Monday, March 10, 2008

My philosophy lecture on the Sophists

I. The Sophists
A. Two central emphases
1. Skepticism- we have no knowledge
2. Success—we should do what will make us successful
B. Protagoras
1. Man is the measure of all things.
2. Is this man individually or man as a group? In either case Protagoras is a relativist
3. With respect to perception, Protagoras is an individual relativist. All knowledge comes from sense experience. Sense experience is person-relative. Therefore, all knowledge is person-relative.
4. With respect to ethics Protagoras is a social relativist. Society’s traditions are as good as any. Don’t rock the boat.
5. In philosophy of religion Protagoras is an agnostic who thinks it is nonetheless expedient to worship the gods.
C. Antiphon
1. The law of self-preservation is absolute-it’s the law of nature
2. Social conventions often enjoin is to do what is against the law of nature
3. Therefore, we should follow social laws when people are watching, but when we are alone (and can get away with it), the law of nature
D. Can you imagine that Sophist philosophy might be regarded as socially dangerous? It implies that in the final analysis, the actions of a Mother Teresa are not really better than the actions of an Adolf Hitler. While if you follow the teachings of Protagoras you won’t become a serial killer, it does mean that you will accept the practices of your community and have no perspective from beyond the norms of your community from which to say that the norms of the community are wrong.
E. But how do you answer these people?
1. One answer would be to appeal to the existence of an almighty, all-good God who commands people to act rightly, and who, at the end of the day, rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked.
2. But the ancient Greeks did not have these kinds of beliefs available to them. The “gods” they believed in were amoral or immoral, and no one of them was in supreme command.
3. The philosophies of Socrates and Plato, and even to some extent Aristotle, are best seen as attempts to respond to Sophism.


Anonymous said...

Vic, I try to have a common thread when I take my students back to the Sophists. See what you think.

Thales asked a significant question ("what is the source of all things"), based upon a significant assumption (methodological naturalism), and reaching a significant conclusion (that the world is not what it seems--it is made of water).

After him others made some educated guesses as to the source of all things based upon his conclusion. Others tried to say law wasn't as it seems, motion isn't what it seems, naming things isn't as it seems, etc, etc, etc.

This situation led up to Socrates.

Fill in the details, but it works for intro students to keep their interest.

Ilíon said...

How about the full text of the lecture?