By Jacob Bell, Associate Editor, Classical Wisdom
“Man is the measure of all things…”
It is likely that you have heard this phrase uttered at one time or the other. It is an explicit declaration of relativism, and one of the earliest accounts of such a theory.
It was Protagoras who made this statement. He lived during the 5th century BCE and was part of the older Sophists, which included Gorgias, Hippias, and Prodicus.
The Sophists were traveling instructors who had expert knowledge regarding the art of rhetoric and persuasion. They understood the importance of appealing to the emotions as opposed to trying to convince someone of something through the use of pure logic and reason.
Because of their emphasis on evoking emotions and igniting passions, the Sophists are often interpreted as immoral charlatans rather than real philosophers. Regular readers may remember my Sophistry article regarding profit and selfish-gain…
Today I wish to approach the Sophists as true philosophers who were capable of great insights.
The idea that “man is the measure of all things” is essential to understanding the Sophists. One can interpret such a statement through the lens of crude relativism, which seems to be the most common interpretation.
It is also, in my opinion, a false and indignant interpretation.
Crude relativism would claim that all of our notions of justice, morality, knowledge, virtue, wisdom, and ethics are a matter of what one thinks is just, or moral, or true, or virtuous. With this view, there is nothing from which we can determine a higher order truth – all truth stems from what a society or individual thinks or believes to be the case.
This position leads one to claim that relativism is ultimately a theory of self-refutation. If all truth is relative to a person or society and their beliefs, and no thesis is more valid than any other, then relativism cannot be a more true or valid theory, either.
A crude relativistic view destroys itself before it gets off the ground.
I think this is a poor way of interpreting Protagoras and relativism. It commits the strawman fallacy, which is to intentionally misrepresent an argument or statement in order to make it a weak position which can be easily defeated.
We can’t know exactly what Protagoras had in mind when he claimed that “man is the measure of all things,” because we don’t have much of his original writings. But I wish to steelman this statement and create a strong argument through a more sophisticated interpretation of relativism.
Essentially, relativism is the idea that what is good, bad, true, and false is relative to a particular framework. I don’t think this statement can be refuted. We were born, evolved, and grew out of this world. We always have a perspective and a framework from which we navigate the world.
We cannot separate ourselves from the world in order to view anything from an objective standpoint. This doesn’t mean, however, that all views are equally valid, and it definitely does not mean that any statement is just as true as any other.
Protagoras of Abdera /Painting by Ribera -

Protagoras of Abdera, Painting by Ribera

Now, before you curse my existence and accuse me of being a charlatan, let me explain…
Let’s talk about board games for a moment. A board game is arbitrary in the sense that someone made up an entire framework from which to view and play the game. They created a story, rules for how to play, and an ultimate goal. It is all a fictional creation and a human construct. This does not mean, however, that all strategies for playing the game are equal, and one can certainly make truth statements regarding the rules and the best way to play the game.
We have similar human constructs and frameworks from which we view the world. These include values, motives, and goals. The values, motives, and goals in one culture may not be exactly the same as another culture, but that doesn’t mean we should just throw our hands in the air and declare everything equal.
We are still capable of making real truth statements about the world, and some strategies are better than others when we navigate the world in pursuit of certain goals. There also seems to be a wider-more-basic framework that has been embedded into most of mankind – probably through our shared evolutionary history.
There is also an important distinction that must be made between our personal-subjective experiences and the intersubjective world.
crickets

You can say the taste is subjective… but the nutritional value not… source

It is true that we all view the world from a particular framework, and it is true that we may see things differently from one another, but when I claim that it is cold outside, and you say that it is warm, we are projecting a relative value onto an intersubjective situation.
By intersubjective, I just mean a situation that is publicly accessible. We can both feel the air, experience the atmosphere, and talk about it. My personal-subjective experience of the intersubjective circumstance might be different than yours, but that isn’t what is important.
The importance is on the intersubjectivity of the situation and our ability to agree on particular aspects of the circumstance. We can both measure the temperature of the air, and we can agree that it is 60 degrees Fahrenheit outside – this is our intersubjective experience. I can then claim that it feels cold to me, and you can claim that it feels warm to you, this is our relative or personal-subjective experience of the intersubjective phenomena.
You might interpret the data differently, but the intersubjective data is presented to both of us equally.

Intersubjective Data: 60 degrees outside
My personal-subjective experience of the data: Cold
Your personal-subjective experience of the data: Warm

Am I right in claiming that it is cold? Or are you right in claiming that it is warm? I don’t think it even makes sense to ask or answer such a question, because we have moved from the intersubjective to the relative or personal-subjective.
The same reasoning can be applied to truth-statements about the world. If you claim that the earth is flat, and I claim that it is spherical, we aren’t obligated to believe that we are both right. The earth is part of our intersubjective world. We both have access to the earth in the same sense. You might not believe the evidence, but your belief doesn’t change the structure of the earth.
Protagoras provides us with the foundation for relativism. He was ahead of his time in positioning mankind away from absolutist types of thinking. Protagoras was a true philosopher, and not a mere rhetorician.
He recognized that we couldn’t be objective observers because we are always viewing things from a subjective framework. This was a radical truth for his time, but one that seems undeniable. Moreover, it opened a new way of thinking and reasoning about ourselves, the world, and our being-in-the-world.