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Relativism, philosophy: relativism is a collective term for views that generally refer to the conditions which are fundamental for the occurrence of these views. Variants are based on theories, on languages, on social groups or on cultures. See also internal realism, externalism, observational language, cultural relativism, idealization.

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Annotation: The above characterizations of concepts are neither definitions nor exhausting presentations of problems related to them. Instead, they are intended to give a short introduction to the contributions below. – Lexicon of Arguments.

 
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Protagoras on Relativism - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 306
Relativism/ Protagoras/Keyt/Miller: In the opening and only surviving sentence of his work on Truth, Protagoras famously proclaimed that 'man is the measure of all things, of things that are, that they are, and of things that are not, that they are not'. Plato takes Protagoras to mean that 'things are to me as they appear to me, and are to you as they appear to you' (Crat. 386a) and in general that 'what seems true to each Emanl is true for each Emanl' (Crat. 386c). Moral relativism is just one application of this universal relativism. In Socrates' elaborate account of Protagoras in Plato's Theaetetus, ontological and moral relativism are discussed in tandem. By the man-measure principle, if the wind feels cold to me but not to you, then the wind is cold for me but not cold for you (Tht. 152b); and by the same principle, 'whatever things appear just and fine to each polis are so for it as long as it holds by them' (Tht. 167c4—5). As the latter passage makes plain, the man—measure formula in Plato's view applies to collections of men as well as to individual men. In one passage Protagoras is even made to apply his formula to individuals and poleis indifferently: 'what seems to each private person and to each polis actually is Ifor theml' (Tht. 168b5—6). Since by the man—measure formula 'seems F to a' entails 'is F for a', there is for Protagoras nothing more ultimate than appearances, nothing deeper than convention. In particular, as Socrates duly notes, on Protagorean principles no polis is just by nature (Tht. 172b). The extent to which Socrates' account of Protagoras can safely be attributed to the historical Protagoras remains an open question. >Relativism/Ancient philosophy.
Protagoras/Plato: The very fact that Protagoras does not speak for himself in the dialogue but only through Socrates should put the reader on his guard; it may be Plato's way of disclaiming historical accuracy. Some scholars think, nevertheless, that there are clues within the speeches of Socrates that allow a careful reader to distinguish the ideas that are authentically Protagorean from those that are Plato's own invention. When Socrates refers to the 'secret doctrine' of Protagoras at Theaetetus 152cl0, for example, this is taken by such scholars to indicate that Plato is shifting from an account of Protagoras' explicit doctrine to an implication that in Plato's view can be reasonably drawn from the explicit doctrine (see, for example, McDowell, 1973(1): 121—2).
Gaus I 307
Plato’s Protagoras: some scholars such as Gregory Vlastos (1956(2): xvii) believe that Protagoras' Great Speech (>Protagoras/Plato) presupposes his relativism, whereas others such as S. Moser and G. L. Kustas (1966)(3) deny any connection with relativism. In any case a strong argument can be made that the Great Speech is inconsistent with a thoroughgoing relativism.
Justice: in the Great Speech justice is given to man by Zeus to serve a particular purpose, namely, to create the bonds of friendship that hold a polis together. This end, or goal, would seem to limit the range of conceptions of justice. A notion that falls outside this range, that does not promote the bonds of friendship, would seem, by the theory of the Great Speech, not to be a notion of justice at all. >Democracy/Protagoras.
Gtaus I 307
Demoracy/relativism: (...) there does seem to be a natural alliance between Protagorean relativism and democracy if the locus of relativism is the individual (Taylor, 1976(4): 83—4). By such relativism whatever seems good to citizen A is good for A, and whatever seems good to citizen B is good
for B (Tht. 166c—d). But A and B cannot be friends if they thwart each other's good. Thus, if there are to be the bonds of friendship, without which a polis cannot exist, A must take account of what seems good to B, and B of what seems good to A, and in general each citizen must take account of what seems good to every other citizen. Otherwise stasis results. But this 'live and let live' philosophy is one of the defining features of democracy.
Vs: On the other hand, when the locus of relativity is shifted from the
Gaus I 308
individual to the polis, Protagorean relativism does not seem to favour democracy over any other form of government: if oligarchy or monarchy seems just to the citizens of a polis, oligarchy or monarchy is just for them. (Rosen, 1994(5), is a useful survey of the extensive literature on both sides of this issue.)


1. McDowell, John (1973) Plato Theaetetus. Oxford: Clarendon.
2. Vlastos, Gregory (1956) 'Introduction' to Plato's Protagoras. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill.
3. Moser, S. and G. L. Kustas (1966) 'A comment on the relativism of the "Protagoras"'. Phoenix, 20: 111-15.
4. Taylor, C. C. W. (1976) Plato Protagoras. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
5. Rosen, F. (1994) 'Did Protagoras justify democracy?' Polis, 13: 12-30.

Keyt, David and Miller, Fred D. jr. 2004. „Ancient Greek Political Thought“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.
Protagoras
Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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Ed. Martin Schulz, access date 2021-07-27
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