Protagorean View of Knowledge
Relativism is the argument that understanding of things and their perception are identical. This was formulated by a 5th century Greek Sophist named Protagoras (Niiniluoto, Sintonen and Wolen?ski 747). Protagorean philosophical view of knowledge points out arguments as critical to the understanding of human knowledge. In this article, the focus is on the many sides of the Protagorean view of knowledge with responses by Plato. In the same context, Platos dialogues pertaining to the nature of knowledge such as the Theaetetus shall be discussed. In this dialogue, Theaetetus and Socrates discuss the three definitions of knowledge (n.a, Plato 4). First, they consider knowledge as a perception. Secondly, knowledge is defined as true judgment, and lastly, knowledge is defined as true judgment with evidence or account. The dialogue began with Socrates questioning about the meaning of wisdom. Through his dialectical approach, it turns up that wisdom and knowledge are synonymous.
The Protagorean Position that Knowledge is Perception
In any collection of individuals or society, divergent views on the same subject are bound to emerge from the less or more different standpoints that entities inhabit. This means that when the human-measure dogma is applied beyond a single topic and extended throughout the naturally diverse human community, what is viewed as knowledge will certainly be addressed by various and contradictory views (Mendelson 20). In other words, disagreements are prevalent to the human situation and cannot be dismissed easily under Protagorean conditions. This is subject to the argument that contradictions cannot be resolved by customary appeal to either universal or individual doctrines. Instead, with the recognition that there will always be divergent views on any given subject, disagreements are treated as the substratum of human reasoning, that is the foundational element with which critical and creative thinking must seize and from which knowledge is constructed.
In the Protagoras dialogue, the proposition that knowledge is perception was put forth by Theaetetus (n.a, Plato 5). By putting forth that knowledge is perception, it meant that we perceive through our five senses. As per this proposition, it was true to imply that the five senses give humans the objects of knowledge. This wisdom conforms to the Protagorean doctrine that Man is the measure of all things (Herrick 2). Therefore, what we consider as reality is independent and determined by an individuals perception. According to Platos observations, this definition of knowledge refutes any standard of truth, which is independent of the perception of the individual perceiver. It is also a refutation that there is a reality to be perceived in dependent of the knowers perceptions. Therefore, either there is nothing beyond perception or anything that exists is unperceivable. In this line, the dialogue considers appearance to be knowledge. In the same context, appearance refers to the entirety of sense data analyzed through the five senses.
This definition is limited in a number of cases as pointed out by Socrates. For example, whether a wind is warm is relative to the perceiver (Herrick 7). This implies that one cannot justify what the other person perceives to be wrong in the event that they perceive the same subject differently (Niiniluoto, Sintonen and Wolen?ski 748). Therefore, it would not be right to authoritatively claim the other person is wrong if one perceives the wind to be cold under the same context.
According to the Protagorean doctrines, every entity is in motion. Thus, every entity is bound to change. Therefore, it is not valid to say that something is since the same entity becomes what we perceive in the process of perceiving it. For example, an object is considered to be of a specific color because our senses perceive it to be that color. An object is said to be blue subject to the fact that it reflects the rays of the blue ray frequency from the natural light. In addition, the same object is only considered to be blue in the presence of light. If the same object is viewed in a dark room (i.e. in the absence of color), one can validly consider it to be black. Therefore, under the Protagorean theory, knowledge is what something becomes for a perceiver and not what it is. In the above example, a perceiver considers the object to be blue only when it is exposed to light.
Objection of the Protagorass Position
Based on the fact that we cannot consider the perceptions of others to be wrong without scrutiny, Plato offered objections to the Protagorass position. These objections were complemented by the observation that we are limited in distinguishing the perception of sin, dreams, and real life. However, these objections are in contradiction to common sense, which explains why there is no general acceptance. Secondly, considering that Man is the measure of all things, the implication is that no one is wiser or more knowledgeable than the other; therefore, it is challenging to justify Protagorass proposition (Bradshaw 4). In addition, the notion that knowledge is perception is objected by an observation that we can perceive that a language is foreign, but that does not lead to knowing it. Moreover, as much as we can know or point out an entity or subject by remembering or through experience, memory is not perception.
Possible Defense of the Protagorass Position on Knowledge
In any open social exchange process, a particular idea may be relatively true for given entities, but for it to be valid to the majority as well, it must undergo examination alongside alternative standpoints. Therefore, inclusive and sound ideas can be arrived at by comparing the most divergent positions and redirecting them against the objections raised by each. In other words, this is the epistemological theory of understanding knowledge. Knowledge begins with independent perception of the perceiver (knowing agent). However, the acceptability of any argument given to others is dependent upon the outcome of the argument, and this considers the comparison and collation of opposing views. As it emerges, the quest for truth and the process of refuting are components of the same process.
In respect to the objections above, Plato puts forward a negation of the objections by emphasizing on the need to differentiate between what is true or valid and what is better. He emphasizes on considering what is regarded as true to be better and not more truthful than others. While an individuals perception may not be truer than the others, his or her perception may on the other hand be better if it is determined by the majority. For example, in a democratic society, majority often carry the day. However, this does not necessarily imply that the majority are truer than the minority. It implies that the position of the majority is likelier to be better than that of the minority.
Based on the observations above, it is evident that the Protagorean view of knowledge is self-defeating in nature. The Protagorean theory of knowledge is an example of an all-inclusive relativism. This implies that the proposition that Man is the measure of all things, is relative (Lee 12). Therefore, the opposite statement would be valid if someone critically thought it to be true. Consequently, Protagorass proposition would be invalid when he is right; that is if someone perceives that man was not the actual measure of all things. Concurring with Platos correction to Protagorass viewpoint that knowledge is perception, we can point out that what we know is what we perceive. This means that what we know is learned through perception.
This is a radical shift from Protagorean relativism. However, it is true that judgments or opinions on perceptual data have to be formed in the mind (Lee 5). Moreover, not all concepts that are used in perception emerge from it. In other words, when a person ends up with different perceptions from sense organs (for instance the eyes) the determination is made by the mind. In this example, the difference or likeness is judged and not perceived. Similarly, it is the mind that is responsible for differencing the perceptions from sound and sight. Therefore, the mind manages perceptual data and determines the truth based on the existence of evidence. It follows that the mind manages the means of perception and makes determinations based on the received perceptual data. Therefore, knowledge is no longer perception, but perception avails sensory data used by the mind to judge or form an opinion (Lee 5).
In summary, the Protagorean theory of knowledge is relativistic because it is valid whether an individual perceives it to be true or false. It is self-defeating in nature. Therefore, the opposite statement would be valid if someone critically thought it to be true. Moreover, disagreements are prevalent to the human situation and cannot be dismissed easily under Protagorean conditions.
Bradshaw, David. The Sophists. University of Kentucky. 1998. Web. 7 November 2013
Herrick, Paul. Is Truth Relative. n.d. Seattle Critical Review. Web. 7 November 2013.
Jowett, Benjamin. Protagoras . n.d. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Web. 6 November 2013.
Lee, Mi-Kyoung. Epistemology after protagoras : responses to relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
Mendelson, Michael. Many sides : A Protagorean approach to the theory, practice and pedagogy of argument. Dordrecht [u.a.] : Kluwer, 2002. Print.
n.a. Plato.. My Crandall. 2013. Web. 7 November 2013.