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Plato’s Cratylus: The Comedy of Language by S.M. Ewegen

Roger Caldwell talks about Plato’s views on language.

Because Plato (c.428-348 BC) stands at the head of the Western philosophical tradition, and because he is such an essential part of our philosophical canon, it is easy to assume that the problems he addresses are the same as ours. However, given that nearly two-and-a-half millennia separate him from us, and that the society in which he wrote was very different from our own, it is advisable to stand back a little – to first try to understand what his work is actually saying before we too quickly move to make it answerable to our concerns. This is especially true of Plato’s ‘aporetic’ [‘impasse’] dialogues, in which various questions are raised and answers suggested which on examination do not work out and we are left in a cloud of perplexity at the end, with nothing settled. The Cratylus is one of the most enigmatic of these dialogues, not least because we sense that for much of the time Socrates – Plato’s mouthpiece in his dialogues – is speaking tongue in cheek, and it is often not clear when he (that is, Plato) is in earnest. The Cratylus has been the subject of several book-length commentaries in recent years. This latest one, by S. Montgomery Ewegen, is concerned more than the others to take us back to the Greek text and the context in which that text was written – to a world less familiar than we had supposed.

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The Arguments of the Cratylus

Cratylus begins abruptly with Socrates being asked to join a discussion that has been taking place between Hermogenes and Cratylus. Hermogenes was a friend of Socrates, recorded in the Phaedo as being present at his death. Cratylus was a follower of Heraclitus who went one better than his master: where Heraclitus had said that you can’t step into the same river twice, Cratylus was reluctant to concede that you can step into the same river once. He is briefly (and rather dismissively) discussed in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, where we are told that Cratylus’s ‘mature position’ was that speech of any kind was inappropriate, and that “expression should be restricted to the movement of the finger.” It is appropriate, then, that he should be silent for the greater part of the dialogue that bears his name, and that, when he does at last come to speak, what he says is hard to take with proper seriousness, both for Socrates and for ourselves.

The dialogue is centrally concerned with the question of giving names, or ‘onomastics’ (from the Greek for ‘name’, onoma). We are presented with what appear to be two opposed theories about names. Hermogenes offers a conventionalist account: he holds that it doesn’t matter what name we give a person or object so long as everyone agrees to use it. By contrast, Cratylus proposes that names must have a naturalistic basis – that is, that they somehow describe or resonate with that to which they refer, so that a name correctly assigned has a certain natural rightness about it. A simple example of what Cratylus means is that of a boy whose name Theophilus (meaning ‘beloved of the gods’) is appropriate if he grows up pious, not so if he is a blasphemer and desecrator of temples. (The consequences of inappropriate naming in our own times are explored by Johnny Cash in the song ‘A Boy Named Sue’.) At one point in the dialogue, Socrates proposes an analogy between naming and picturing: a word may in some manner better or worse ‘resemble’ or ‘imitate’ the object to which it refers in a similar way to that in which a picture may be said to be a better or worse representation of its subject. For instance the sound of the bird we call ‘cuckoo’ in English and ‘Kuckuck’ in German is reflected in its two equally effective onomatopoeic names in the two languages. But this system doesn’t take us very far, for most names, and most words in general, don’t work in this way: what is aardvark-like about the word ‘aardvark’? For us, a theory which demands an intrinsic relation between a word and its object fails at the first hurdle. Following Swiss theorist of language Ferdinand de Saussure, and common sense, we are convinced of the arbitrariness of linguistic signs. Whatever there is that is natural in human language – for Chomsky this would be language’s universal grammar – this does not include the words themselves. This means that there is no right name for an entity: as Hermogenes asserts, anything and anyone can go under different names, pending the agreement of the linguistic community in question – dog is ‘chien’ in French and ‘Hund’ in German, just as in Oscar Wilde’s play the protagonist tells us he is called ‘Ernest’ in town and ‘Jack’ in the country. Hermogenes also says that the function of names is to individuate. So Andy Warhol’s perverse habit of calling all his cats ‘Sam’ fails to individuate, and is not properly a case of naming at all. The name does not have to be unique, but its reference does: if there is only one John in the room, the name ‘John’ serves the purpose of distinguishing him from the other people there; if there is more than one John in the room, then something more is needed to identify the one to whom you wish to refer.

In effect Hermogenes offers an account of language that essentially sees it as a tool. Naming breaks up the realm of being, enabling us confidently to refer to one part of reality rather than another. The position of the name-giver to the object named is akin to that of the master to the slave: the slave must take the name the master gives him, it is not his option to choose for himself. However, for Cratylus, if names are to be given only according to the arbitrary requirements of human beings, they will apply to appearance only and not to reality itself. If names (or, for that matter, words in general) are just tools for particular purposes, then they are unlikely to go beyond the features of the world which are picked out according to those artificial, human-designated purposes: they are then not designed to say what things are in themselves, abstracted from the human gaze. So if language is to be capable of giving an account of reality rather than mere appearance, then this account must be given by the gods. But even within the context of ancient Greek beliefs, there are evident problems with this, as Socrates points out, since Hermes, the god who traditionally gave us language (and whose name is much evoked in the dialogue), was also known as a trickster god who could not be trusted. Thus even if there were to be a divine origin of names, we would need to be assured, firstly, that the gods have spoken them to us, and, secondly, that they have done so truly. For Socrates, we know little enough about the gods, and in any event, they do not speak directly, but only through oracles and signs.

Names & Knowledge

Hermes by Evelyn de Morgan

For us, a divine origin of language is scarcely an option; but it was plausible for the ancient world. It was indeed a common assumption in antiquity that, because of this god-given accord between words and the world, by studying words and their etymologies we would be better able to get a hold on reality itself. Socrates proceeds to offer a proliferation of etymologies, including etymologies of the names of the gods. Some of these are highly inventive, some wildly implausible. There is a sense here that Socrates (or Plato) is playing with us – delighting, in Ewegen’s term, in the comedy of language. Indeed, Socrates eventually confesses that he “would not stoutly maintain” many of the things he has said so far. He also admits the arbitrariness of his procedure: such etymologies can take us anywhere we want, but that doesn’t get us a whit nearer reality. Indeed, there is an apparent circularity in the whole enterprise of using words to explain the nature of words. This is the circularity of a dictionary where words only refer to other words: we could gain nothing by consulting it if we weren’t already confident of what at least some of the words mean. We assume that some words, some names, have stable references, which we know. But how stable can these references be if the world is one of radical flux, as Heracliteans such as Cratylus maintain? (We might imagine here a speeded-up film of a city street, in which everything moves so fast that all becomes an indistinct blur.)

How can words that do not change refer to a reality that changes from one moment to the next? The question is not one that comes readily to us, but it does to Plato, who was much under the influence of Heraclitus. Indeed, it is partly to counter the implications of a continually-changing world that he was led to postulate his unchanging world of Forms or Ideas. (This idea is formulated in different ways in later dialogues, and is only hinted at in the Cratylus, where it is no more than Socrates’ dream.) But even in an ever-changing world, the fact that language is possible at all presupposes a measure of stability such that we are able to refer to more or less the same object as we did yesterday. That we can do this in fact tells against Heraclitus’s theory of radical flux, although not against a world of change as such.

Whenever Cratylus is not saying (or at least intimating) that naming is impossible, he says that a name must be, in his terms, ‘right’, and that to mis-name is not properly to name at all. Following Bertrand Russell, we might say that it fails to name; this would be the case with ‘naming’ the present king of France when there is no present king of France, for example. But Cratylus puts the stakes impossibly high: in mis-naming we are not saying something that is meaningful, let alone true or false. Rather, one is speaking nonsense; one is not saying anything at all. So to call a cat a dog is not to make a false statement; it is not to make a statement at all. The Greeks were often mystified by how we can make false statements: they often saw a true statement as being a picture of, or as corresponding to, a certain aspect of reality, and so how can a statement picture, or correspond to, something that doesn’t exist, at least in that form? The dialogue starts with Hermogenes’ vexation at Cratylus’s refusal to acknowledge that his name is indeed Hermogenes. One of the reasons Cratylus gives for this refusal is that the name ‘Hermogenes’ implies etymologically that he is the son of Hermes (it means ‘born from Hermes’), whereas Hermogenes is in fact the son of Hipponicus. Yet in the latter part of the dialogue, Cratylus does twice address him by the name of Hermogenes, and in so doing, refers to him successfully, thereby unconsciously refuting his own theory. Socrates is concerned to dispose of any notion that statements are either true or not properly statements at all. Rather, if it is possible to tell the truth in language, it must also be possible to tell meaningful lies.

The Cratylus ends on an agnostic note, acknowledging the uncertainty of everyday language as a tool for uncovering eternal truths, but hoping for a better language that will properly serve the purposes of philosophy. Above all we are warned not to put too much trust in words. Socrates compares learning “about things through names” unfavourably with “learning about things through themselves.” For in the end it is the things themselves that matter, not the names that we give them.

Problems in Ewegen’s Interpretation

In the course of the Cratylus many issues are raised that go to the heart of the philosophy of language. But problems of interpretation abound, not only because the assumptions of the Greeks were not the same as ours, but also because Socratic irony means that we cannot always tell whether Socrates is being serious or not. There is also the problem of translation. Ewegen is right to remind us that the Cratylus is the most untranslatable of Plato’s dialogues, not least because Socrates’ etymologies are peculiar to the Greek, and make no sense in any other language. Ewegen returns us again and again to the language of the text, but it is questionable how far he helps us to understand the Greeks themselves better, since he already sees them through the eyes of another interpreter of Greek thinking, Martin Heidegger. If his Delphic oracle speaks Greek, it does so with a German accent.

Ewegen’s direct references to Heidegger are few, but his text is imbued throughout with the language of the German master – not least in that ‘Being’ is never without its capital B. The problem is that Heidegger’s own readings of Greek thought (which by his own account are “violent”) are frequently forced, tendentious, and unpersuasive. They remind one of Socrates’ etymologies in the Cratylus, except that they lack the saving grace of humour. It is only at the conclusion of his book that Ewegen invokes Heidegger’s formula “Die Sprache spricht” (“Language speaks”), but its validity is taken for granted throughout. It means that language is not merely a tool for our use and under our control, but rather that language, as it were, speaks through human beings. Ewegen is gracious enough to assure us that “logos [‘the word’ = ‘language’] cannot unfold without the human being”, but it is questionable whether language is something that can ‘unfold’ to begin with, and more questionable still whether such a conception has any place in the Cratylus. It is not evident that logos has an agenda of its own, or is using us as a medium through which Being can appear as Being. But these are Heideggerian dreams, not Socratic ones.

© Roger Caldwell 2015

Roger Caldwell is a writer living in Essex. His latest collection of poetry, Waiting for World 93, is published by Shoestring Press.

Plato’s Cratylus: The Comedy of Language by S. Montgomery Ewegen, Indiana University Press, 2014, 227 pages $40/£28.99, ISBN 9780253010443

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