Thursday, September 06, 2007

Protagorean hedonism

Here are some thoughts I’ve been having about Plato’s Philebus. I have been wondering whether, as an alternative to Socrates view that pleasures can be false, a coherent position can be outlined to the effect that pleasures are always true – not just in some sense of their being always ‘really’ a pleasure or some such, but that pleasures are always true in a sense of ‘true’ that corresponds closely with the likely sense in which Socrates thinks that pleasures can be ‘false’. He does not mean that some pleasures are not ‘really’ pleasures.

So, imagine that we disagree with Socrates of the Philebus and think that pleasures cannot be false. Imagine also that we disagree in this way not because we think that it is daft to think of pleasures as true or false, that is, we disagree not because we think pleasures are not ‘truth apt’. Rather, we disagree because we think that all pleasures are true. This is a possible view of Protarchus’ position in the Philebus.

On a plausible view of Socrates’ account, a pleasure can be false in this sense. Pleasures have, as it were, a propositional content. They can be expressed in statements of the form: ‘I am pleased that P’. A pleasure is false, on this view, if P is false. So if ‘I am pleased that you love me’ but you do not love me, the pleasure I feel is, alas, false.

Now imagine that we think that all pleasures are true. How is this expressed? Perhaps we borrow the notion that pleasures have a propositional content. So again, pleasure can be expressed in statements of the form: ‘I am pleased that P’. On this view, however, P is always true; it is true, presumably, in some sense because I take pleasure in it.

This is like one view of Protagoras’ position in the Theaetetus is respect of beliefs generally. On this view, Protagoras thinks that all beliefs are true. If I believe P then P is true. I cannot be mistaken. (He may also think that if P is true then I believe it. I am omniscient.)

Is Protagorean hedonism, the view that all pleasures are true, an absurd view? Certainly, it captures the sense in which we might baulk at the idea that it is possible to be somehow mistaken about what we take pleasure in. Socrates seems to want to say that it is possible to be experiencing a pleasure but there to be some kind of falsity about that pleasure. It is not merely that pleasures can be generated by beliefs that are mistaken; rather, there is something mistaken or wrong about the pleasure itself.

Protagorean hedonism rejects that. If I am pleased at P then P is true. Now, it is depressingly easy to find prima facie objections to this. For example, I might indeed take pleasure in thinking how much you love me, but in fact you do not love me at all. Surely there is something wrong about the pleasure here? If we do not want to go along the route of denying that pleasures are ‘truth apt’, we must somehow instead relativise the object of the pleasure. Now, ‘I am pleased that P’ where P is something true but its truth cannot be undermined by unfortunate facts about, for example, whether you do in fact love me or not. Instead, the truth of P must, it seems, somehow be guaranteed instead simply in virtue of my taking pleasure in it. Somehow, the truth of the pleasure I take in thinking how much you love me is entirely independent of whether you do or do not. It is instead guaranteed by my taking pleasure.

So this is where I have got. Now I have two other questions: How coherent is 'Protagorean hedonism'? Could an argument be mounted against it analogous to the arguments mounted in the Theaetetus against Protagoras’ more general position about beliefs?

1 comment:

Choppa said...

Sounds a bit like solipsism - I am pleased therefore my world is pleasurable. So you're shifted back to the question of what constitutes the "I", and if it is constant or shifting, and how.

In my crude way, I'd say there are "full" pleasures and "hollow" pleasures or something of the kind. Here you need to discuss the quality and quantity of the fullness and emptiness involved. But at least the negotiations between two parties trying to assess the fullness of self and other in a relationship (say) bear a resemblance to real life experience, and might be a handy start to further inquiry.