Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus

Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus

Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus

Epistemology after Protagoras: Responses to Relativism in Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus

Synopsis

Relativism, the position that things are for each as they seem to each, was first formulated in Western philosophy by Protagoras, the 5th century BC Greek orator and teacher. Mi-Kyoung Lee focuses on the challenge to the possibility of expert knowledge posed by Protagoras, together with responses by the three most important philosophers of the next generation, Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus. In his book Truth , Protagoras made vivid use of two provocative but imperfectly spelled out ideas: first, that we are all "measures" of the truth and that we are each already capable of determining how things are for ourselves, since the senses are our best and most credible guides to the truth; second, given that things appear differently to different people, there is no basis on which to decide that one appearance is true rather than the other. Plato developed these ideas into a more fully worked-out theory, which he then subjected to refutation in the Theaetetus. Aristotle argued that Protagoras' ideas lead to skepticism in Metaphysics Book G, a chapter which reflects awareness of Plato's reaction in the Theaetetus. And finally Democritus incorporated modified Protagorean ideas and arguments into his theory of knowledge and perception. There have been many important recent studies of these thinkers in isolation. However, there has been no attempt to tell a single, coherent story about how Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle responded to Protagoras' striking claim, and to its perceived implications about knowledge, perception, and truth. By studying these four figures in relation to each other, we arrive at a better understanding of an important chapter in the development of Greek epistemology.

Excerpt

In the Hellenistic period of Greek philosophy, the lines between philosophical camps on the question of whether and how knowledge can be acquired are clearly drawn. We find self-proclaimed sceptics, such as the Academics and Pyrrhonists, posing a forceful challenge to their 'dogmatic' opponents, compelling them to justify their confidence in the very possibility of knowledge. Their opponents counter this in turn by formulating their theories of knowledge as proposals concerning a criterion of truth, that is, a self-evident, infallible measure of the truth that can be used to distinguish with certainty between true and false assertions and thus secure the foundations of knowledge. However, before the Hellenistic era, worries about whether knowledge is really possible seem curiously absent. Certainly expressions of the difficulty of attaining knowledge go back to the earliest Greek thinkers. And in the classical period, Plato addresses the question of what knowledge must be like and how one should go about looking for it in his principal epistemological doctrines, such as his theory of recollection, and in his educational programme predicated on the existence of Forms as the proper object of knowledge. He thinks that acquiring knowledge is extremely difficult, and that most people do not have real knowledge; Socrates in the Republic denies that he has any such knowledge himself. But Plato, like his predecessors, seems to assume that it is possible, at least in principle, to acquire knowledge and discover the truth. This then raises the question: did scepticism only first arise in the Hellenistic period? Or was it already around, in the air, in the classical period? Were Plato, Aristotle, and other philosophers of the classical period simply unaware of scepticism as a problem, confident that philosophical knowledge can be reached, though no doubt with difficulty? Or did they recognize and grapple with some of the ideas and arguments that would later be marshalled for the sceptical position?

The aim of this book is to describe and investigate the development of epistemology in the classical period of ancient Greece, focusing on the figures of Protagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and Democritus. My thesis is that scepticism was in the air—not in the form of a well-defined school of thought or position, but in the form of certain loosely related ideas and arguments. Some of these were articulated by Protagoras in his book Alētheia ('Truth'), which began with the striking claim that 'Man is the measure of all things, of what is that it is,

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