Infobox Philosopher
region = Western Philosophy
era = Pre-Socratic philosophy
color = #B0C4DE

image_caption = Bust of Protagoras
name = Protagoras (Πρωταγόρας)
birth = ca. 490
death = 420 BC
school_tradition = Ionian Philosophy
main_interests = language, semantics, relativism
influences =
influenced = Plato
notable_ideas = The "Antilogies", which consists of two premises: the first is "Before any uncertainty two opposite theses can validly be confronted", the second is its complement: the need to "strengthen the weaker argument".

Protagoras (Greek: Polytonic|Πρωταγόρας) (ca. 490– 420 BC) was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher and is numbered as one of the sophists by Plato. In his dialogue "Protagoras", Plato credits him with having invented the role of the professional sophist or teacher of virtue.


Protagoras was born in Abdera, Thrace, in Ancient Greece. "In Plato's "Protagoras", before the company of Socrates, Prodicus, and Hippias, he states that he is old enough to be the father of any of them. This suggests a date of not later than 490 B.C."Guthrie, Williams. "The Sophists". New York: Cambridge University Press, 1971. ISBN 0521096669. p. 262-3.] In the "Meno" (91e) he is said to have died at about the age of 70 after 40 years as a practicing Sophist. His death, then, may be assumed to have occurred circa 420." [Ibid.] He was well-known in Athens and became a friend of Pericles.

Plutarch relates a story in which the two spend a whole day discussing an interesting point of legal responsibility, that probably involved a more philosophical question of causation. [Ibid. p. 263.] "In an athletic contest a man had been accidentally hit and killed with a javelin. Was his death to be attributed to the javelin itself, to the man who threw it, or to the authorities responsible for the conduct of the games?" [Plutarch. "Pericles." "Lives", p. 36.]


Protagoras was also renowned as a teacher who addressed subjects connected to virtue and political life. He was especially involved in the question of whether virtue could be taught, a commonplace issue of 5th Century B.C. Greece (and related to modern readers through Plato's dialogue). Rather than educators who offered specific, practical training in rhetoric and public speaking, Protagoras attempted to formulate a reasoned understanding, on a very general level, of a wide range of human phenomena (for example, language and education). He also seems to have had an interest in "orthoepeia", or the correct use of words (a topic more strongly associated with his fellow-sophist Prodicus).

His most famous saying is: "Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not". [(80B1 DK). This quotation is recapitulated in Plato's "Theaetetus", section 152a. [] Sextus Empiricus ("Adv. math." 7.60) gives a direct quotation, πάντων χρημάτων μέτρον ἐστὶν ἄνθρωπος, τῶν μὲν ὄντων ὡς ἔστιν, τῶν δὲ οὐκ ὄντων ὡς οὐκ ἔστιν. The translation "Man is the measure..." has been familiar in English since before the rise of gender-neutral language; in Greek, Protagoras makes a general statement, not about men, but about human beings (his word is "anthrōpos").] Like many fragments of the Presocratics, this phrase has been passed down to us without any context, and its meaning is open to interpretation. Plato ascribes relativism to Protagoras and uses his predecessor's teachings as a foil for his own commitment to objective and transcendent realities and values. Plato also ascribes to Protagoras an early form of phenomenalism, [See e.g. John Wild, " [ On the Nature and Aims of Phenomenology] ," "Philosophy and Phenomenological Research" 3 (1942), p. 88: "Phenomenalism is as old as Protagoras."] in which what is or appears for a single individual is true or real for that individual.

Protagoras was a proponent of agnosticism. In his lost work, "On the Gods", he wrote: "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life. [ [ The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy - Protagoras (c. 490 - c. 420 BCE)] , Accessed: October 6, 2008. "While the pious might wish to look to the gods to provide absolute moral guidance in the relativistic universe of the Sophistic Enlightenment, that certainty also was cast into doubt by philosophic and sophistic thinkers, who pointed out the absurdity and immorality of the conventional epic accounts of the gods. Protagoras' prose treatise about the gods began "Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not or of what sort they may be. Many things prevent knowledge including the obscurity of the subject and the brevity of human life."] (80B4 DK)

Very few fragments from Protagoras have survived, though he is known to have written several different works: "Antilogiae" and "Truth". The latter is cited by Plato, and was known alternatively as 'The Throws' (a wrestling term referring to the attempt to floor an opponent). It began with the "man the measure" pronouncement. The Protagoras crater on the Moon was named in his honor.

Protagoras and the scientific method

Even though Protagoras was a contemporary of Socrates, the philosopher of Abdera is considered a presocratic thinker. He followed the Ionian tradition that distinguishes the School of Abdera. The distinctive note of this tradition is criticism, a systematic discussion that can be identified as "presocratic dialectic", an alternative to the Aristotelian demonstrative method which, according to Karl Popper, has the fault of being dogmatic. The main contribution of Protagoras was perhaps his method of finding a better argument by discarding the less viable one. This is known as "Antilogies", and consists of two premises; the first is "Before any uncertainty two opposite theses can validly be confronted", the second is its complement: the need to "strengthen the weaker argument".

Protagoras knew that the less appealing argument could hide the best answer, which is why he stated that it was constantly necessary to strengthen the weakest argument. Having been born before Socrates himself, this progressive viewpoint in the development of consensual truth could conceivably have contributed to the progressive styles of many of the other great minds which followed him. His most recent defender is Joseph Margolis, especially in the latter's "The Truth About Relativism" (Blackwell's, 1991).


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