Comments on Protagoras’ human-measure statement

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Following from my earlier blog posts on objectivity and on Heraclitus’ theory of universal flux, I wish to turn my attention to Protagoras of Abdera and his famous human-measure statement: o_f all things the measure is human, of those that are, in that they are, of those that are not, in that they are not_.

It perhaps is a misfortune that this dictum, like many other intellectual works from that era, was passed on to posterity only in fragmentary form, which prevents us from appreciating it in its proper context and, most importantly, forces us to run the risk of being imprecise in treating as contextualised that which is evidently decontextualised (for a short comment on what I refer to as the constitution of the case, please refer to my remarks on the homogeneity of Christmas cake — for the broader framework of thought, you may refer to my Notes on the Thinkable: Version 2.0).

That disclaimer granted, I shall venture to examine the Protagorean statement under the scope of the thinkable, with the understanding that what I will propound is not necessarily for or against Protagoras qua philosopher and historical figure, but rather addresses a broader conception of reality.


The present author, having regard to:

  • the statement of Protagoras that “of all things the measure is human, of those that are, in that they are, of those that are not, in that they are not”;
  • his Notes on the Thinkable: Version 2.0;

and whereas:

  1. it can be hypothesised that the thought of the thing is not the thing as such;
  2. reality can be conceived in a bifurcated way that appreciates the former distinction between the sensible and the intelligible: as world and as thinkable;
  3. what has change or the lack of change in itself — what changes or remains regardless of thought — is a thing that originates in the world; it is a pragma;
  4. what does not have change or the lack of change in itself — what changes or remains because of thought — is a thing that originates in the thinkable; it is a chrēma;
  5. the impression of a thing, the object of thought made out of it, in the way that it is and to the extent of which it is, can be created different or held constant relative to its original impression, so that it changes, when thought of as changing, and remains when thought of as remaining;
  6. an object of thought is as considered and a consideration can be made otherwise;
  7. even if the world is antecedent to the thinkable, there is no world to be thought without a thinker to consider it;

claims that:

  1. Without the distinction between the world and the thinkable, the dictum of Protagoras can, nolens volens, end up making the crude error of conflating pragmata with chrēmata, by suggesting that human perception can change or hold constant that which changes or remains regardless of thought;
  2. Human cannot be the measure of pragmata, if by “measure” it is implied that human can condition _or _determine pragmata to become non-pragmata, since any irreducible matter, regardless of how it may be manipulated, would still have a given property that would operate regardless of thought — otherwise it would no longer be a pragma;
  3. In contradistinction to the status of pragmata, anything whose very presence consists of being thought — a chrēma — can be conditioned and determined by human, for it does not exist outside the realm of the thinkable;
  4. All that is sensible is conditioned by the mode of relation and all that is intelligible is determined by the capacity of the organon and, hence, against this backdrop, objectivity may have to be posited as consisting of proximate and ultimate states with human being capable of grasping the former while continuing to search for the latter;
  5. The two states of objectivity are revealed by considering the inexorable regress ad infinitum found in the establishment of a criterion necessary for the determination of anything;
  6. The differences among humans are, in essence, irrelevant when one can identify that which is same for the multitude — the simile in multis — and, hence, there can be a uniformity of capacity in either the senses or the intellect at higher levels of abstraction — that would be the foundation of a criterion, at least in so far as proximate objectivity is concerned;
  7. Such simile in multis, when pressed on, obliterates the dictum of Protagoras if that is meant to apply to individual human beings or groups of individuals, but vindicates it, if “human” is referred to as the being that exemplifies those higher strata of abstraction that are peculiar to its genus;
  8. The vindication of the Protagorean statement would however only be limited to the recognition that human is a party in either sensing or thinking — the thinker is a fact in any constitution of a case — and, yet, such vindication would ultimately not blur the distinction between pragmata and chrēmata, for “measure” would relate to the quality of perception but not to any power of determining in its essence that which can exist regardless of thought;
  9. Should that be so, the human-measure statement would, at bottom, be leading to objectivity, at least in its proximate sense, not to relativity since there would always be ‘something’ — human — which would remain constant relative to itself;


All of the above are necessarily predicated on hypotheses, mostly due to the fact that it is not known what Protagoras intended to suggest in his work. His position on this matter is lost together with the vast corpus of his work. Nonetheless, the aforementioned might be of use when it comes to informing an understanding of the outlines of first philosophy in so far as the notions of relativity and objectivity are concerned.