Taking Measure of Protagoras

As John Dillon notes in his introduction to The Greek Sophists, most of the ideas of the sophists come to us either in fragments, or through commentary written by their enemies. Indeed, Plato is one of our chief sources for much of what we know about sophistic theory (having written more than a dozen dialogues featuring or involving sophists), and yet we have to be suspicious of much of what we learn this way due to the fact that Plato’s chief motive was to mock, marginalize, and dispose of these ideas as quickly as possible.

Still, Dillon does an admirable job of trying to untangle what can probably be taken as  legitimate claims made by various sophists from what most certainly are distortions and misstatements made by their critics for the purposes of undermining them. (This kind of “double-reading” is both nuanced and complex, but also very satisfying in that sadomasochistic, post-structuralist way those of us trained in literature love so much!) Dillon’s reading too is motivated (I find his comments on Nietzsche to be particularly ham-fisted and inane), but the chapter on Protagoras gives us much to think about.

“Humans are the measure of all things, of those which are, that they are, of those that are not, that they are not.”

At one level the meaning of this concept–particularly as explained through the examples  Plato provides–seems pretty obvious. We both stand outside and I say, “Wow, it’s cold out here!” and you say, “Really? I think it’s refreshing!”

Which of us is right?

We have different feelings about the weather because we are experiencing it differently, and are applying different standards to make sense of the world. Given my California upbringing, anything colder than 50 degrees is pretty chilly! For you, maybe the fresh air feels good after being cooped up inside all day. In fact, Protagoras would probably say that this example actually proves another point that might appear at first to be paradoxical:

“No Statement can be Contradicted/About Any Given Thing, Contradictory Statements can be Made.”

When I say, “It’s freezing out here!” and you say, “I think it’s refreshing!” are we actually contradicting each other? Are we both even talking about the same things? What I’m talking about is how my body feels when it’s subjected to 20 degree air, and I’m comparing it to how my body feels when I’m at Balboa Park in February and it’s 70 degrees out. You may be talking about how your body feels in 20 degree air as opposed to -25 degree! Or you could be talking about the smell of fresh snow. Or you could really be talking about how dry the heating system in your building makes you feel!

So, you cannot contradict my statement by saying, “It’s not freezing out here!” and I cannot contradict your statement by saying, “It’s not refreshing out here!” for at least three different reasons. First, we can disagree that the other person’s statement characterizes our own experience of the weather (“Well, to me it isn’t freezing!”), but we cannot disagree that the other person’s statement characterizes their own experience of the weather (“You don’t really think it’s refreshing out here!”).

How can we really say what’s true for another person?

“I love you.” (“No you don’t!”)
“I want chocolate.” (“You hate chocolate!”)
“I need a vacation.” (“You hate missing work!”)

Second, we cannot contradict each other because we aren’t really talking about the same things anyway. When I talk about freezing, I’m really talking about my experiences in San Diego. When you talk about being refreshed, you’re really talking about how much you hate your radiator. So any apparent conflict we’re having is only that; on the surface it might appear we disagree, but in reality we aren’t even having the same conversation!

Finally, the words “freezing” and “refreshing” are not contradictory or mutually exclusive in themselves. They are not opposites. They are two adjectives being applied to an experience that reflect our different points of view, but they aren’t themselves incommensurate. Something can be both freezing and refreshing–the sheer fact that both of us use these words to describe the experience of standing outside together proves that they aren’t mutually exclusive. And in fact, if we talked about why we both feel the way we do, we would probably begin to understand the experience of standing outside in new ways:

“Yeah, I guess I can see how refreshing it is out here compared to being in that stale office.” — “I suppose when you grew up wearing shorts and flip-flops all winter, Chicago could be pretty damn cold.”

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