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Aristotle Domesticates Protagoras: On Charity and Dialectic

Thursday Lecture Series

dateSeptember 27, 2012 timeThursday, 12:15pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Columbia University

What do we owe the people we argue with? We might say a principle of “charity” should govern our interpretation of what other people say, but there is little agreement about how such a principle is supposed to work. We might think it charitable to maximize truth, knowledgeable judgment, or conversational interest (among other things), and those aspirations often pull in different directions.

In this talk, Dr. McCready-Flora examined a moment in philosophical history when charity seems both required and abused: Aristotle’s engagement with Protagoras. In one striking passage, Aristotle concludes that Protagoras is really saying “nothing surprising” with his famous dictum that “man is the measure of all things.” In Aristotle’s hands, the doctrine becomes true, but anodyne, and even contrary to what Protagoras meant.

Dr. McCready-Flora asked why Aristotle might make such an interpretive move. He argued that, for Aristotle, Protagoras’s doctrine (as typically read) erodes the foundations of communication and reason itself. The only charitable thing is therefore to read the claim differently, and Aristotle provides such a reading. There is, however, a danger: Protagoras makes sense, but can tell us nothing new. Interpretation gives way to assimilation, domestication.