This famous axiom comes to us courtesy of the incomparable, timeless Socrates.
So the main takeaway from a quote with such breath-taking brevity is this: if you do not have a genuine, consuming sense of wonderment or curiosity about a thing, you will likely never understand it well.
As humans we enter most examinations or discussions with preconceptions–that’s normal and, to a large degree, it’s a demonstrably good thing. Our preconceptions are actually harnessed by the scientific method, which tells us to constantly question our own assumptions by anchoring the structure of our inquisitions on the substance of those very preconceptions. It’s incontrovertible that the scientific method is not a naturally-occurring process to the vast majority of us humans, and it is not naturally-occurring to us precisely because most of us do not begin an examination in wonderment or awe, but rather with some cluster of preconceptions which make us think we have a reasonable understanding of a given thing.
Pattern recognition is our greatest cognitive advantage over the way computers process information; it’s why we were able to stave off our inevitable defeat by chess-playing supercomputers for as long as we did. A human mind can process patterns far more readily than it can process probabilities; a computer, on the other hand, works largely in the reverse. Probabilities are just mathematical formulae, after all, and those are easily dissected and tabulated by a 100% logical processor that doesn’t need to take bathroom breaks.
But pattern recognition also interferes with our ability to really understand the world around us. When we think we see a familiar pattern in some cluster of data, our minds leap to conclusions long before we’ve conducted anything approaching a systematized inquiry like that conducted via the scientific method. Again, most of the time this is a categorically good thing–but not so if one’s ultimate goal is wisdom, or the accumulation of real, hard knowledge about the world around us.
This is what it seems Socrates was talking about with this awe-inspiring succinct quote. He’s saying ‘check your preconceptions at the door, and much more wisdom will come to you,’ ‘open your mind, rather than close it, and you will receive a bounty of true knowledge,’ try looking on things with new eyes, and you will invariably learn something new about it,’ or any number of permutations of this supremely elegant idea.
I think this is one of the most powerful quotes in human memory. After all, any guy who could reverse engineer Kansas lyrics into a profound axiom at the drop of a hat, and who could help a couple of phone-booth-bound slackers save the most excellent water slides in the known universe, would know a thing or two about the accumulation and application of wisdom.
(edit to add: the original meme serving as the featured image had a misspelling which has been corrected)