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Lecture 10 (7th October 1948)

If we take the meaning of sensation in a modern terminology knowledge is sensation would mean the reception of a datum, something simple and given in regard to which it might be said we can't be wrong though equally it could be said we can't be right because the datum is not supposed to be complex or propositional from which it could be argued that it isn't known at all and that it gives no assistance whatever in the treatment of matters in which we can be wrong which any theory must admit in some sense to exist. In fact that is one line of the Socratic criticism of the Protagorean view attributed to Theaetetus, namely that even a doctrine of data must admit matters in which we can be wrong but cannot account for them. Now this may have been what Theaetetus meant - he may have meant “seeing is believing” in the special sense of being quite certain but if we rendered aesthesis as perception, if we took the view that knowledge is perception there would be no reason at all for identifying it with the view that knowledge is relative to the individuals because there is no reason whatever for saying that perception is relative to the individual, that perception is of something peculiarly mine and couldn't possibly be yours. And while on any view we might have to admit a knowledge of something not immediately confronting us, e.g., as we have a knowledge of some things that happened yesterday, that doesn't exclude the view that perception or knowledge of what is immediately in front of us occupies a specially important position in the theory of knowledge - that is something which any knowledge either is or is in some sense based on. [Note inserted by DMA: I take this to be base empiricism - connect with JA's confusion about Universal connection.]

I was referring then to what Socrates presents as the secret doctrine of Protagoras, namely, as against the superficial view that what appears is, that nothing is but everything proceeds or goes on and Socrates presents as this secret doctrine an account of the processes which take place when we perceive - processes which however he, in this theory, identifies with what is perceived so that not merely is it said that when we perceive a white colour there are movements from us to something outside of us and movements from that thing to us (our eyes specifically) but it is assumed that these processes, these cyclic exchanges (Heraclitus) are the white colour or that this cycle is some sense both whiteness in the thing and seeing in us and this is supposed to explain why different people have different perceptions and also why the same person has different perceptions under different conditions, e.g., dreaming, insanity, diseased, i.e., this relativist theory of knowledge would speak of someone becoming sensible which means his becoming sensible of something and something becoming sensible which means its becoming sensible to someone - sensation then or perception always involves exchanges and difference of sensation is explained by the exchanges being different. It is contended, however, that

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while on this theory Protagoras would not say that one view was truer than another but only that it is relative to different conditions he would say that some views are better than others and that there is a distinction between the wise and the unwise in that the wise is he to whom what is better appears and who can make it appear also to others. Now even if Protagoras didn't hold a theory of motion such as is attributed to him here he did hold a theory of “usefulness” and took teaching to be the inculcation of better or more useful beliefs, beliefs which are relative to a better state and we can accept the arguments of Socrates against such a theory of relative truth even if we consider that the theory of motion - of knowledge as involving cyclical exchanges is not invalidated at all and similarly with the theory that knowledge is perception or at least that perception is knowledge, even if we think that there is no ground for combining any of these views with relativism.

The position is that in putting forward his doctrine of useful beliefs Protagoras is committing himself to a different sort of distinction between truth and falsity - to the doctrine that certain views are better or are more useful - not meaning that it is more useful to take them as more useful and so on indefinitely - a regress which would prevent Protagoras from even stating his position. In other words here again we have an initial contradiction, a contradiction between maintaining truth is usefulness and the meaning of truth involved in that very case.

Now in order to say that the true is the useful Protagoras has had to admit the existence of absolute facts, to admit the existence of the true as actual or occurring and the same is the case with the doctrine of motion or at least with the attempt to import relativism into it. If, for the sake of argument, we admit that knowledge involves interaction between mind and something else then in order to say this we have to assume a knowledge both of this mind and of this other thing and no simply a knowledge of what passes between the two. To say that A knows X only when there are motions from A to X and motions from X to A, i.e., only when there is a cycle passing through A and X is not the least reason for saying that it is these passages or intermediate motions which are known and not X itself or in other words knowledge of X depends on interaction with X doesn't imply knowledge of X is knowledge of that interaction of what in this theory is called the swifter motions as contrasted with the slower motions and in fact it regularly happens that we know let us say a book without having any knowledge of the processes, e.g., physical processes going on between us and the book and if we did know these intervening processes it would be on this theory because there were further processes or cycles linking us and them, but that would be no reason for saying that we knew those further intervening conditions.

(Cf., Kemp Smith, Prolegomena. - must make realist assumption, e.g., on “subjectivist” view must assume [?] of sense organs (not “mediated”).)

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To sum up the realist will not deny that what particular thing a person knows depends both on his own state at the time and on the state of the thing with which he is confronted but the fact that my knowing X depends on, or has conditions, doesn't make it relative or dependent knowledge - does nothing to show X isn't an independent thing.

Realists will still admit the possibility of error, will admit that the change and complexity of things along with change and complexity in ourselves or the variety and development of our interests - these sometimes lead us to believe what is not the case but even so, even admitting the occurrence of error, this is to have some recognition of what error is, and what brings it about and that means a direct knowledge of some facts even if the person who knows them continues to be in error in other things. But we certainly could give no account of error on the theory of relative knowledge - on the theory that our objects are just something that characterises ourselves at a given time or thqat characterised our interactions with other things - on that showing there wouldn't be error.