Socrates was a Greek Athenian philosopher who was known for his contribution to western philosophy. His students, Xenophon and Plato, accounted for most of his work in some of their dialogues and writings.
He is credited for his contributions in ethics. In the dialogue, ‘Theaetetus’, Socrates gets into a serious discussion with a student of Protagoras on knowledge. A similar discussion is witnessed in Russell’s book ‘The Problem of Philosophy’. Protagoras defines his statement that ‘man is the measure of all things’ by arguing that truth is relative and depends on an individual.
To illustrate this he gives an example of a blowing wind where an individual can only feel the warmth in the wind if he or she has a temperature which is lower than that of the wind and vice versa (Burnyeat , 12). Similarly he uses this argument to defend his opinion on knowledge. According to Theaetetus, knowledge is perception, an opinion that is disputed by Socrates. Socrates puts it clear that knowledge is an opinion that is beyond stimulation of the senses.
Theaetetus, being a student of Protagoras, must have shared the same definition of knowledge with Protagoras. At the same time the theory of Protagoras has implications of perception being true. A large part of the conversation is about setting up definitions of knowledge and science.
The conversations move from lower to higher stages with three main clear issues of discussion. These issues are reasoning, opinion and perception and they are thoroughly examined. Socrates first removes the doubt and confusion that exists between types of knowledge and the idea of knowledge. Theaetetus defines knowledge by giving an example of knowledge. This quickly finds rejection by Socrates with the argument that it is not sufficient enough to define something by giving an example of that thing
He compares two sensations and argues that this has implications of a higher principle beyond knowledge. This principle resides in the mind meaning that knowledge is a true opinion. It is possible for an individual to be able to sense something that he or she does not know. While at the same time one can have the knowledge of something that he or she cannot feel or sense in any way.
For instance, according to Socrates’ arguments, you can know that a friend or anybody you recognize is standing next to you when you see them there. If you close your eyes immediately you cannot see them but you are able to know that they are still there meaning that knowledge is a mere opinion that is viable and true at the same time it is beyond sensation.
Socrates expounds further on his position by asking Theaetetus if it is true that whenever we see or hear things we already know them. It is impossible to assume that someone can know a foreign language he has never heard before by hearing somebody else speaking it. Yes it is true that it is possible to hear the words but one cannot know what is being said (Burnyeat , 162b).
Socrates clearly disputes the definition of knowledge as perception. Since perception is as a result of stimulation of the senses, and the senses only give us the appearance of objects not there reality (Russell , 7), then it is wrong to consider perception to define knowledge. Similarly knowledge cannot be derived from our daily experiences because we experience through perception and feelings.
But however it has been agreed that experience to some sense can derive knowledge and at the same time, perception is not only the sensory stimulation or awareness of things (Russell , 4). Sometimes we could perceive divine things. There are several deceptions that can come as result of perception.
Russell in his book uses an example of a table and critically analyzes it in terms of the change in appearance as a result of change in condition. If the lighting condition is changed, the table changes its color. This creates distrust in what our perception, in this case the eye, tells us. All these changes in appearance with changes in condition may claim to be the reality. So we are uncertain of what exactly is real.
Protagoras explains knowledge as perception and expresses it alternatively as man being the measure of things meaning that all men judge what is. Knowledge depends with the individual and he explains his definition with an illustration of a cold wind that blows on an individual’s face.
The difference in perception of the coldness of the wind depends with the internal temperature of the individual. If Protagoras admits that all opinion judged by man to be true then any opinion against his own is also true. But however Socrates refuses to agree that the opinion of Protagoras to be true
He disputes the claim by saying that the word ‘is’ used in this statement implies ‘appears’ and ‘appears’ implies feeling. It is incorrect to refer to perception, appearance and feeling as being. Being is a phenomenon that exists beyond the natural sensation.
It involves the mental and mind and knowledge is more than perception meaning there is no way that we could have a true opinion by relying on our feelings. We can only perceive using one means or instrument at a time. We cannot use our ears to see a color neither can we use our eyes to hear any sound. Perception is limited to the power used for perceiving but knowledge is beyond these instruments of perceiving.
The only sure thing that we can know we know is nothing, according to Socrates. He says that his wisdom is limited by his ignorance. He was of the opinion that wrong doing is as a result of ignorance and the people who do wrong are only doing it from ignorance. Personally such an opinion is incorrect.
Every action of human beings is not as a result of ignorance but choice. People make choice to do what they want whether wrong or good. Wrong actions are defined wrong because they are deficient of love. According to Socrates love seems to be that one thing that he consistently knows. He refers to love as the concept of loving wisdom. Socrates loved wisdom because he linked wisdom to philosophy.
Still on the dialogue of Protagoras, Socrates explains that all is motion and motions takes part in two forms: passion and action. From these two forms, infinite concepts and ideas are created and sense is given birth. The eye is designed to sense whiteness while objects are filled with the sense of whiteness.
The object gives birth to sensation of whiteness while the eye gives birth to whiteness. There is no other element that can produce a similar effect meaning that things are not, but instead they become. Hence there is no name that can really define something.
Socrates never used to refer to himself as a wise man in fact he says that he has no wisdom of his own and he is only offering the wisdom of men. His intention in the dialogue is to deliver Theodorus and Theaetetus of something. Personally, his explanation on the falseness of perception is very true and has a strong ground. Madness and dreaming are cases where perception does not hold. We spend a huge part of our lives a sleep and dreaming.
Dreaming not only occurs when we sleep but it is possible to day dream in full consciousness. It is also not verifiable if at this very instant we are dreaming or not dreaming. Mad men when they fantasize, do they having a true opinion or false opinion? There are different perceptions produced in every patient. Socrates explains this by illustrating that he may be sick or well. When he drinks his favorite wine when sick, it tastes different from the moment he drinks the wine when he is well. It actually tastes better when he is well.
To criticize Socrates’ arguments, it seems that he relies mostly on dispute rather than reason to put across his points. He seems to be attempting to trip opinions that he does not agree with. He fails to recognize that dispute and reasoning are not the same thing and there is a distinction between the tow.
With reasoning, some one makes an effort to understand an opinion before beginning to identify errors made in that argument. Most of his explanations to dispute Protagoras were based on one aspect of sensation which is the sense of sight. Other critics of Socrates identified him as not as a proponent of philosophy but some one with bad intentions of undermining the society of Athens.
Socrates also had some good virtues that personally I tend to identify with. He believed that people should spend more time trying to develop their lives rather than accumulating material wealth which is absolutely useless. He always encouraged people to be focused on building friendship and truth in their communities. He ended up becoming a philosophical martyr because of sticking to his believes. In most of his teachings, he emphasized that virtue is the most expensive of everything.
Burnyeat, Myles. The Teaetetus of Plato. Trans. Jane Levett. Hackett: Indianapolis, 1990.
Russell, Bertrand. The Problem of Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambrigde University Press, 1912.