bronze?” The student thought for a few seconds and replied it was 25%. “That is the correct answer. Thank you very much. Can you send the next candidate please?” requested the manager. After coming out, his friends asked him about the interview. The candidate replied that not only was the question a simple one, but by fluke, the answer of 25%, had turned out correct. 

The second candidate was called in and was asked the same question. Lo and behold, the student answered with the same aplomb. After leaving the interview room, the students ridiculed the interviewer for his inadequacy in not asking tough questions, vis-à-vis the IQ level of the students and the brand of their institute.

The story continued in a similar fashion for all of the seven candidates. After the interviews were over, the manager called all the candidates inside and said, “young men, during the group discussion, you were vehemently proposing your viewpoint without either considering or listening to the others’ viewpoint. Our company believes in teamwork. You belong to one of India’s premium engineering colleges. However, even after living with the same group for five years, you do not have any concern for other’s viewpoints. How will you perform in our company with such an attitude? To each of you, I asked a question on phosphor-bronze. You may be knowing a lot of things in life even otherwise. 

However, no person can know and need to know everything. I thought at least one of you would say ‘I do not know.’ Yet, all of you gave me the standard answer of 25%. By the way, phosphor-bronze is a member of the family of copper alloys. It is composed of copper that is alloyed with 0.5-11% of tin and has phosphorous in the range of 0.01-0.35%.I was not expecting a perfect answer, and a closer approximation to the actual value would have sufficed. Even if one amongst you were to express his ignorance, I would have recruited him. I am afraid I am not able to select any of you.”

Socrates made a clear distinction between knowledge and wisdom. A knowledgeable person maybe knowing things; however, he may act foolish as he may be too confident in what he knows. A wise person, on the contrary, cannot act foolish as he knows his limitations. He knows what he does not know. 

Due to his unconventional ways of self-exploration, Socrates was considered a wise man. An elderly gentleman in Athens once said, “no one is wiser than Socrates.” Rather than getting carried away by such flattery, Socrates’ analysis of the above statement was: Either all are as dumb or as knowledgeable as Socrates.

Conventional education aims at stuffing the students’ minds with information; whereas Socrates’ method of deep questioning helps develop critical thinking to question our belief system and assumptions; and so, it helps us understand the statement: ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ leading towards the wisdom: ‘to know what one does not know.’ 

The profound statement Socrates made was, “the one thing I know is that I know nothing.” This was not out of humility, but it was an expression of reality.