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Protagoras: man is the measure of all things


To: Wilfredo C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Protagoras: man is the measure of all things
Date: 22 January 2002 14:04

Dear Wilfredo,

Thank you for your e-mail of 7 January, with your fifth and final essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'What do you think Protagoras meant by this statement, "man is the measure"? In the light of your interpretation, how fair is the account that Plato gives of Protagoras' doctrine in the 'Theaetetus"?'

I will consider this essay in the light of your comment, in your e-mail of 17 January: 'I guess the most challenging aspect of your course leaves me with the question whether truth is out there and must be discovered in some precise manner through some precise methodology or is it possible that truth is also here in the present, concrete reality from which we are never taken, and must I open myself to it in a way I alone can, for it to reveal itself to me.'

After reading your essay, I do feel that in my rather academic treatment of Protagoras' doctrine (as a possible expression of 1. the principle of empiricism, 2. idealism, 3. anti-realism) I have failed to give due recognition to his fundament insight about our relation to, our sense of what is real, an approach which seems to have little to do with rationalism vs. empiricism, or materialism vs. idealism, or realism vs. anti-realism, etc. etc.

On your account, Protagoras was the first existentialist philosopher (the honour which I somewhat dubiously assigned to Gorgias). Your description of 'opening oneself up to the truth which must reveal itself to me' sounds rather Heideggerian. (That is not on an objection, by the way!)

What you are describing *is* a theory of truth. It follows that Socrates is wrong in supposing that 'Protagoras is not putting forward a questionable "subjective" or "relative" definition of truth, but rather denying the existence of truth altogether' (14/264). That is the extreme pragmatist view. Protagoras is making a point about the relation between truth and practice, rather than saying that the concept of 'truth' can be fully reduced to practical consequences.

On this view of the clash between Plato and Protagoras, Plato sees truth as correspondence of our beliefs to one and the same external object, e.g. the form of Justice. In order to discover 'the truth' about Justice, it is necessary to engage in dialectic, or philosophical inquiry through rational argument.

Protagoras, on this account, spurns this external, 'other worldly' object in favour of our capacity to discover 'our' truth through authentic engagement with the world in which we find ourselves as subjects and agents.

Yet, interestingly, on this view, both Plato and Protagoras are seeking something that is revealed through vision rather than merely discursive knowledge. This is the language which Plato uses in his description of the line and the cave in 'Republic'. The ultimate aim of philosophy is to gain a vision of The Good. It is also, or seems to be, the moral drawn from the inconclusiveness of the Socratic dialogues (the attempts to define a key moral term which always seem to end in failure). The dialectic, the rational argument merely serve as means to shake us free from our prejudices and attachments, and awaken our minds to the vision of the moral absolutes that each of us carries within us.

As further evidence for this, I would cite the disparaging remarks made Socrates in the dialogue 'Phaedo' about the Presocratic obsession with theorising about the cosmos at the expense of understanding ourselves and our place in the world and in society. Plato begins to look less like those who seek a 'truth...out there [which] must be discovered in some precise manner through some precise methodology'. (It is true, however, that in the later dialogue, 'Sophist', Plato attempts to give a methodology for conducting the dialectic, which was later taken up by Aristotle.)

I am fully in agreement with your recommendation of 'the importance of holding both approaches', that of Protagoras and Plato. What I am suggesting (very hesitantly) is that the two men might have been less far apart than they thought.

I shall keep your essay on my desk to remind me to air mail you my tutor's report and Pathways Certificate. It has been a pleasure corresponding with you, and I hope we can do so again.

All the best,