Objective Truth

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“One of the longest running debates in philosophy is whether it is possible to discover any objective truth, or whether all knowledge is relative to the subject. Describe how these two perspectives are evidenced in early Greek philosophy (up to and including Plato and critically assess the arguments you find there for and against the possibility of objective knowledge”.

“Arguments derived from probabilities are idle.”



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It is safe to assume that our ancestors (several million years ago) managed to take time from their survival tasks of food gathering, mating, hunting and killing, to lean on their hoes and gaze up at the sky (Branigan, 186). It was perhaps at that moment that mankind first began to think about its existence on earth.

We do know that from ancient times man has wondered about the essence of knowledge, and the existence of truth, particularly in the works of Heraclitus, Protagarus, Phaedrus, Parmenides, Theatetus, Gorgias, Socrates, Plato and Platos pupil Aristotle. (Cartledge, 15; Churchland, 188).

The Pre-Socratic Philosophers

The Presocratics combined ancient Greek mythology with rational thinking with all the forces, which compose nature. The natural pre-socratic philosophers explored the main cause of the creation of the world, as well as all those forces on which the universe and humanity itself are founded. They are given credit for being the first of many great thinkers to separate thinking and impressions about the world and reality from a religious or mythological background. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, born about 500 B.C., following the best Ionian tradition, believed in experiment and observation. There can be no question, says Farrington, but that he regarded sense-evidence as indispensable for the investigation of nature, but, like Empedocles, he was concerned to show that there were physical processes too

subtle for our senses to perceive directly. (B. Farrington, Greek Science, p. 6.)

In the past it was thought that Heraclitus’ philosophy was a reaction against the views

of Parmenides (c. 540-470 B.C.). The prevailing opinion now is that, on the contrary, the

Eleatic school represented a reaction against Heraclitus. The Eleatics attempted to disprove

the idea that everything flows by asserting the direct opposite that nothing changes, that

movement is an illusion.

The common feature of all the previous schools of thought examined here is their objectivity,

the assumption that the validity of our ideas depends on the degree to which they correspond

to objective reality, to the world outside us.

The sophists broke entirely from this, advancing instead the position of philosophical subjectivity. The word sophist is derived from the Greek word sophos, which means wise. Sophists were the professional educators and lecturers of the 5th century BC.

Instead of studying the philosophy of science, they focused on more practical things like having a way with words, politics, and law, much to the annoyance of the aristocracy.

These studies were said to be necessary to become successful, or sophisticated.

Eventually however, “The wandering wise man going from town to town in search of good pay and a rich patron became a figure of contempt and ridicule”. Socrates style of argument was considered so similar to that of the Sophists that the Greek playwright Aristophanes

derised him as a Sophist in his comedy The Clouds.

The sophist Protagoras (born approximately 500 b.c.) maintained that the human community is the standard of truth. Plato cited him as saying that “man is the measure of all things.” Consequently, any given thing “is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you” Of all things the measure is man of existing things, that they exist; of nonexistent things, that they do not exist. This statement by Protagoras defines relativist ontology. Relativism is the view that the beliefs of a person or group of persons are “true” for them, but not necessarily for others. One person’s “truth,” which really amounts to opinion, can conflict with another’s “truth” and still be valid.

By this understanding the senses are given highest priority, and it assumed that reality is as it appears not only to the masses but also to the individual. Therefore, any difference in perception is allowed without the restrains of contradiction. Also, only those things, which are percieved through the senses are claimed to have existence. On this basis, it seems to me, then, that existence itself is dependent on first being percieved, which is a contradiction in itself.

I seems to me that this belief is in direct conflict with earlier Parmenidian thought, which claimed that the senses played no part in understanding the true nature. Further, existence was the absolute, with non-exsistence being impossible.

It has been said that it is “from the extremes created by these two lines of thought that Socrates and Plato interjected the Forms to handle objections posed by either side against the other. This is well summed up in the celebrated phrase of Protagoras (481-411 B.C.), Man is the measure of all things; of those which are, that they are; of those which are not, that they are not.

Although diverging on many points of argument and evidence, these philosophers all shared three common lines of inquiry A) What is knowledge? B) Can knowledge be gained? And, C) Does knowledge lead to truth? Of these, we know the least about Heraclitus, and all that really survives of his work is a series of epigrammatic sentences, each of which suggests his belief that nature, and man, and therefore mans understanding of nature, is in a constant state of flux. This concept of everything being in flux and relative denies the concept of unity(Atkinson-Grosjean, 18).

Socrates & Plato

To Plato, the ideal man was one whose life was ruled equally by reason and passion, the philosopher/king. Plato is best known for his series of Platonic dialogues, we know � at least through secondary evidence as Platos retelling of their arguments in his Dialogues � more about Protagarus, Phaedrus, Parmenides, Theatetus, and Gorgias, since each of these was the subject of a Platonic dialogue. In these dialogues Plato would set a scene where one of these philosophers and his students and followers would come into contact with Socrates, who would then post questions to these people until the philosophy that they believed in was called into doubt. Socrates, as described by Plato, would answer questions with questions, forcing the questioner to think through the problem and come up with possible solutions. Through gentle probing, these Socratic dialogues would lead the student to self-enlightenment. In effect, this was the first behaviorist school of learning.

Socrates liked to point out to these sophists that knowing why the world and nature happens is a desire shared by all mankind (Lear, 188). When that becomes impossible, we turn to myth, or story telling. “Since philosophy is a search for understanding by using the mind instead of observation, Plato’s story of the Cave is a key element of that concept” (Blackburn, 14). For in that story, Socrates sets up a situation for his pupil Glaucon to understand. Imagine people tied up inside a cave, and the only thing they can see is the shadows of people passing by outside. To those people, the shadow would be the reality of their world. They would then be shocked if they were allowed to turn around and look at the real world (that they have only seen in shadows.) They would either reject it and turn back to look at the cave wall or they would embrace it and begin dealing with the change (in other words, gain education) (Blackburn, 14).

Plato’s Theory of Knowledge

Plato’s theory of knowledge, which Aristotle says is different from that of Socrates, was

based on the idea that the object of knowledge must be permanent, eternal, and since nothing

under the sun is permanent, we must seek stable knowledge outside this temporary and unreal

world of material things. When Diogenes ridiculed the theory of Ideas, by saying he could see

the cup, but not cupness, Plato retorted that that was because he had eyes to see, but no

intellect. And in my opinion it is true that to just rely on ones sense-perception is not enough.

It is necessary to go from the specific to the universal. The fundamental flaw here is to think t

hat the notions of the intellect can stand on their own, detached from, and counterposed to, the material world from which, they are derived from ulitmately. The perceptible world interacts and participates in the invisible reality of the Forms, which is

itself permanent and unchangable. (Phaedo, 78d-7a)

It is because of the degree which the material world shares in the Forms that allows for

relative perceptions. There is both a material and a trancendent reality. The material world is

percieved through the senses, but is understood through the Forms. In this manner, Socrates

and Plato have answered the criticisms of both the absolutists and the relativist with regards to

reality, and also, they have allowed for an objective truth.


As opposed to the earlier Greek philosophers, who were generally materialists, and set out

from a study of nature, Plato consciously turned his back on the world of the senses.

“Not experiment and observation, but only pure deduction and mathematics was the road to

truth”. It is also clear, however, that these three groups responded to the polis, man, and

nature in very different ways. Sophist, in the manner of Protagoras, held an anthropocentric

view of the universe and declared that man is the measure of all things.(Robinson, 45) On

the other hand, politicians such as Callicles, held that law was the measure, and that this law

is inherent in the very nature of things. Socrates and Plato contend that by man participating

in the Forms, which are absolute, his own understanding of the nature of the universe is


In such a way, the philosophers attempted to solve the ontological, epistemic, and moral dilemmas of nature, which had been thrust to the forefront of Greek thought.

If truth were absolute why were the senses constantly lying about the nature of reality? Yet, if

truth were relative, would it be truth? Also, what would be the point in knowing truth if it

were changeable?

Plato draws a distinction between knowledge and opinion.(Republic, 476d) Opinion, he

claims is the intermediate between knowledge and ignorance.(478d) Ignorance is set over

what is not; knowledge over what is.(477a) More importantly, knowledge is truth for Plato.

Further, truth is attained by recognizing or understanding the Forms and seeing the things

which participate in them. Opinion, which is the way of most, only sees that which

participates in the forms. Truth, however, is attained by a few (the philosophers) by means of

reason, and calls for the merging of extremes in the same way his ontology did.

Platos philosophy of justice was not only important to the defense of Socrates, but likewise to

the successful interaction between the material and transcendent realities.

By his arguments, Plato not only explained relativism but also dismissed it as a reliable

measure of all things. Mankind now had to answer to a higher reality. Measurements could

only pass as a comparison to the absolute. Thus nature, which briefly ruled supreme, gave way to the Forms.


Atkinson-Grosjean, J., (18). Illusions of excellence and the selling of the university

Barnes, J., Schofield, M. & Sorabji, R. eds. (175-17) Articles on Aristotle. 4 vols. London Duckworth

Blackburn, S., (14). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. New York Oxford University Press.

Cartledge, P., (15, Feb. 1). Athenian identity and civic ideology. History Today, 45 58-60.

Churchland, P. M., (188). Matter and consciousness A contemporary introduction to the philosophy of mind (rev. ed.). Cambridge M.I.T. Press.

Grene, M. (174) The understanding of nature. Boston D. Reidel.

Korzybski, A. (1, 1. Science and sanity An introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics, Fifth Edition, With a New Preface by Robert P. Pula. Englewood, NJ Institute of General Semantics, 1, p. lxvi.

Lear, J. (188) Aristotle The Desire to Understand. Cambridge Cambridge University Press

Wedin, M. V. (188). Mind and Imagination in Aristotle. New Haven, CT Yale University



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