8 minutes


“I know that I know nothing”: while the exact wording of this paradoxical statement might vary due to its oral transmission over time, its essence remains consistent with the sentiment that encapsulates Socrates’ philosophy: wisdom lies in understanding the vastness of one’s ignorance. As far as we know, Socrates (c. 470–399 BC) never left behind any written records of his teachings, relying on his contemporaries, particularly his student Plato (c. 427–347 BC), to transmit his era-defining thinking.  

There are several versions of the origin of the quote. The most well-known recounts that a friend of Socrates, Chaerephon, went to the sacred sanctuary of Delphi to ask the god Apollo if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, to which Apollo responded negatively. So, Socrates set out on a quest to find someone wiser, having turned to people such as statesmen, poets and teachers, using what is now known as the Socratic method: a technique of cooperative dialogue that employs incisive questioning to stimulate critical thinking and draw out presuppositions. As reported in Plato’s Apology (399 BC), at the end of his investigation, Socrates concluded: “I am wiser than this human being. For probably neither of us knows anything noble and good, but he supposes he knows something when he does not know, while I, just as I do not know, do not even suppose that I do.”  

“I know that I know nothing.”


Accessing reality through knowledge 

But what does it mean to know something? How much can we know? Can we know something for certain? From the founder of Western philosophy’s “knowing nothing” highlighting intellectual humility, epistemology — the branch of philosophy concerned with the theory of knowledge — has endlessly raised questions around our access to it.  

According to Plato, knowledge is justified true belief: that is to say, one can only assert that a belief is knowledge if it can be justified and turns out to be true. In the Allegory of the Cave, he illustrates the journey from ignorance to true knowledge. Prisoners in the cave represent those with false beliefs (shadows), while the freed prisoner ascending to the outside world symbolises the philosopher gaining true knowledge through reason and dialectical inquiry. He has ascended to the world of Forms: abstract, non-material and eternal entities that exist independently of the physical world. 

Plato laid the groundwork for Rationalism, which would emerge in the 17th and 18th centuries. René Descartes (1596-1650), often called the father of Modern Philosophy, is one of its key figures. His foundational “I think, therefore I am” (in Latin, Cogito, ergo sum) statement marks his quest for certain knowledge through reason. Descartes starts by doubting everything, including the existence of the external world or God. However, he realises that, since the act of doubt presupposes a thinking subject, while everything else might be uncertain, his own existence as a thinking being is undeniable. 

What we collectively perceive as true shapes the power relations and dynamics. This makes power productive: it moulds what we know, which in turn affects how we behave and interact. 

What is knowledge for? 

Another question lies beneath the never-ending quest for the nature and possibility of knowledge: what is the point of knowing? English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626) reflected on the transformative potential of knowledge. Bacon’s views are encapsulated in his memorable phrase “for knowledge itself is power” (from Latin Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est), found in Mediationes Sacrae (1597).  

One of the most influential minds of the 20th century in regard to discussing the power of knowledge was French thinker Michel Foucault (1926-1984), best known for his interest in understanding social structures. Foucault coined the term “power/knowledge” (pouvoir/savoir) to emphasise the intimate connection between them. He argued that power is “capillary”, diffused throughout society and constantly being exercised in different ways by everyone. It hinges on “regimes of truth”: what we collectively perceive as true shapes the power relations and dynamics. This makes power productive: it moulds what we know, which in turn affects how we behave and interact. For Foucault, there was a fundamental shift in the way power had been exercised in recent decades in the West: from sovereign power, focused on the authority of monarchs and the State, to a new age defined by “biopower”. Biopower is concerned with the regulation and management of populations as a whole, seeking to control and shape their behaviour, health, and well-being. 

The power of knowledge in the digital era 

Michel Foucault died before the emergence of the Internet but his work remains timely. What would he say of this virtual new reality? Perhaps he would see social media as a technical elaboration of biopower (and counter-biopower). On one side, amazed by the opportunity they bring to give a voice to the oppressed and even to stir up revolution, and excited by the idea of using these platforms to erode conventional power structures in order to transform lives for the better and provide more and better knowledge. But he would also alert to how they can trap people in a system of constant surveillance, where they give away so much of their personal data, used to control and influence them on many levels: what they see, what they buy, how they vote. What they believe they know. We would recall the Panopticon metaphor. Proposed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the Panopticon is a theoretical design of a circular prison building with a central watchtower from which a single observer can observe all the inmates without them knowing if they are being watched at any given moment. Its key feature is the asymmetry of information and power: even if they cannot see the observer, inmates are aware that they might be under surveillance. This instils self-discipline and internalised control, as they regulate their behaviour to conform to the norms. Very much like in George Orwell’s dystopian 1984, the novel where “Big Brother is watching you”. Because the citizens of Oceania, the fictional totalitarian state in the book, are never sure if they are being watched by telescreens at any time, most tend to behave obediently day and night. 

Foucault said: “My job is making windows where there were once walls.” The problem today is that sometimes the windows are fake. By believing in fake news, power moves from the public to those who spread it. But false and distorted news was around long before the invention of the printing press. Around 2000 years ago, during the Roman civil war between Octavian and Mark Anthony, Octavian used “fake news” tactics to gain public support, accusing Anthony of moral decay, infidelity and drunkenness. He disseminated his message through poetry and slogans on coins. Ultimately, his propaganda succeeded, making him the first Emperor of Rome. 

The knowledge of “Citizen Kane”  

Considered by many to be the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane remains highly relevant more than 80 years after its release. Directed and co-written by and starring Orson Welles, the film explores the power of media manipulation and truth distortion. The plot centres on the rise and fall of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane, whose character was based on the American magnate and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.  

 black and white frame from the movie Citizen Kane, by Orson Welles, where a man with a hat dressed in a suit is standing among a lot of newspapers, looking up.
Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane, 1941. 

Kane, the owner of the New York Inquirer, controls the newspaper’s editorial decisions. “You provide the prose poems; I’ll provide the war”, says Kane in response to a writer who expresses his discomfort in lying about a war in Cuba. This scene mirrors contemporary concerns about how media organisations can shape narratives and spread fake news. Another important scene portrays the practice of yellow journalism, a term used to describe the sensationalising of news stories to attract readers. “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough,” says Kane, who prioritises “the gossip of housewives” over substantial news. Despite giving journalists more and easier access to sources, social media platforms are also a hotbed for clickbait and conspiracy theories. 

The digital age has empowered independent voices, such as bloggers and content creators, giving them visibility and influence. While this has enriched the news ecosystem, it has also raised concerns about the credibility and quality of information originating from non-traditional sources. And gatekeeping, which entails curating and sifting through news items for publication, has become complex due to over-information. Automation and algorithms now play a pivotal role in selecting content, potentially introducing biases into the news stories and content presented and crafting tailor-made narratives for everyone. Ultimately, if one person keeps reading the same point of view and similar opinions on social media, that person will tend to believe the “truth” someone is spreading. 

So, it is up to each one of us to fully understand the power of knowledge and that all we know is that we know nothing.