Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Transcripts - Presocratic Paper
Xenophanes on Knowledge Prompt 1
Anthropomorphized conceptions about the gods were common in greek literature prior to the 6th
century B.C. Xenophanes, encouraged by the internal inconsistencies inherent in these
conceptions, stepped away from them in favor of the view that god was singular, omnipotent, all-knowing
and without definite form, declaring " . . . whole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and
whole [he] hears." (APR, Fragment 14). Xenophanes' god no longer resembled human beings in
any way, having a perspective well beyond the realm of human experience. As a result, it
became apparent that godly knowledge, the knowledge of infinite perspective, was necessarily
different from the version of knowledge held by human beings. This called for a re-evaluation of
the limits and scope of human knowledge which was based upon the limited nature of the human
experience. More specifically, Xenophanes places human knowledge in the realm opinion by
highlighting its subjectivity.
To begin his argument, Xenophanes declares that inquiry (historiē) is the only valid
method for obtaining knowledge. In doing this, he limits the scope of human knowledge to
something which can only be acquired by human investigation, rooting it firmly in the realm of
human experience. After establishing this, he relativizes human knowledge by drawing attention
to the fact that it is situational, noting that truth is based upon one's experience in a particular
situation. Lastly, he challenges the accuracy of knowledge by introducing the limitation of bias,
suggesting that seeing things as they really are is impossible given that a person's experience
endows them with certain values.
Fundamental to Xenophanes' argument is his claim that, "By no means did the gods
intimate all things to mortals from the beginning, but in time, inquiring, they discover better."
(APR, Fragment 12) In this fragment, Xenophanes has challenged the existence of prophetic
knowledge by stating that human knowledge can only be acquired by way of investigation. This
means that, in order for one to obtain knowledge, it is necessary to first pose a question, then to
systematically study this question using perceptual evidence. Therefore, obtaining knowledge
requires that both the question and the answer be conceived within the bounds of human
experience. As a result, mankind's quest for knowledge is ultimately limited by its experience,
rendering human beings unable to attain true knowledge of those things which it cannot directly
perceive, the gods, for example.
Xenophanes then goes on to specify the various ways in which human knowledge is
limited by experience, one of which being its situational relativity. In order to highlight this
limitation, Xenophanes provides a thought experiment, suggesting that "If god had not fashioned
yellow honey, they would say that figs are far sweeter." (APR, Fragment 27) In this fragment,
there are two distinct situations, one in which honey exists and one in which it does not. In the
situation where honey does not exist, we might rightfully conclude that figs are the sweetest. On
the other hand, in the situation where both honey and figs exist, it would probably be more
accurate to call honey the sweetest. In this case, Xenophanes has drawn attention to the fact that
different situations may yield different truths.
This highlights the idea that one's experience of one situation may yield a different truth
than another's experience of another situation. Both of these truths are equally valuable in their
own right, but neither of them is absolute. Again, Xenophanes has relativized knowledge by
suggesting that differing experiences may yield different truths.
Xenophanes also draws attention to the fact that one's experience endows them with
certain innate biases, and that these biases warp human knowledge into forms coherent with
them. He writes "If horses had hands, or oxen or lions, or if they could draw with their hands and
produce works as men do, then horses would draw figures of gods like horses, and oxen like
oxen, and each would render the bodies to be of the same frame that each of them have. " (APR,
Fragment 9) Here, the horse's conception of the gods is shaped by its experience. More
specifically, the horse is more likely to construct a horse god than a lion god because this aligns
more closely with what it values. On the other hand, a lion would likely reject the idea of a horse
god because it values lions more than horses.
It is possible that neither of these constructions arrives at an accurate picture of the gods,
but to each animal, within its limited perspective, these constructions are perceived as truth.
Experience has endowed both lion and horse with innate biases which influence its knowledge of
the gods. Whether or not the gods look like lions or horses is impossible to know. Therefore,
Xenophanes claims that the lion's knowledge, that the gods look like lions, is really nothing more
than the lion's opinion.
The claim put forth by Xenophanes, that human knowledge is nothing more than opinion,
can be summarized as an argument consisting of three parts. In the first, Xenophanes ties human
knowledge to experience, doing away with the notion of divine revelation and substituting
rational inquiry (historiē) as the only true method of obtaining knowledge. Next, he illustrates
that knowledge is dependent upon the situation experienced by the inquirer, and that different
truths may exist depending on the circumstances. Finally, he shows that one's experiences induce
a series of innate biases which influence one's perception of truth.
Xenophanes' claims about the relativity of knowledge are important because they
introduce the idea that knowledge is relative, dynamic and open to revision. After Xenophanes, it
was no longer possible to make an entirely unfounded claim with total certainty because even the
surest of claims were, at their heart, now uncertain. In defining knowledge in this way,
Xenophanes opened the door for deductive argumentation which was later carried to completion