פילוסופיה

The Sophistic Theory of Protagoras

I would like to briefly analyze the best known Sophistic Theory, namely that of Protagoras.

If we take literally what is said about Protagoras in the Theaetetus (161, a -168, c), we see that Plato ranks Protagoras among the “Heracliteans” (in the broad sense). Indeed, Plato puts in the mouth of Protagoras the following summary of his doctrine: “everything moves ”; “What seems to each one is, as such, real, to the individual as to the City “(Th., 168, b).

Now, if everything moves, it is because everything about which one speaks becomes different from what it has been said to be; it becomes, at the limit, the opposite. We say of a thing which is A that it is A and it is true “; then this thing becomes (No -A =) B and it is then false to say that it is A; but it is “true” to say that it is B (= Non-A); it would however be “false” to say of the thing which is (still) A, that it is (already) B. Thus, it is just as “true” to assert that the thing about which one speaks is A as to deny it, by asserting that it is Non-A or B. If we define Truth by the “coherence” of discourse, we must then admit that it is just as coherent ”to affirm A as to deny it by affirming No-A. And if we define Truth by “the adequacy” of what we say to what we talk about, we must admit that what we are talking about is just as much A as Non-A. Without doubt, to say that something is A and Non-A is to contradict oneself and therefore discursively annul everything that one has said.

Now, to say nothing is to speak of nothing or to say that what we are talking about is Nothing or pure Nothingness: to say of something that it is A and Non-A, is to say that what we have thus spoken of (“In truth”) is (more) nothing. Thus, the thing of which we have spoken annihilates itself to the very extent that we annul all that we say about it, having said “in truth” that it is A and T Non-A. Everything about which we speak is annihilated just as much as the discourse which speaks of it is annulled (by counter-saying itself).

Only, if everything moves (without ever stopping anywhere), the thing which is annihilated only gives way to a thing which is and which is also another thing, which is not No -A or B, but C (forgetting, like Heraclitus, that Non-B = Non-non-A = A!). Now, by definition, what is C is also Non-C or D; and so on, indefinitely. Thus, the Speech develops without end: while contradicting itself everywhere and always, it never cancels itself anywhere; and it is “true” always and everywhere, both according to the criterion of coherence (of each of its contrary elements) and according to that of adequacy (partial and total). This is true not only of all “individual” (“positive” or “negative”) discourse, but also of “collective” discourse (“positive” AND “negative”; and therefore, it is true of discourse as a whole, even of the Speech as such. All this is authentically Heraclitean. But if Heraclitus himself, as a Philosopher, was interested not (only) in what one speaks, but (again; in what the One says about it, that is to say to the Speech as such, Protagoras (at least according to the Theaetetus) seems to be interested in the Speech as such only to “justify” what he himself says. Protagoras is therefore not a Philosopher properly speaking (nor even a Para-philosopher), but a Theorician or an Intellectual in the proper sense of the word.

As a Sophist, Protagoras claims to be able to give an
“adequate”(ib., 167, cJ.
education to his students; that is to say, “Morality” in the broad sense: he is therefore a Moralist. In so far as he “teaches” he talks to someone (namely his students) and he is then a Practitioner of Morals or a Moralist of practice. But insofar as he also speaks of his “teaching” (moral) (without speaking however of what he says about it), he is an Intellectual, namely a Moral Theorist or a theoretical Moralist.

As a theoretical, the moral or moralistic discourse of Protagoras is, by definition, exclusive. By saying of moral behavior that it is (or must be) A, he therefore excludes statements according to which this same behavior is not A, being Non-A. However, as we will see immediately, his assertions about moral behavior are not axiomatic, but dogmatic. And they are so because he is skeptical, in relation to axiomatic affirmations: he admits (following Heraclitus it seems) that a given axiom is neither more nor less true (in the sense consistency and adequacy) than the contrary axiom which contradicts it, “without anyone having false opinions” (ib., 167, d).

Protagoras excludes all moralistic statements “contrary” to his own solely on the basis of the exclusive effectiveness of the latter. Now, this “efficiency” is an “experimental” and therefore non-discursive criterion. Those who contradict Protagoras’ statements (moralists) can be, according to him, just as coherent as he himself is. And what one says, by counter-saying it, of a moral behavior contrary to that of which he speaks, can be, according to him, just as adequate. There is therefore no discursive criterion which would allow Protagoras to exclude the dissenters who contradict his own. Such an exclusion criterion can only be found outside the Speech and, for Protagoras, that criterion is effectiveness.

Those who contradict him speak (in principle, in a coherent and adequate way) of ineffective behavior: he alone speaks (in a coherent and adequate way) of an “exclusively” effective behavior.

If one defines discursive Truth by coherence or by adequacy, the moralist discourse of Protagoras is, for him, neither more nor less “true” than the discourse which contradicts it. But his (exclusive)speech is the only one to have a (non-discursive) efficiency value: we can therefore maintain it alone, to the exclusion of all the others.

It is also possible to say, if you will, that this discourse is the only one to be “true”; but we must then add that the criterion of this “discursive truth is a criterion which is not discursive.” “For me, they (opinions) are more valuable than each other;(ib., 167, b). Now, if the Sage “tells the truth”, while the Madman “is mistaken”, we can say “that there are people, each wiser than the next, without anyone having false opinions ”(ib., 167, d). And this wisdom is discourse. Only it is not philosophical, but “theoretical”, because it is“ exclusive ”and because the criterion of its “exclusivity” is non-discursive. Thus, in fact and for us, Protagoras is (even for himself) not a wise man properly so called, but an Intellectual, more exactly a dogmatic theoretical Moralist.

In addition, the dogmatic theoretical Morality of Protagoras is fundamentally pagan, even “biological” and not really “human”. Because, if the effectiveness that he has in view is for him a Virtue, this Virtue is nothing other than Health, even Happiness what this health brings to the healthy. Also Protagoras compares himself (as “Sophist”) to the Physician (cf. ib., 167b). “This is how I define … the Sage:..and at ease, knows how to invert the meaning of things so that they appear to him and are to him
good ”(ib., 166, d). For example: honey is “bad” (bitter = unpleasant) for the patient and the patient says “true” when he says so; it is “good” (soft = pleasant) for the healthy man and this one says “true” when he says it (by counter-saying what claims the disease); the “Sage” (= Doctor) “invert iridescent”, so that the sick person (while recovering) can counter say what he said (as sick), by saying (as healthy) that honey is “good”; the criterion of “Wisdom” (medical) is non-discursive approval, and not the meaning of what one says.

[According to Plato (cf. ib., 167, c) Protagoras “justifies his“ salary ”by the“ efficiency ”of his“ teaching n. But we can also say that this salary is the criterion of the “truth” of Protagoric discourse: Protagoras’ discourse is “effective” because it brings him a salary; Protagoras receives a salary because the discourse which he emits is “effective” in the sense that it makes “happy”, that is to say “healthy”, the one who absorbs it; however, only a happy speech is “true”; and the happy man says of himself what Protagoras says about it; the salary received by it therefore “shows” (without discursively demonstrating it)
the “truth” of what Protagoras says. And what is valid for the individual also applies to the City, or even the whole of Humanity, which would be quite “Hegelian”, if it were not about Happiness (animal), but Satisfaction (human), that is to say Recognition.

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