Monday, February 06, 2006

Homo Mensura

I have long been partial to the homo mensura of Protagoras (DK 80b1), commonly rendered as "Man is the Measure of all things," or, more fully, "Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not." (To translate "anthropos" I generally prefer "human being.") Socrates' critique of the homo mensura in Theaetetus (Jowett translation) doesn't make complete sense to me. I couldn't say whether it's a fair reading of Protagoras' Aletheia, or intends to be. I do think Socrates effectively takes apart the proposition that the only thing that counts as knowledge is what one person sensibly percieves.

So why not say water bugs are the measure of all things? "We are prisoners of the perceptions of our size," according to Stephen Jay Gould, "and rarely recognize how different the world must appear to small animals. Since our relative surface area is so small at our large size, we are ruled by gravitational forces acting upon our weight. But gravity is negligible to very small animals with high surface to volume ratios; they live in a world dominated by surface forces and judge the pleasures and dangers of their surroundings in ways foreign to our experience." But I digress.

I've had Gould's Mismeasure of Man on the brain since reading Jonathan Kozol's Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid (ht Caleb). A common thread is the question of whether we can or should measure human intelligence, how, and to what purpose.

Of all the criticisms that have been directed at Gould's Mismeasure of Man, I am struck by the frequent objection that Gould's treatment of craniometry is rhetorically underhanded because (a) craniometry is patently foolish, and (b) it belongs to a distant past. This is a strange objection because the view that the past may inform the present is not particular to historians, paleontologists and the like. Introductory curricula in the natural and social sciences generally include such historical material, which may be a tacit acknowledgement at least of the principle that we can learn from past mistakes. I'd like to believe that students take away from such lessons something besides a belief that people used to be ignorant, whereas now they are wise. For surely there was a time when craniometry was not patently foolish, or its foolishness was not widely evident to practicing scientists. Maybe the historical viewpoint put forward by Gould carries implications about the nature of empirical science that his critics find displeasing, and it is these implications rather than the reminder of an embarrassing history that troubles them. Do we learn from our mistakes? In what way? How do we measure our progress?

Socrates, nearing the completion of his midwifery in Theaetetus, seems to suggest that there is yet some truth in the homo mensura, provided we don't make the mistake of reducing knowledge to pure sensory aisthesis.

The simple sensations which reach the soul through the body are given at birth to men and animals by nature, but their reflections on the being and use of them are slowly and hardly gained, if they are ever gained, by education and long experience.

Is Socrates saying that the noetic is constituted in praxis? Not nous itself, I wouldn't think, but perhaps its faculty of discernment? Even so, there is the additional emphasis on education, which may make all the difference. The homo mensura as encountered in the dialogue presents a problem for pedagogy. If the teacher's knowledge is no more privileged than the student's, then what exactly does the teacher teach? The Pythagoran pedagogy may be thought of as therapeutic (see Timothy Chappell's entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Plato on Knowledge in the Theaetetus). Does any sense of education as therapeutic survive the peritrope? If we were to begin to rehabilitate the homo mensura by an equation of knowledge with the experiential (or pragmatic), broadly concieved, are we still not left with the proposition that wisdom is the better measure of things than ignorance? What would our belief then entail?

In the United States, a pupil can advance through the ranks to recieve a terminal degree without ever having been asked to read Theaetetus or any of Plato's other works. Many people who score 800 on the analytic section of the GRE have no knowledge of philosophy, and little interest in learning philosophy. (Apparently the test has changed a great deal over the years, but the point still stands, I think.) If philosophy isn't considered particularly beneficial to students seeking to advance through the ranks, what sort of knowledge is?

I would think that an understanding of compound interest would be the most uncontroversially beneficial thing an American pupil could learn, but the evidence suggests otherwise. How exactly can we explain the professoriate's satisfaction with the rates of return of their TIAA-CREF funds? How can we begin to fathom the average amount of consumer debt carried by the American citizen? Or the burgeoning popularity of interest-only mortgages? If our educational system does manage to inculcate or nurture the growth of wisdom in a few of its young charges, it may best be understood as epiphenomenal, a byproduct of the mass production of shark fodder.

Looking at the glass half full, I am still at a loss as to how one would measure the teaching or learning of the Theaetetus. Undoubtedly those who teach Theaetetus do measure the progress of their students, often by means of explicit criteria. But it's difficult to imagine that we could or should want to completely eliminate the role played by subjective evaluation in the process of measuring a student's progress. Should we measure the progess of the students of Mitzi Lee, for example, by the same standard we use to measure the progess of the students of Jonathan Beere or the students of Robert Cavalier? Could such an objective standard, if one could be agreed upon, possibly not do damage to the integrity of the learning process?

Reading is so profoundly unlike mathematics, and so obviously so, that I am continually amazed by attempts to measure progress in both subject areas by the same devices. Multiplication is something that is learned once (and taught again and again, but I digress). No matter how many times I return to it, two times two still equals four. Reading Theaetetus is nothing like that. Every time I come back to it, I wonder whether Heraclitus wasn't on to something, and yet I still can't think of consigning Parmenides' ontology to the trash heap of bad ideas. I skim here, dwell there, tarry, dawdle, reason, paraphrase, remember, analyze, play.

Perhaps it might be deemed a blessing that Theaetetus isn't taught in schools that deny children recess. That would be a bitter pill to swallow, even with a glass half full. Too bitter for me.

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:50 AM.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to look up 'homo mensura', and so your article was a pleasant surprise.

June 13, 2012 11:58 PM  

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