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The wisest fool

  1. Jul 1, 2012 #1
    I was doing a translation exercise when this phrase popped into my head. The English version is: The wisest fool knows he is a fool, but he is a fool nonetheless.

    I was writing some random sentences in French for translation: The French version for any francophones here is: L'imbécile le plus sage sait qu'il est un imbécile, mais il est un imbécile pourtant.

    I looked online for a while and only found matches for "the wisest fool." Has anyone heard this phrase before?
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  3. Jul 3, 2012 #2
    It sounds like Socrates. He insisted the only thing he knew was that he didn't know and declared that true wisdom is knowing you don't know. What he meant by the first part is debatable, but the second half he meant quite literally. For example, knowing that you don't know how to swim makes you wiser than a fool who only thinks he knows how to swim. It's what I sometimes call "ignorant wisdom" for want of a better term.
  4. Jul 3, 2012 #3
    OK. Thanks. I found this quote from Socrates. It's second on the list. However, as you suggest, if the only thing you know is that you know nothing, then how can you know that you know nothing?


    A fool that knows he is a fool at least knows something.
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  5. Jul 3, 2012 #4


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    hmmm... My nick, OmCheeto, means; "I know nothing", in Cantonese.

    My Soviet friends, upon learning my silly hobby, said I that I should expand the phrase, and learn to quote Socrates in Russian; "Ya znaio shto, ya niechevo nie znaio" = "I only know, that I know nothing"

    I interpret the phrase as meaning; "The more one knows, the more one realizes how little one knows"

    Which of course, describes me to a T.
  6. Jul 3, 2012 #5
    Like I said its debatable what Socrates meant by that statement. We only have second hand accounts of the man and some of them may have taken a bit of literary licence. My own view is that he was uncharacteristically waxing poetic and making a skeptical statement that the only thing he could be sure of was his own fallibility. It was both his own personal awareness and a deliberate posture he assumed as a moral imperative and which, by definition, any extrapolation on could only risk confusing the issue. As Wittgenstein might say, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must not speak."
    Last edited: Jul 3, 2012
  7. Jul 3, 2012 #6


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    As a man's circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of his ignorance. :smile:
  8. Jul 4, 2012 #7
    Socrates didn't write anything down, so as wuliheron points out, we must rely on others to tell us what he said. For instance, in 'Apology', Plato has Socrates saying "I neither know nor think that I know." This is a bit different from the logical conundrum that others turn it into. Plato was a student of Socrates.


    I haven't found the 'wisest fool' quote, but it is somewhat cynical and so seems modern to me.
  9. Jul 6, 2012 #8


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    I'm a "rusty" French native speaker and the sentence "L'imbécile le plus sage sait qu'il est un imbécile, mais il est un imbécile pourtant." might be grammatically correct though I find it sounds weird to my ears.
    I'd have said "L'imbécile le plus sage sait qu'il est [STRIKE]un[/STRIKE] imbécile, mais il est [STRIKE]un[/STRIKE] imbécile tout de même."
    The removal of "un" might not be important but the "pourtant" is the stuff that sounds weird to me.
    And for my own taste although less litteral from your English sentence: "L'imbécile le plus sage sait qu'il est imbécile, mais il demeure un imbécile."
  10. Jul 6, 2012 #9


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    This is IMO, but I think Socrates tried to convey the dangers of being what Sun Tzu termed "haughty" which is synonymous with arrogance and un-necessary confidence.

    The idea of being continually filled with doubt in the most extreme way is definitely going overboard IMO.

    The sweet spot is knowing to stand up for what you think but also be able to know when you are out of your depth, over confident, completely arrogant, and don't know when to seek the wisdom and judgement of another.

    The truth is that no one can possible know everything in their own limited experience, but they can definitely become a lot wiser if they just shutup and listen to people opinions whether they have any amount of truth at all in them.

    It's our hard task of trying to sift truth from fiction, and in the process we will come across everything in all forms that have mixtures of truth and fiction, and knowing how to decide the truths usually comes from trying to expand awareness by looking not only at our own experiences, but the experiences of others in a way that is unbiased and where some suspension of disbelief is required to even consider at least initially what another person has said is true.

    Recall that in basic logic 101 (Usually taught in 1st year mathematics courses in the form of Discrete Mathematics), one of the most powerful ways to prove something is to assume that it's true and then find a contradiction.

    Psychologically this distinction is very subtle, because it forces the arguer to suspend their disbelief and accept at least initially that it is potentially true. In mathematics, we attain a level of truth within the boundaries of the system using this method time and time again.

    To be filled with absolute and immense doubt would be a psychological nightmare for anyone including someone like a philosopher, and it's just going to be rife with problems to think that we know and will always know regardless of any experience absolutely nothing.
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