Protagoras and the Positivists

During my training in theory and criticism, I remember being exposed to the bogeyman of the Vienna Circle. However, when I read a short piece by Rudolf Carnap, Hans Hahn, and Otto Neurath in a later course on the philosophy of technology, “The Scientific Conception of the World” (1929), a pamphlet published to “give a survey of the area of problems in which those who belong to, or are near to, the Vienna Circle are working,” what I encountered was not some cabal to be feared and despised but a cohort of allies.1 Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath’s presentation of their “scientific world-conception” was all together different from what I expected.2 They envisioned a “scientifically oriented people’s education,” and various members of the school were involved in the institution of a “society for popular education” that offered “popular university courses” and a “people’s college.”3 On the basis of their scientific world-conception, members of the Vienna Circle worked “toward a new organization of economic and social relations, toward the unification of mankind, [and] toward a reform of school and education.”4 It was the Vienna Circle’s intent to “fashion intellectual tools for everyday life, for the daily life of the scholar but also for the daily life of all those who in some way join in working at the conscious reshaping of life.”5 What is more, the “anti-metaphysical factual research” of the Vienna Circle challenged aristocratic and authoritarian modes of thought, making it a threat to the rising fascist powers in Europe. Carnap, a socialist and pacifist, would flee for the United States just six years after the publication of this text.

Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath hold in high regard the “struggle against the metaphysics of the thing-in-itself and of the concept of substance.”6 They are critical of armchair philosophy, insofar as no member of the Vienna Circle was “a so-called ‘pure’ philosopher,” each of them having “done work in a special field of science.”7 Their “empiricist and positivist” program is an exercise in the “construction of scientific concepts from ultimate elements, namely sense data,” always “trying to make contact with the living movements of the present.”8 In so doing, they take “a position not only free from metaphysics, but opposed to metaphysics,” maintaining the assumption that “there is knowledge only from experience, which rests on what is immediately given” to perception.9 By adopting this position, the Vienna Circle is able to posit “only empirical statements about things of all kinds” and “analytic statements of logic and mathematics.”10 Far from reductive scientism, the program here described admits of both phenomenological complexity and logical rigour, supported by and directed back into a robust ethics.

In my pursuit of a program of “generic science” throughout the series of essays with that title (and the related pieces in the broader series on the Presocratics), Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath’s essay has been ever present in my mind. And concluding our reading of the Presocratics with Protagoras, the “direct” and “radical” possibilities of sophistics as an alternative to aristocratic, institutional, ideal philosophy seems fitting.

At the end of their pamphlet, Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath make their “stand on the ground of simple human experience”—the common, xunōi, as we first encountered it in Heraclitus—“returning, after a metaphysical interlude, to a unified picture of this world which had, in a sense, been at the basis of magical beliefs, free from theology, in the earliest times.”11 From the perspective of our generic program, what becomes clear is that the Vienna Circle is not in fact without a metaphysics—theirs is a superphysical metaphysics of “logic and mathematics”—and is properly concerned with an overcoming of the bar of philosophical decision instituted by Plato, and repeated throughout the history of western philosophy from Plato onward. The continuum, the adjacency, of physics and metaphysics, which existed prior to Plato’s intervention, is restored. We see as much in the likes of Gilbert Simondon and Alain Badiou, metaphysicians par excellence who break with the history of philosophy to take their elementary data from the sciences and mathematics. Indeed, it is for this reason that Gilles Deleuze can describe himself as a “pure metaphysician,” following Bergson in the elaboration of a metaphysics for “modern science,” the “metaphysics it needs.”12 There are far more points of affinity, far more sites of allegiance, between the analytic and continental schools than are commonly believed. And now, all of the tools and resources of these disparate schools are made available to a twenty-first century sophistics, an anti-metaphysical metaphysics, that begins with the simple dictum: see for yourself.13 Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath write:

In science there are no ‘depths’; there is surface everywhere: all experience forms a complex network, which cannot always be surveyed and can often be grasped only in parts. Everything is accessible to man; and man is the measure of all things. Here is an affinity with the Sophists, not with the Platonists; with the Epicureans, not with the Pythagoreans; with all those who stand for earthly being and the here and now.14

A direct and radical sophistics posits the unilateral determination of cognition by the real, the simple fact that one can look and see, that everywhere there are surfaces to be explored.15 This does not mean that one can always understand what one sees immediately, or that new instruments will not disclose realities that baffle our received intuitions. But as the authors continue, this is a simple consequence of acknowledging the priority of the real over cognition, the fact that cognition is a subset or species of the real. “That knowledge of the world is possible rests not on human reason impressing its form on the material,” they write, “but on the material being ordered in a certain way.”16 Through inquiry, we might discover that the world is “ordered much more strictly” than we thought, or that it might “be ordered much less,” but in either case we make our discovery “without jeopardising the possibility of knowledge,” because knowledge and cognition can only be of the real, and nothing other than the real.17 Sophistics is an exercise in the refutation of the Platonic scission, an egalitarian welcoming of the common into the domain of philosophy.

We see as much in Protagoras, who Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath cite without naming. Derided for his position that “Man is the measure of all things,” a comprehensive reading of the testimonials to Protagoras’s works reveals a nuanced and ethical thinker, not the straw man he was made out to be by Plato and his other critics.18 Protagoras is not a mere relativist, but a complex thinker working from a distinct and testable set of premises. “Man is the measure of all things,” for Protagoras, because the “mind [is] nothing but the senses.”19 Consequently, the mind can only have knowledge of “the things that are” and not “of the things that are not.”20 As measure, a human subject can say of the things that are, “they are,” and of the things that are not, “they are not,” because such statements are predicated on the basic possibility of perception: see for yourself. Thus, when Diogenes Laertius reports that Protagoras asserts that “everything is true,” he misunderstands what this truth is. Socrates, speaking in Plato’s Theaetetus, gives voice to Protagoras’s position, saying: “Perception, then, is always of something that is, and it is infallible, which suggests that it is knowledge.”21 The infallibility of this operation, taken in broader context, is not of the known, but of the knowing. Plato is searching through the vehicle of Socrates for certainty, and Diogenes scoffs at the possibility of everything being true, but Protagoras, like the Vienna Circle that follows him millenia later, is not concerned with certain truth, but with the simple continuity of thought with the real. Every statement of what one perceives is true if one truly states what one has seen—if one does not truly state what one has seen, this does not jeopardise the possibility of knowledge; rather, one is merely mistaken, deceived, or lying.22 For fear of error and interference, the pursuit of certain truth covers over the actual operations that make knowledge possible at all.

In the Cratylus, Socrates challenges Hermogenes on his Protagorean position, asking how an existent might have “stable being” in itself if its being is in its appearing and its being perceived.23 Such a problem is only a problem insofar as the knower is privileged over the known, cognition over the real. It is a non-issue for Protagoras, because all knowledge comes from perception of something that is. One might perceive something from a peculiar angle, or only in part, or one might have their perception manipulated by another, or one might lie about what one perceives, but because perception is always unilaterally determined by the real, the real continues on in its existence, oblivious to the struggles of the humans seeking to know it. As such, when we read in the testimonial of Didymus the Blind that “the being of things that are consists in their being perceived,” we would do better to interpret this statement along Sartrean, rather than Berkeleyian lines.24 This interpretation of Protagoras is further confirmed by the statements his character makes in Plato’s Protagoras and Theaetetus. The type of knowledge Protagoras seeks is a praktognosia, a practical knowledge, concerned with material conditions of existence.25 He says:

What I teach is the art of making good decisions, both in one’s domestic affairs, so that one can manage his estate and household in the best possible way, and in the affairs of the community, so that he can maximize his potential to conduct political business and address political issues.26

This should not be understood as instruction in cold economization or ruthless politicizing. Rather, Protagoras’s practice is contingent upon what he has learned about the real, and the logic he has elaborated on the basis of that learning:

I know of plenty of things which are harmful to people (they may be foods or drinks or drugs, or whatever), and others which are beneficial; and I know of things which are neither harmful nor beneficial to people, but which are to horses—or are only to cattle, or only to dogs. And then there are things which are neither harmful nor beneficial for any of these creatures, but are for trees; and things which are good for the roots of trees, but bad for their shoots, such as manure, which is good for all plants when it is applied to their roots, but deadly if put on their shoots and young branches. Or then there’s olive oil, which is completely pernicious for all plants and ruins the hair of all non-human creatures, but is good for human hair and for the rest of their body too. Goodness is so diverse and varied that even in our case one and the same thing may be good for the outside of a human body, but awful for the inside.27

Protagoras is not interested in discovering the “stable being” of things, but in “a change from one state to the other,” and specifically in a change to a “better” state.28 And this is only possible if one attends to the facts of “what one is experiencing.”29 Protagoras’s philosophy is pragmatic in the same sense that the empiricism and positivism described by Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath is pragmatic—their logical investigations are predicated on an ontology of surfaces and materials. Protagoras states what he has seen, making his understanding available for consideration and verification by others. As Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath write, a “scientific description can contain only the structure (form of order) of objects, not their ‘essence.’”30 A scientist can only describe what they have seen, and ask others to check their work. So, then, it is on such a pragmatic basis that Protagoras, in the Theaetetus, says the following:

I claim that each sphere of operations has its wise practitioners: there are doctors for bodies, farmers for plants … and I claim that politicians who are wise and good at their job substitute sound for unsound ethical notions in their communities. It is true that whatever seems ethically fine to each community also is ethical for it, for as long as that rule is in force, but a wise person changes each unsound notion they have, and makes sound notions be and appear for them. By the same token, a Sophist, since he is capable of guiding his pupils in the same way, is wise and deserves to be paid a lot by his pupils.31

Protagoras is not advocating for an opportunistic relativism, but is in fact articulating how human knowledge communities have functioned throughout history—which is to say, through intersecting and overlapping spheres of operations with specific rules of practice, which are communicated from practitioner to practitioner, to be tested, applied, adjusted, and replaced as each practitioner and each community of practice sees fit. This state of affairs does not jeopardise the possibility of knowledge; rather, it defines knowledge, articulating a framework for generic knowledge procedures that, in the words of Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “serve[] life” and the everyday people who live it.32 This is the sophistry we posit against the dominion of the philosophers, the thought of the common that, like the old mole, burrows under the foundation of the ivory tower to bring it to the ground.


  1. Rudolf Carnap, Hans Hahn, and Otto Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle,” 1929, in Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, eds. Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 86-95. 

  2. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 88. 

  3. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 87. 

  4. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 88. 

  5. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 88. The authors remark that the likes of Otto Bauer, Rudolf Hilferding, and Max Adler, working in Vienna at the time, “cultivated and extended” Marx’s work, a reshaping of life in the domain of political economy. Marx’s famous assertion, that the “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it,” is particularly resonant with the social aims of the Vienna Circle. For Marx, see “Concerning Feuerbach,” 1845, in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London, UK: Penguin Books, 1992), 423. 

  6. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 87. 

  7. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 88. 

  8. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 87, 89. 

  9. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 88, 91. Insofar as this “given” is based on Brentano’s intentionality, Derrida’s critique of Husserlian phenomenology in Voice and Phenomenon provides a fruitful point of conjuncture. 

  10. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 90. 

  11. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 95. 

  12. Gilles Deleuze, “Responses to a Series of Questions,” Collapse 3 (2007): 39-43. 

  13. I have explored this dictum at length, as presented by Jacques Rancière, in my paper “No Dice, No Masters: Procedures for Emancipation in Dream Askew / Dream Apart,” to be presented at the GENeration Analog Virtual Conference, August 4, 2021. 

  14. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 89. I would quibble with the alignment of the Sophists against the Pythagoreans, but this is understandable on the authors part, given my own rather idiosyncratic reading of the Pythagoreans, which I have still to fully explore. 

  15. I am reminded of Hayden White’s description of Foucault’s writings: “no center,” “all surface,” and “willfully superficial.” He goes on to argue that “this is consistent with the larger purpose of a thinker who wishes to dissolve the distinction between surfaces and depths, to show that wherever this distinction arises it is evidence of the play of organized power and that this distinction is itself the most effective weapon power possesses for hiding its operations.” See The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 105. I am also reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s use of “exteriority” in such texts as their “Treatise on Nomadology—The War Machine,” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1987): 351-423. Our arch-analytics find themselves in good company. 

  16. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 92-93. 

  17. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 93. 

  18. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, in The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and the Sophists, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford, UK: Oxford World Classics, 2000), 211. 

  19. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 211. 

  20. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 211. 

  21. Plato, Theaetetus, 151e8-152c6, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 214. 

  22. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation, 1987, trans. Kristin Ross (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 59: “What is essential is to avoid lying, not to say that we have seen something when we’ve kept our eyes closed, not to believe that something has been explained to us when it has only been named.” 

  23. Plato, Cratylus, 385e4-386a4, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 215. 

  24. Didymus the Blind, Commentary on the Psalms, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 214. For Sartre, see Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, 1943, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (London, UK: Routledge, 2003), 1-2: “The appearances which manifest the existent are neither interior nor exterior; they are all equal, they all refer to appearances, and none of them is privileged”; being has no “secret reverse side”; the “appearance refers to the total series of appearances and not to a hidden reality which would drain to itself all the being of the existent.” 

  25. See my “Bodies in Form, 2: Tabletop Roleplaying as Cosmic Poetics,” Bio and Psyche: Reading the Symptomatic Body, May 28, 2021,, in which I discuss this practical knowledge at length. 

  26. Plato, Protagoras, 316b8-319a7, 212. 

  27. Plato, Protagoras, 334a3-c2, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 215-216. Badiou has written that philosophy “does not establish any truth but it sets a locus of truths,” contending that truth in the singular is an emptiness, and that philosophy “goes astray when it proposes the ecstasy of a place of Truth.” However, Badiou ultimately aligns himself with Plato against the sophists, though he sees them as worthy adversaries, claiming that philosophy “is a construction of thinking wherein the fact that there are truths is proclaimed against sophistry.” I would argue that Badiou is much closer to the sophists than he might admit. See Manifesto for Philosophy, 1989, trans. Norman Madarasz (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999), 37, 133, 123. 

  28. Plato, Theaetetus, 166c9-167d2, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 216. 

  29. Plato, Theaetetus, 166c9-167d2, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 216. 

  30. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 91. 

  31. Plato, Theaetetus, 166c9-167d2, in Waterfield, The First Philosophers, 216-217. 

  32. Carnap, Hahn, and Neurath, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” 95. 

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