Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Words, Words, Words

Cratylus/Parmenides/Greater Hippias/Lesser Hippias

by Plato

"there is an ancient saying, that 'hard is the 
knowledge of the good.'  And the knowledge of names is a great part of 
knowledge.  If I had not been poor, I might have heard the fifty-drachma 
course of the great Prodicus, which is a complete education in grammar and 
language--these are his own words--and then I should have been at once able 
to answer your question about the correctness of names.  But, indeed, I 
have only heard the single-drachma course, and therefore, I do not know the 
truth about such matters; I will, however, gladly assist you and Cratylus 
in the investigation of them.  When he declares that your name is not 
really Hermogenes, I suspect that he is only making fun of you;--he means 
to say that you are no true son of Hermes, because you are always looking 
after a fortune and never in luck.  But, as I was saying, there is a good 
deal of difficulty in this sort of knowledge, and therefore we had better 
leave the question open until we have heard both sides." - Plato, Cratylus

This volume of Plato's works served as one of the sources for reading and discussion in a class on both the nature of Words in the Basic Program of Liberal Education of The University of Chicago.
The formal topic of the Cratylus is ‘correctness of names’, a hot topic in the late fifth century BC when the dialogue has its dramatic setting. Sophists like Prodicus offered training courses in this subject, sometimes perhaps meaning by it little more than lessons in correct diction. But that practical issue spawned the theoretical question, what criteria determine the correct choice of name for any given object? And in the Cratylus Socrates' two primary interlocutors, Hermogenes and Cratylus (the latter of whom is reported by Aristotle to have been an early philosophical influence on Plato), represent two diametrically opposed answers to that question. It was particularly interesting to see the defense, by Plato, of an objective view as opposed to the relativism of the Sophists. 
The positions of Hermogenes and Cratylus have come to be known to modern scholarship as ‘conventionalism’ and ‘naturalism’ respectively. An extreme linguistic conventionalist like Hermogenes holds that nothing but local or national convention determines which words are used to designate which objects. The same names could have been attached to quite different objects, and the same objects given quite different names, so long as the users of the language were party to the convention. Cratylus, as an extreme linguistic naturalist, holds that names cannot be arbitrarily chosen in the way that conventionalism describes or advocates, because names belong naturally to their specific objects. If you try to speak of something with any name other than its natural name, you are simply failing to refer to it at all. For example, he has told Hermogenes to the latter's intense annoyance, Hermogenes is not actually his name.
Socrates is the main speaker in this dialogue, and his arguments are generally taken to represent Plato's own current views. He starts out by criticizing conventionalism, and persuades Hermogenes that some kind of naturalism must be endorsed. In the final part of the dialogue Socrates turns to Cratylus and shows him that his expectations as a naturalist are set impossibly high: names cannot aspire to being perfect encapsulations of their objects' essences, and some  element of convention is must be conceded.
 This is one of the dialogues that reminded me of the integral connections between Plato and Aristotle in Greek philosophy.  Combined with readings of Hamlet by Shakespeare, and The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, this class took on an ambiance and an aura that I have never forgotten (especially since it occurred more than a decade ago).  The importance of words and the source of their meaning took on a new perspective as we discussed the use of language by these authors in light of Plato's philosophical dialogue.

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