16 Aralık 2010 Perşembe

Protagoras and His Theory of Relativism

Protagoras (490-420 BC) is a famous ancient Greek philosopher from Abdera who is considered as one of the most important sophists by Plato[1]. Protagoras is mostly known with his theory of relativism and his skeptic perspective on the existence of Gods[2] which led to the burning of his books in Athens[3]. Protagoras was a pupil of famous Democritus[4] and an important figure in Greek sophism. This assignment is an attempt to explain Protagoras’ theory of relativism. It will be shown that Protagoras’ theory of relativism does not lead to the conclusion that either “no statement can be contradicted” or about any given thing contradictory statements may be made since there are medium or average measures of all things which were calculated by men or derived from historical human experiences.
Protagoras’ famous dictum which constitutes the basis of his theory of relativism is as follows; “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not” (The Greek Sophists, p. 10). Plato; talking from the mouth of Socrates in his book Theaetetus, interprets this dictum as; perception of something -which differs man to man- is always of what really is. Thus, “nothing is one thing itself in itself, nor could you speak of it correctly as some thing, not even some kind of thing; but if you call it large, it will also appear so small, or if heavy, then also light; and so on in all such cases, since nothing is one thing, neither some thing, not some kind of thing” (The Greek Sophists, p. 11). In other words, Protagoras’ theory of relativism revised by Plato leads to the conclusion that perception differs man to man and that is why we can judge something only on the basis of our own measures, our own perceptions. Plato gives the example of the wind which makes some people to feel chilly but it does not mean that the wind is chilly because there are other people who do not feel cold because of the wind (The Greek Sophists, p. 10). Likewise, we can think of a woman who is very beautiful for some men, but not beautiful for some others.
This interpretation can be understood in a way that it rejects the objective truth and all universal rules which are thought to be true. In order to get rid of absolute relativism, Plato revises this theory in such a way; “although all impressions are true for the person holding them, some are undoubtedly better than others - better in the sense, necessarily, of more useful, more effective - and it is these impressions that Protagoras offers to inculcate, and make to seem, and be, true for the individual who submits to his instruction” (The Greek Sophists, p. 11). Thus, even though “the senses are restructured and altered in accordance with the stages of life and all other conditions of bodies”[5], “wisdom and the wise man exists”[6] because there are people who are able to change things when they appear to be bad or different. Plato in this way closes the door for an absolute relativist theory and equates the criterion for rightness with wisdom and knowledge. So, in his view we cannot consider the measure of a man equal with that of a wise man (The Greek Sophists, p. 14).
In my opinion, although Plato might be right in revising Protagoras’ theory in order to prevent absolute relativism which would create a world of anarchy without commonly accepted rules and norms, his criterion for truth is not appropriate. It is a fact that wise man cannot be superior in all things, for instance a wise man might be very good at mathematics or philosophy but this does not mean that he would play basketball better than a fool man. That is why, in order to interpret Protagoras’ theory of relativism properly, we must get use of average rules, norms and measures. For instance, in order to understand whether the wind is cold or not cold, we must first make experiences with many men and determine certain temperature intervals. Thus, the average measures (for instance below 10 degree C is accepted universally as cold temperature, above 25 degree C is accepted universally as hot temperature etc.) would help us to differentiate exceptional people from the ordinary ones and we will have universal rules, norms and measures to make objective comments on certain issues. The same thing (although it is much more difficult) could be tried in the esthetics, by determining the objective average criterion for women beauty (the shape of the body, body measurements 90-60-90 etc.). Plato’s theory which privileges wisdom does not make an open statement about who is wiser and why he/she is wiser. Thus, my theory of average measurement seems much more plausible in supporting Protagoras’ theory of relativism.
When we analyze Protagoras’ thinking more closely we see that his ideas cannot be explained as a method of complete relativism. This can be seen easily since Protagoras throughout his life tried to determine and teach virtue and virtuous acts. Unless a person accepts certain degree of common measure and makes a separation between virtue and vice, this person could not defend virtuous acts. That is why, as far as I am concerned Protagoras’ theory of relativism does not lead to the conclusion that either “no statement can be contradicted” or about any given thing contradictory statements may be made since there are medium or average measures of all things which were calculated by men or derived from historical human experiences. Without having objective criteria and universally accepted rules, norms, systems (for instance the criterion for democracy) human beings cannot live together harmoniously. Plato’s revision of Protagoras’ theory makes it easier for us to understand that Protagoras was a skeptic and agnostic rather than a complete relativist and his theory does not lead to absolute relativism. Protagoras’ dialectic method assumes that there are always opposing sides but he also admits that contradicting arguments do not force us to believe that everything is true in itself.
- The Greek Sophists, 2003, London: Penguin Books

[1] The Greek Sophists, p. 1
[2] “Concerning the gods, I am not in a position to know either that they exist, or that they do not exist; for there are many obstacles in the way such knowledge, notably the intrinsic obscurity of the subject and the shortness of human life” (The Greek Sophists, p. 3).
[3] The Greek Sophists, p. 6
[4] The Greek Sophists, p. 5
[5] The Greek Sophists, p. 13
[6] The Greek Sophists, p. 12
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