October 17, 2008

Quote of the Day: Why do Relativists Write Books?

The sophist Protagoras of Abdera (c. 490-420 BC) wrote a book entitled Truth (which does not survive) in which he argued that 'man is the measure of all things;' an early form of relativism. In Plato's Theaetetus, Socrates gives the following review of Protagoras' book:

Well, I was delighted with his general statement of the theory that a thing is for any individual what it seems to him to be; but I was astonished at the way he began. I was astonished that he did not state at the beginning of the Truth that 'Pig is the measure of all things' or 'Baboon' or some yet more out-of-the-way creature with the power of perception. That would have made a most imposing and disdainful opening. It would have made it clear to us at once that, while we were standing astounded at his wisdom as though he were a god, he was in reality no better authority than a tadpole - let alone any other man.

Or what are we to say, Theodorus? If whatever the individual judges by means of perception is true for him; if no man can assess another's experience better than he, or can claim authority to examine another man's judgment and see if it be right or wrong; if, as we have repeatedly said, only the individual himself can judge of his own world, and what he judges is always true and correct: how could it ever be, my friend, that Protagoras was a wise man, so wise to think himself fit to be the teacher of other men and worth large fees; while we, in comparison with him the ignorant ones, needed to go and sit at his feet - we who are ourselves each the measure of his own wisdom? Can we avoid the conclusion that Protagoras was just playing to the crowd when he said this? ... To examine and try to refute each other's appearances and judgments, when each person's are correct - this is surely an extremely tiresome piece of nonsense, if the Truth of Protagoras is true, and not merely and oracle speaking in jest from the impenetrable sanctuary of a book. (Plato, Theaetetus 161c-162a, tr. M. J. Levett, rev. Myles Burnyeat)

Posted by Kenny at October 17, 2008 12:24 PM
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