Caravaggio. (c. 1597) Narcissus. Oil on canvas. Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy.
The beginning of Plato’s Theaetetus contains (152a) a scathing Socratic critique of the sophist and rhetorician, Protagoras who had written:
Socrates hoists Protagoras with his own relativistic petard:
Man… is the measure of all things, of the existence of things that are, and of the non-existence of things that are not…
Socrates sets Protagoras up as an outright relativist and systematically proceeds to demolish (162c-e) this naïve position:
I wonder that he did not begin his book on Truth with a declaration that a pig or a dog-faced baboon, or some other yet stranger monster which has sensation, is the measure of all things…
If no man can discern another's feelings better than he, or has any superior right to determine whether his opinion is true or false, but each, as we have several times repeated, is to himself the sole judge… why, my friend, should Protagoras be preferred to the place of wisdom and instruction, and deserve to be well paid, and we poor ignoramuses have to go to him, if each one is the measure of his own wisdom?
Socrates demonstrates to the young Theaetetus, that truth is much more than mere sensation and spends the rest of the dialogue laying the groundwork for―but not breaking free of paradox and the inherent circularity of―the notion of knowledge as justified true belief. In the Jowett translation, Socrates calls this (210b) “definition and explanation accompanying and added to true opinion.” In the Waterfield translation it is “true belief with the addition of a rational account.”
Plato Theaetetus. (1949) Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis.
Plato Theaetetus. (1987) Translated by Robin Waterfield. Penguin, London.
Dog-faced Baboon. Photo source: Aesop Project.
AN IRREDUCIBLY ANTHROPOCENTRIC SURD IN KNOWLEDGE?
Humanist philosopher, Reuben Abel appropriates Protagoras’ inveterate phrase for the title of his book, Man is the Measure. For Abel (1976: 272-274) “there is an irreducibly anthropocentric surd in knowledge.” This does not mean that “anything goes.” Abel quickly dismisses crudely solipsistic or relativistic interpretations of Protagoras, exclaiming “[o]nly the infant thinks the world was made for him.” Abel prefers an ontological, existential, contingent view of what embodied human beings can and cannot know: What man can know hinges on what man is. Our perception is active inquiry, not passive reception. We human beings select what we determine to be fact, by means of hypotheses that we design to answer our questions, allay our doubts, appease our curiosity, and augment our understanding.
Knowledge of the world is not the world as it actually is. Abel refers to this as the “loose fit of mind to the world.” As embodied sentient beings, continuous with the natural world, we are “nature becoming aware of itself.” For Abel (1976: xxii) our knowledge is always: shaped by our characteristic sensory equipment, and circumscribed by our finite biological capabilities; …we must cook our raw sensations before we can digest them…
Abel, Reuben (1976) Man is the Measure: A Cordial Invitation to the Central Problems of Philosophy. The Free Press: Simon and Schuster Inc,. New York.
Francisco de Goya y Lucientes(1820-23) Old Men Eating Soup (Viejos comiendo sopas) Oil transferred to canvas from mural. Museo del Prado, Madrid.