Sunday, June 25, 2017

Protagoras


Man is the measure of all things.

This is the most famous saying of Protagoras, though it is in fact, only the first portion of his statement. The full line runs ‘Man is the measure of all things; of things that are that they are, and of things that are not that they are not.’ Protagoras’ relativism is one of the most extreme ever argued. This means that truth is relative and for each individual truth is different. This can be true with things like temperature – you might find the evening chilly, but for me it is warm. However, we can all agree on the absolute temperature in degrees. Protagoras would disagree and would say that all of our knowledge is sense based and therefore unique to each individual. The problem with relativism is that it makes philosophical discussion impossible; what you think you say and what I hear might be completely different, if we are unable to agree on objective truth.

Protagoras of Abdera was one of several fifth century Greek thinkers (including also Gorgias, Hippias, and Prodicus) collectively known as the Older Sophists, a group of traveling teachers or intellectuals who were experts in rhetoric (the science of oratory) and related subjects. Protagoras is known primarily for three claims (1) that man is the measure of all things (which is often interpreted as a sort of radical relativism) (2) that he could make the "worse (or weaker) argument appear the better (or stronger)" and (3) that one could not tell if the gods existed or not. While some ancient sources claim that these positions led to his having been tried for impiety in Athens and his books burned, these stories may well have been later legends. Protagoras' notion that judgments and knowledge are in some way relative to the person judging or knowing has been very influential, and is still widely discussed in contemporary philosophy. Protagoras’ influence on the history of philosophy has been significant. Historically, it was in response to Protagoras and his fellow sophists that Plato began the search for transcendent forms or knowledge which could somehow anchor moral judgment. Along with the other Older Sophists and Socrates, Protagoras was part of a shift in philosophical focus from the earlier Presocratic tradition of natural philosophy to an interest in human philosophy. He emphasized how human subjectivity determines the way we understand, or even construct, our world, a position which is still an essential part of the modern philosophic tradition.

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