Plato’s Philosophy of Language: The Cratylus

Outline of Plato’s Cratylus

…the knowledge of names is a great part of knowledge.

The principal concern of the Cratylus is the ‘correctness of
names’: if a given name (or word or phrase) is the correct
one for denoting a given thing, what is it that makes it so?
Socrates discusses the correctness of names with Cratylus, a
former pupil of Heraclitus, and Hermogenes, the impecunious
brother of Callias, at whose house the Protagoras takes place.
Cratylus has been telling Hermogenes that a thing’s
name is not whatever people agree to call it, but that there
is a ‘natural correctness’ of names such that a thing’s name
belongs to it by nature and is the same for everyone, Greek or
foreigner. Cratylus says that his name is ‘Cratylus,’ and that
Socrates’ name is ‘Socrates,’ but that Hermogenes’ name is
not ‘Hermogenes,’ even though everyone agrees to call him so.
Hermogenes is baffled by this, and asks Socrates to ‘interpret’
what Cratylus is saying. Socrates suggests that Cratylus is
simply making fun of Hermogenes, who is unable to make
any money despite being named after the god of profit.

Hermogenes argues that the correctness of names is simply
determined by convention and agreement. For example, he
says, when a new name is given to a domestic slave, the new
name is just as correct as any of the old ones. It follows that
a person or object can have more than one name, and also
different names to different people: ‘…whatever each person
says is the name of something, for him, that is the name’.

Socrates asks Hermogenes whether he agrees with
Protagoras when he says that ‘man is the measure of all
things’. In other words, are things merely as they appear
to a given person, or do they have some fixed being of their
own? Hermogenes confesses that he has at times been so
perplexed as to ‘take refuge’ in Protagoras’ doctrine. Socrates
is astonished: at such times, did Hermogenes actually believe
that there was no such thing as a bad man? Hermogenes
replies that, on the contrary, he has often thought that there
were very bad men, and plenty of them. Socrates asks whether
Hermogenes believed that there was no such thing as a good
man, to which he replies ‘some, but not many’. They agree
that what distinguishes bad men from good men is that good
men are wise whereas bad men are foolish. But how, asks
Socrates, can one man be wise and another foolish if ‘man is
the measure of all things,’ and whatever each man believes to
be true is true for him? Furthermore, if one man can be wise
and another can be foolish, then Euthydemus’ doctrine that
‘all things equally and always belong to all men’ must also
be false. Therefore, people and things must have some fixed
being of their own. If people and things have some fixed being
of their own, it follows that this is also true of the actions
performed in relation to them. So if, for example, we want to
cut something, we can only be successful in cutting it if we cut
it in accordance with the nature of cutting and being cut and
with the natural tool for cutting. Speaking is also an action
performed in relation to people and things, and so is saying
names. Thus, if we are to speak correctly or achieve anything,
we cannot simply name things as we choose.

If we want to cut something, we must cut it with the natural
tool for cutting, and if we want to name something, we must
name it with the natural tool for naming, which is a name. If a
name is a sort of tool, who, asks Socrates, makes this tool? In
other words, who or what provides us with the names that we
use? Socrates replies that the names that we use are provided
by a legislator – a very rare kind of craftsman indeed. Just as
a carpenter embodies in wood the type of shuttle naturally
suited to each type of weaving, so the legislator embodies in
sounds and syllables the name naturally suited to each type of
thing. And just as different blacksmiths who are making the
same tool do not necessarily need to make it out of the same
iron, so different legislators who are naming the same thing
do not necessarily need to use the same syllables, so long as
the name that they give to the thing is naturally suited to it.
This explains why the same thing can have different names
in different languages. Thus, Cratylus is correct in saying that
there is a ‘natural correctness of names’.

But what is the best way to name things? Socrates suggests
that the best way to find out is to ask a sophist, but since
neither of them can afford to pay a sophist’s fee, they should
look instead to Homer and to the other poets. For example,
Homer says that the river god who fought with Hephaestus is
called Xanthos by the gods and Skamandros by men. Socrates
argues that the river god is more correctly called Xanthos
than Skamandros, since the gods are bound to call things
by their naturally correct names. Homer also ascribes two
names to Hector’s son, Skamandrios and Astyanax. Socrates
argues that Hector’s son is more correctly named Astyanax
than Skamandrios, since the Trojan men call him Astyanax
whereas the Trojan women call him Skamandrios, and Homer
thought that the Trojan men were wiser than their women.
Socrates quotes Homer in saying, of Hector, that ‘He alone
defended their city and long walls’. Thus, it seems correct
to call the son of the city’s defender Astyanax or ‘lord of the
city’. Furthermore, Hector itself means ‘holder,’ which is very
similar to ‘lord of the city’. If it seems right to call a lion’s
whelp a lion, or a horse’s foal a horse, then it also seems right
to call the son of a king a king. Thus, those born according to
nature should be given the same name as their fathers, even
though the names of father and son may, as in the case of
Hector and Astyanax, vary in their syllables.

Socrates now races through a long list of words to show
how they have been correctly named, speaking like an oracle
because inspired by Euthyphro. For example, truth or ale¯ theia
is a compression of the phrase ‘a wandering that is divine’
(ale¯ theia). The god of the underworld is called Hades because
he knows (eidenai) everything fine and beautiful, and Pluto
because he is the source of wealth (ploutos). Most people
prefer to call him Pluto rather than Hades because they are
afraid of what they cannot see (aeides), and assume that
Hades refers to that. Socrates says that many people are
terrified of Hades because, after we die, our souls remain
with him forever. However, the reason our souls do not escape
from him is because they are bound to him by the strongest of
desires, namely, the desire to associate with someone who can
make us a better person. Socrates adds that Hades must be a
philosopher, since he has realised that a person only becomes
interested in virtue once he is detached from his body.

Some names, says Socrates, cannot be explained in this
way, either because they have a foreign origin, or because
they are so old and ‘basic’ that they cannot be recovered.
Such ‘primary’ names are based on syllables and letters, and
are used to make other ‘derivative’ names. Socrates argues
that one must know about the correctness of primary names
if one is to know about the correctness of derivative names.
So, for example, the letter ‘r’ seemed to the legislator to be
an appropriate tool for copying motion, for which reason he
used it in words such as rheo ¯ (flow), trechein (running), tromos
(trembling), thruptein (breaking), and rhumbein (whirling). As
the tongue glides most of all in pronouncing the letter ‘l,’ the
legislator used this letter in olisthanein (glide), leion (smooth),
liparon (sleek), and kollo¯ des (viscous). However, as the gliding
of the tongue is stopped most completely in pronouncing the
letter ‘g,’ he preferred to use this letter to imitate something
cloying, as in gloiodes (clammy), glischron (gluey), and gluku
(sweet). And so on.

Hermogenes turns to Cratylus and asks him whether he
agrees with what Socrates has just been saying about names.
Cratylus replies by quoting Achilles’ words to Ajax,

Ajax, son of Telamon, seed of Zeus, lord of the
All you have said to me seems spoken after my
own mind.

Socrates says that he has long been surprised at his own
wisdom, and also doubtful of it. He insists on the importance
of re-investigating whatever he says, since ‘self-deception is
the worst thing of all’.

Cratylus agrees with Socrates’ statement that ‘the correctness
of a name consists in displaying the nature of the thing it
names’. However, he thinks that all names have been correctly
given, whereas Socrates argues that, just like paintings, some
names are finely made and others are badly made. Just as
there are good craftsmen and bad craftsmen, so there are good
legislators and bad legislators. In particular, Socrates insists
that a name cannot resemble the thing that it names in every
respect, since it would then be a duplicate of that thing, and
no one would be able to tell the difference between them. As a
name cannot perfectly resemble the thing that it names, there
is scope for a name to be well given or less well given.

Socrates says that there are times when we understand
a name that does not resemble the thing that it names, in
which case our understanding of the name is a matter of
usage and convention. Usage, it seems, enables both like and
unlike names to denote things. Thus, whilst it may be possible
to know things through their names, it is far better to know
them in themselves. Socrates concludes that the matter calls
for further investigation.

This may be true, Cratylus, but is also very likely
to be untrue; and therefore I would not have you
be too easily persuaded of it. Reflect well and like a
man, and do not easily accept such a doctrine; for
you are young and of an age to learn. And when
you have found the truth, come and tell me.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow


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