Plato’s Cratylus

For as his name, so also is his nature” [Plato 395]

Cratylism throughout this narrative is an extreme naturalism: sign and signifier are so alike as to erase the gap between them. Hermogenes’ position is more relativist: the consequence is language cannot be language and so the LOGOS cannot disclose the thing.

Socrates and Hermogenes discuss whether names are identical to the thing named. The original “Cratylian” view is names are “fit” to the named. This leads Socrates into an extended genealogy showing how Greek names arise from the essences of the named.

Throughout Socrates points to a number of problems: if we keep abstracting words and names for their meaning, the process will go on forever.

P1: Primary names precede analysis and arise from the essences.

Socrates then espouses something like a mimetic theory: names imitate things [422]. But Socrates does not hold to a strict correspondence theory. If all things are in motion and flux (as the Greek world said they were) how can we have a stable conception of a thing?

Further, how will a man name something without knowing what it is, and how could he know it without the name [438]? This is the problem of knowledge. Plato’s hinted answer is that the knower is always seeking beyond himself. To quote Pickstock, “It is a pre-understanding of the unknown” (Late Arrival of Language, 240).

Plato seems to end this dialogue with an aporia: both relativism and Cratylism are wrong.


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