Cratylus: Plato’s Dialogue on Language

In the character of Cratylus, we find a Platonic figure most closely mirroring contemporary philosophers, namely the challenges posed by the Analytic philosophers. The Cratylus dialogue is a dramatic piece, rather than a recounted story by either Socrates or another story-teller. The dialogue is about a conversation between Hermogenes and Cratylus. Hermogenes (not Cratylus) invites Socrates to attend. Hermogenes struggles with Cratylus’s claim that there is a naturally correct name for everything that exists. Hermogenes is skeptical of this claim because no one has been able to persuade him that names are determined by anything other than convention and agreement.

In trying to understand his opinion, Socrates discovers that Hermogenes is also skeptical of Protagoras, though Hermogenes has occasionally dabbled in relativistic ways of thinking, and he also rejects Euthydemus. Since Hermogenes accepts that neither account of things is correct, he must admit that there is a fixed nature, or essence, to things and he further admits that there must also be a correlative ‘correct action’ to each essence or nature. For example, in the case of cutting, a man may try to use a hammer or a spoon, but only the tool that is appropriate to its nature will cut another thing. Another case is of burning. Similarly, Socrates wonders why speech would not have the same way of being, namely that there is an appropriate word or name given to each thing by a lawgiver, a creator, or the founder of a kind of nomos (perhaps akin to the task given to Adam in Genesis). Additionally, the lawgiver must be superior to most men because not every man can be a lawgiver.

Now that they have established the existence of rule-setters who establish new words and names for things (i.e. what Nietzsche might have called ‘creators.’). Next comes a new question: how do the lawgivers do it? Where do they look to assign a name for something? Socrates wonders whether the law-giver will look to the nature of a thing -for example will he look to a broken chair or a whole and complete chair? The answer is obviously the latter. If we admit in the affirmative, then it follows that names are not as inconsequential as initially believed by Hermogenes.

Socrates and Hermogenes divide names for things, and they parse the names of the gods, as well. The gods have infinitely more correct names, as evidenced in Homer and the poets, and Socrates argues that we cannot make claims about the gods as it would be impious and uncouth. The philosopher is distinct from the theologian. In the Cratylus, we are given a glimpse of Socrates’s attempt at piety.

The final third of the dialogue is an examination of the etymologies and origins of various words, beginning with the Trojan River and other Homeric names and heroic names, as well as the Hesiodic heroic names, and common words like humans, soul, body, mind, gods, sun, moon, fire, water, seasons, wisdom, knowledge, justice, craft, courage, virtue, vice, good, bad, truth, falsehood, opinion, being, and name. Next they divide the words into the symbols -vowels and consonants and so on, along with the meaning behind the sound of each letter. Naming a thing is a kind of ‘mimesis’ or imitation, similar but distinct from a painting. If true, then creating words falls under Aristotelian notions of poetics.

In the concluding sections of the dialogue, Cratylus and Socrates engage with one another and Socrates poses the idea that there is such a thing as a fixed notion of goodness, justice, and so on. However, Cratylus agrees with Heraclitus’s concept of unceasing motion. Socrates implores Cratylus to think more on it, and and Cratylus declines Socrates’s invitation with the hope that Socrates will think on these matters further in preparation for the next time they meet, as well.

The dialogue touches on some of the major questions and problems that arise for the modern Analytic philosophers in their obsession with linguistics -whether or not there exists a relationship between the sign and the thing in itself, or whether the names we have for things are purely meaningless conventions that have no inherent truth to them. The crucial distinction is whether the philosopher admits he believes in truth at the outset of his inquiry or not.


For this reading I used the C.D.C. Reeve as featured in the Hackett Classics Edition.

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