Theaetetus, Simple Relativism, and Gurus

I’m rereading Plato’s Theaetetus, which has long been my favorite Socratic dialogue. The discussion of what constitutes knowledge has long fascinated me.

The section I read this morning concerned Socrates, Theaetetus, and Theodorus’s discussion of Protagoras’s idea that “man is the measure.” Socrates describes this as the idea that what each person perceives to be true is true. (Socrates applies this to what we perceive with our five senses, but he even applies it to geometric proofs or city governance. So “perceive” does not seem to strictly mean sense perception.) There is more sophistication to Protagoras’s view, which gets developed in the next section of the dialogue. But, at this point in the discussion, Protagoras’s view appears to be simple relativism about truth.

Socrates’s response to this basic version of relativism is interesting. Socrates says:

Or what are we to say, Theodorus? If whatever the individual judges by means of perception is true for him; if no man can assess another’s experience better than he, or can claim authority to examine another man’s judgement and see if it be right or wrong; if, as we have repeatedly said, only the individual himself can judge of his own world, and what he judges is always true and correct: how could it ever be, my friend, that Protagoras was a wise man, so wise as to think himself fit to be the teacher of other men and worth large fees; while we, in comparison with him the ignorant ones, needed to go and sit at his feet–we who are ourselves each the measure of his own wisdom? Can we avoid the conclusion that Protagoras was just playing to the crowd when he said this?…To examine and try to refute each other’s appearance and judgements, when each person’s are correct–this is surely an extremely tiresome piece of nonsense, if the Truth of Protagoras is true, and not merely an oracle speaking in jest from the impenetrable sanctuary of the book.

Think about this point. Why would a relativist seek out gurus, teachers, or advice-givers? If the truth is merely what the relativist perceives it to be, then he would not need a guru, teacher, or advice-giver. After all, one major reason we listen to a teacher or guru is to learn from them. They have truths that we want (and sometimes need) them to impart to us.

Why do we want them or need them to impart to us? Usually, because we have a jumble of false beliefs that we want to be corrected. (Of course, we don’t know which beliefs are false. But we know some of our beliefs are false.)

Think about common scenarios:

  • A doctor tells you which of your beliefs about your health, diet, or medications are wrong.
  • A good teacher often corrects false beliefs you have about, say, history or political theory or psychology.
  • A financial adviser shows you that your beliefs about your retirement savings being adequate are, in fact, false.
  • A real estate guru tries to convince you that your beliefs about the difficulty of investing are wrong.

We seek out the advice and thoughts of a lot of people because we want them to correct our beliefs (even if we do not characterize a doctor’s visit this way). A simple relativist cannot consistently go to these people for these reasons. They hold no false beliefs to be corrected.

Of course, I’ve never met someone with this simple version of relativism about truth. (I’ve only ever met one person with a similarly simple version of moral relativism.) Relativism was one of the great boogeymen of my childhood. I grew up hearing about the dangerous relativists who threatened my faith and nation. But I’m thirty-three years old, and I’ve spent the last fifteen years around state universities. And I’ve never met anyone with this view of simple relativism. It’s just not a popular view. Protagoras, despite his fame and brilliance, really hasn’t convinced many people that “man is the measure.”

There is more sophistication in Protagoras’s view, which Socrates goes on to explain. But the simple relativism that is initially described doesn’t seem to make sense of human behavior, as Socrates argued. We seek out advice. We seek out gurus. We seek to learn. We aren’t merely to seek new perspectives. We want false beliefs corrected.

And I bet all those rich personal gurus are happy that Protagoras’s view didn’t catch on.

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