L. Wambeck Cratylus

Lisa van Wambeck

Earl Jackson, Jr.
Histories of Meaning
12 January 99


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Earl Jackson, Jr.

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Hermogenes is frustrated because Cratylus will not explain to Hermogenes his belief that names are natural: that they are in some way essentially bound to the people, things, ideas, etc. they signify, and are not only „a portion of the human voice men agree to use“to identify things. Hermogenes invites Socrates into the argument and asks for his opinion on the subject of truth in names. Socrates says that the knowledge of names is a great part of knowledge, but a part of knowledge of which he is ignorant because he was too poor for the 50 drachma course in language and grammar taught be the great Prodicus, but he would be happy to investigate the question with Hermogenes and Cratylus. This response suggests that the question they are exploring can not have a concrete resolution that could be taught unproblematically.

Hermogenes first puts forth his view that the correctness of names is only dictated according to the consensus of their users. His argument extends to the idea that each individual could have his own name for things and it would be impossible to say that there was any one name that was more true than another. Socrates demonstrates that because there are true and false propositions and names are a part of those propositions, it must be possible for names to be true of false. Socrates then asks whether Hermogenes believes the world to have a permanent essence, or whether it only is as it appears to each individual person, as Protagoras says.

When Hermogenes admits that he has been driven to take refuge with Progorus,“Socrates argues that it is possible for one man to be wiser than another, which can only be because each possesses a different degree of understanding essentially true relations between things in the world. Having established that things have an essential nature that can be described truly or falsely, Socrates establishes the same for actions, and then classifies naming as an action which must, like other actions, be done according to natural process and with the proper instrument. Socrates establishes that the proper instrument to name is a name, and as an instrument the function of the name is that it „distinguishes things according to their natures 30(388)c. As such, names are the instruments used to teach and distinguish, and are used by the legislator to do so, according to the form dictated by the dialectician. Socrates then concludes that it is possible for things to have true or false names that can only be determined by certain persons skilled in naming.

Socrates reiterates that he has no knowledge in these matters but only is sharing in an inquiry with Hermogenes and Cratylus. Socrates directs their attention to Homer, and the names of people in his poems. Socrates illustrates how they are justly named according to their fates. Socrates then suggests not examining menís names because they may only be the result of tradition or wishful thinking. The derivation of words like „gods“and „demons“are examined and found to have basis in logic, as are the names of specific Gods. Socrates explains these words by tracing their meaning etymologically: dividing the word into parts and then examining how the different parts describe the thing that is named. Socrates examines many words this way, including the names of the virtues. Socrates then notes that motion is often to be found as part of words having positive implications. After more examinations of words and their derivations, Hermogenes asks about the smaller units of meaning that Socrates has been using to explain the meanings of the other words. Socrates suggests that the tongueís motion when producing individual letters imitates a concept, in whose description this letter can often be found.

Socrates and Hermogenes then inquire of Cratylus his own ideas on the subjects that they have been discussing. Though Cratylus believes in the naturalness of names, and that names must, by definition, then be true, he then says that statements made or names given that are not accurate are not untrue but are only nonsense. According to the previous discussion, Socrates suggests, names can have truth in the correspondence of their parts to the nature of things. However, because all names might not be executed perfectly, and because they change according to other concerns over time, the truth of names may be lost but their usefulness is not then detracted from. Cratylus insists that incorrect names should not really be called names. Socrates argues that because a name can not be expected to in every way relate the truth of a thing through its parts, its function as representation, sanctioned by culture and convention, is more important than its literal truth. Socrates suggests that, in fact, it might be possible that all names are based on the erroneous conceptions of those who made the names.

Cratylus argues that those who gave names could be supposed to have had knowledge, as is demonstrated in the consistency of the names he gives. Socrates points out that his entire system could have been wrong to begin with, and cites as his example the subjectivity of motion. Earlier, Socrates spoke of the mistaken impression one might have that the world was constantly in motion, when really it was only the conceptions of the observer that were spinning about, and so gave the impression of motion. Here, Socrates notes that there is inconsistancy in language about whether rest or motion is more positive. Socrates then leaves this question and asks about the ability of legislators to give names before there were any parts of names at all. Cratylus believes him to have been inspired by God, but Socrates observes that this does not allow for the self-contradiction parts of names display. Cratylus says that some names, then can not really be names. Socrates points out the inability to tell which is which, saying „How real existence is to be discovered is, I suspect, beyond you and me 37(104)b.“He expounds on the difficulty of being able to know a world that is constantly in flux, and the inability to determine whether there is a stable truth to be found or not, then suggests further inquiry.




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