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Plato's theory of knowledge.

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Explain Protragoras' position on relativism as man being the measure of all things. In your explanation, please discuss how Protagoras' theory of relativism takes into account the "expertise argument". Discuss also Socrates' objection to the theory and whether or not you agree with it. Provide examples in support of Protagorean relativism (the wise doctor and politician, etc.) and the distinction between "better", "wiser", and "truer" states. Discuss objections raised by Burnyeat. The paper should focus on Plato's dialogue on Theaetetus and Burnyeat's arguments.

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What appears to be so to me is true for me, and what appears to be so to you is true for you. It follows that everyone’s perceptions are equally true. This of course is the extreme form of relativism that Protagoras claims when he asserts that man is the measure of all things in regards to truth. It seems that if all perceptions (e.g. judgments and beliefs) are equally true, there can be no room for expertise. But what is Protagoras to say of our natural inclination that such things as wisdom and the wise really do exist among individuals? If Protagoras’ relativism is to be accepted, he must explain how expertise is possible. Protagoras does not deny that some men are wiser than others, but he disagrees that some men are right while others are wrong. Though some men may appear to be wiser than others, it does not follow that their beliefs or judgments are truer than men who lack expertise in the given field; rather, and this is an important distinction that Protagoras makes, the judgments and beliefs of the wise are to be understood as being better (not truer) than those who lack expertise. For Protagoras, the wise man is the man “who can change the appearances—the man who in any case where bad things both appear and are for one of us, works a change and makes good things appear and be for him” (166d).

Before we attempt to unpack Protagoras’ definition of the wise, as stated above, I think it is important at this time that we give a brief historical account of what led Protagoras to speak of ‘better’ opinions and states. At one point in the Theatetus Socrates attempts to refute Protagoras by arguing somewhere between these lines: Let M be defined as the ‘man is the measure’ doctrine; 1) assuming M to be true, all perceptions must be true; 2) the majority of men think that M is false; 3) all of our judgments, including the judgment that M is false, must be true according to the very principles of M; 4) we can infer that M is false; hence a contradiction follows from 1) and 4) so M must be false. This argument is not a satisfactory response to Protagoras. All we would have to do is add the qualifiers ‘for so-and so’ and we get a different conclusion: 1) M appears true for Protagoras; 2) M appears false for everyone else; 3) It does not follow from 1) and 2) that M is false. We can only conclude that M is false for those who think it is false. One might be tempted to think that Protagoras can only defend his extreme relativism by employing qualifiers thus we should not take him very seriously since relativism is only true for x (in this case only for Protagoras) and not for everyone else. At this point it seems that we can simply ignore Protagoras since he is not of much help to us anymore. But what makes Protagorean relativism appealing is when Socrates switches to another line of reasoning, namely, he attempts to account for our common-sense beliefs of wisdom and expertise among individuals and gives a compelling defense on behalf of Protagoras. This is where the argument gets very interesting. Ultimately, if we are to refute Protagorean relativism I think our best approach is a discussion of what wisdom and expertise consist in, which brings us back to our original inquiry, that is, Protagoras’ (in behalf of Socrates) definition of wisdom and the wise. I will now proceed to give some examples to clarify the subtlety between ‘better’, ‘wiser’, and ‘truer’ states.

Are we to regard the sick Socrates as being less wise for perceiving the wine to be bitter than the healthy Socrates who perceives the wine to be sweet? Surely not. What Protagoras is trying to get us to see is that we should not regard the perceptions of the healthy Socrates as being wiser or truer than that of the sick Socrates, rather we may say that the healthy Socrates has better perceptions than the sick Socrates. By ‘better’ Protagoras simply means this: anyone who drinks wine prefers a sweet taste over a bitter one. So we may say one state of wine tasting is better than another.

The wise doctor is said to be the one who administers drugs and brings about a change to the patient’s perceptions from what appears and is bad for the sick Socrates to what appears and is better for the healthy Socrates. In this picture we do not say that the new state of mind (healthy Socrates) once the drugs have been administered is truer or wiser than the original state of mind (sick Socrates), rather we say it is better. It is our common misconception of equating good states with true things, rather than equating good states as better (not truer); as Socrates puts it in behalf of Protagoras, “…The [good] things which appear to [one] are what some people, who are still at a primitive stage, call ‘true’; my position however, is that the one kind are better than the others, but in no way truer” (167b). It seems that we are able to allow expertise in light of the Measure Doctrine simply by arguing that the doctor’s wisdom does not have any command of objective truth, rather what he is doing is simply affecting change for the better or good with respect to the perceiver. This is controversial, and we will see why later when Socrates brings up the kind of role expertise plays in emergency situations and judgments about the future. But for now, we will look at another example that is meant to bolster Protagoras’ defense.

The wise politician is said to be the one who affects change by making wholesome things seem just and instead of pernicious. “Whatever in any city is regarded as just and admirable is just and admirable, in that city and for so long as the convention maintains itself...”(167c). What counts here is the politicians’ oratorical skills to affect change in such a way as to make beneficial things seem just to the state rather than detrimental ones. It is the politician’s acquaintance with the art of persuasion that gives him the status of expert, and nothing more. Whereas the doctor brings about change in the persons perceptions, the politician brings about change in the beliefs of the state. But we may say that in the case of the doctor he must first change the patient’s beliefs that a given course of medication will result in a better state of perceptions. In both examples, the politician and the doctor are wise in the sense that they are able to make things appear better for x, but we must resist from saying that their judgments or beliefs are wiser or truer than that of, say, the layman. It is in this sense that even though all opinions are equally true some opinions may be superior (understood as better and not truer) to others. For instance, the opinions between a doctor and a politician are equally true, furthermore, we should not be surprised if we encounter the opinions of a doctor to be superior than that of the politician in regards to medicine; likewise, the opinions of the politician to be superior than that of the doctor in regards to politics. Simply put, what dictates superiority amongst opinions is persuading what may appear to be better (i.e. more pleasant, pragmatic, serviceable to life). This line of reasoning reminds one of Nietzsche’s aphorism, “All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.” We are to take “power” in its most general sense to mean something like the mastery of persuasion, political power, etc. For example, when we speak of the wise politician as making wholesome things seem just and beneficial he is only in effect persuading us to think a certain way that may seem agreeable to us; but he is never appealing to any objective truth that such and such is or will be the case. Socrates’ defense of Protagoras ends with the conclusion that “…we are enabled to hold both that some men are wiser than others, and also that no man judges what is false” (167d). In other words, some men are wiser in sense that they may have superior opinions to others (as in the case of the doctor and politician) but at the same time no one judges falsely, therefore every opinion is equally true. At this point it seems plausible that one can both accept Protagorean relativism and still make room for expertise (Protagoras’ attempt to have his cake and eat it too!).

I will now turn to some potential problems Protagoras may run into by allowing expertise. First objection: it seems that by legitimizing expertise Protagoras implicitly contradicts the relativist doctrine he is trying to support. His notion of an opinion or state of mind being ‘better’ than another seems to be an objective fact about the world we live in. Is Protagoras forced to agree that it is a non-relative fact that the healthy Socrates’ perception of the wine being sweet is in fact better than that of sick Socrates’ perception of the bitter wine? If so, we must abandon the Protagorean thesis of relativism or at the minimum reinterpret what Protagoras means by a perception being ‘better’ than another.

Second objection: after the Defense Socrates questions the definition of the wise in 170a-b. He argues that in times of emergencies or distress people flock to those who are wiser than they are. Such as turning to one’s captain for instruction in a stormy sea or seeking a cure from a doctor. This in effect shows that men truly believe in such things as wisdom and ignorance among themselves. Furthermore, “they believe that wisdom is true thinking…while ignorance is a matter of false judgment…” (170b). Hence if false judgments are possible, Protagoras’ relativism must be false since it only permits true judgments.

I think both of these objections can receive adequate responses if we follow Burnyeat’s formulation of what constitutes an expert or better state. Burnyeat points out that there is an escape route Protagoras can utilize. All Protagoras would have to do is formulate his conception of the better and the expert using the following scheme:

i) State of mind S, is better for a than state of mind S’ if and only if it seems to a that S is better than S’

ii) x is an expert for a if and only if it seems to a that he is better off thanks to x.

(Burnyeat, pg.336)

The first condition allows the perceiver to be his own judge as to whether or not one state appears ‘better’ than the other. The second condition allows the perceiver to judge whether or not so-and-so seems to be an expert given that the perceiver appears to be better off due to so-and-so. Taking the case of the doctor: the doctor administers drugs to sick Socrates making his wine-tasting sweet rather than bitter. Healthy Socrates feels an improvement with respect to the sick Socrates. Furthermore, detecting improvement in ones’ perceptions is sufficient and necessary in thinking that one state of mind is ‘better’ than another (first condition). Doctor X is an expert so long as Socrates senses an improvement and finds X responsible for it (second condition). Though I find this account adequate to the objections raised, I’m not entirely convinced. It is unfortunate that Plato neglects to bring up the topic of mathematical expertise in light of his convenient conversational partners. It would have been interesting to see the type of arguments Socrates and Protagoras would have to construct.

One final clever objection against Protagoras’ account of the wise and expertise involves judgments about the future. Suppose the layman thinks that the wine will be sour three years from now while the wine expert predicts that the wine will be sweet. Surely both of them cannot be right. One would naturally assume that the expert’s judgment carries more authority than that of the layman’s. Let us further suppose that three years have pass and the layman tastes the wine again, this time it appears sweet to him just as the expert predicted. Here we have a case of false judgment by the layman. But Protagorean relativism does not allow false judgments, but here is an instance, thus relativism is incorrect. A true Protagorean can respond to the objection by claiming that there are different selves involved in making the judgments. The layman’s original prediction (three years back) that the wine would be bitter is true since all judgments are true. Furthermore, the layman who tastes the wine three years later as being sweet is a different self from the one who originally made the prediction; hence his judgment that the wine is sweet at the current time is also true. Nowhere in this account do false judgments get introduced. Hence all these beliefs are equally true insofar as they are true for the person who holds them at the time when he holds them. The wine expert’s judgments about the future are not to be regarded as truer than that of the layman’s, rather, as Protagoras has been insisting all along, only as appearing better. We can also rest assure that the wine grower will not bother consulting the layman’s opinion about the future regarding the bitterness or sweetness of wine. Though the grower’s opinion is equal to that of the layman’s in regards to truth, we can still say that it is superior so long as the grower satisfies Burnyeat’s two conditions of expertise (as stated earlier).

One may think that talk of different selves is non-sense. However, all we have to do is recall Hume’s argument that there is no such thing as an enduring self over time since we never get an impression of it; or closer to home, Heraclitus’ doctrine of flux that all things are constantly changing in all respects thus entailing a multi-colored self. We can even make a stronger objection without introducing the concept of different selves. Referencing Hume once more, we do not have any rational grounds to believe that the future will conform to the past. So talk about judgments in the future, such as the case with the wine expert, cannot be justified if we accept Hume’s skeptical argument. It seems that we are only entitled to our present judgments (which we have shown to be always true according to Protagoras’ account of relativism). In the end, I do not think that Socrates is able to refute Protagorean relativism satisfactorily simply by appealing to accounts of the wise and expertise.


Plato: Theatetus. M.J. Levett, rev. Myles Burnyeat. Hackett Publishing Company (1997).

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