Protagoras and Sophism, Protagoras as the Sophist

Protagoras and Sophism, Protagoras as the Sophist

June 27, 2021 Off By Felso

Protagoras was one of the first and most famous of the Sophists.

He is one of the thinkers around Pericles, the great statesman of Athens. He, like Anaksagoras , was accused of rejecting the Gods. In fact, he did not deny the existence of Gods, but due to the general skepticism in his thought, he said “We cannot know whether there are gods or not”. He was arrested for this, but escaped before the trial was carried out and drowned on the way to Sicily.

According to tradition, Protagoras had a book called “Truth”, at the beginning of which there was a very famous rule: “Man is the measure of all things.” The meaning of this rule: There is no universally valid truth for Protagoras. Every person has their own beliefs and opinions. A spontaneous truth cannot be spoken of, there may be things that a person considers to be real according to himself. According to Plato, Protagoras based this assumption on the deception of our senses. He is the first thinker to mention that sensations and perceptions are subjective (subjective) and relative (relative): Let there be three vessels filled with one hot, the other cold, and the third warm water. Let me first put one hand in hot water and the other in cold water, and then put both my hands together in warm water. As a result, the same warm water will feel colder on one hand than it is on the other hand. So which hand is the right one? Does it make any sense for my two hands to quarrel about righteousness? It certainly doesn’t make any sense, it shouldn’t be. Because this lukewarm water is only as palpable. This is the case for hot and cold, so it is for everything. Then, this situation in our perceptions based on sensations also applies to all our knowledge.

Philosophers of the first period of Greek philosophy were struggling to reach the truth. Heraclitus, the Eleans, all the Pythagoreans; They believed that there is a universally valid, spontaneous truth, and that this truth can be known by man. But for the first time, the Sophists renounced the pursuit of the truth and aimed only at obtaining necessary and useful knowledge. Sophists are primarily concerned with man and his universe. Their true purpose is to be useful to this universe. For this reason, they remained unfamiliar with the truth that the philosophers before them knew as their aim. Protagoras was the first to criticize this concept of truth. According to him, there is no such thing as truth per se, but there is some information that is useful for people. Protagoras grounds this view as follows: Our sensations provide us with our knowledge. This information, formed by our senses, shows the universe to one person in one way and to another in another way. The same temperature may be hot to one person and cold to another. Is there any point in arguing about them? It does not exist, because the universe exists in the form shown to everyone by their own sensations. That’s why what looks like this to me looks different to someone else. There is always the possibility, then, of putting forward two opposing views on anything.

It is impossible to prove which of these opposing views is correct. There is at most only one way to show which of these opposing views is correct. And this is to make the other person adopt by suggesting and persuading that one of these views is more correct. As a result, there is no right and wrong thought, but there is a man’s ability to adopt one’s thought by being resourceful. What matters is the way people defend their point of view. There is only one tool for this, oratory. For this reason, the Sophists were concerned with the external appearance of thought, that is, with language. Their research on language is one of the successful works we have left. As a matter of fact, the Sophists were the first to introduce the science of grammar. For example, it is the Sophists to analyze the sentence and to lay down some grammatical rules. On the other hand, in all metaphysical matters, such as the relationship between earth and sky, the nature of the universe, etc., Sophists represent a skeptical view. Let’s recall Protagoras’ thought about the Gods: “According to him, we have no means to prove the existence of God, so Gods may or may not exist.”

Prepared by: Sociologist Ömer YILDIRIM
Source: Omer YILDIRIM’s Personal Lecture Notes. Atatürk University Sociology Department 1st Year “Introduction to Philosophy” and 2nd, 3rd, 4th Grade “History of Philosophy” Lecture Notes (Ömer YILDIRIM); Open Education Philosophy Textbook