miércoles, 20 de mayo de 2015

Plato - Cratylus (English edition).

This is one of the first linguistic books of the humanity. Study and analysis of language was a controversial issue in the Ancient Greece. We already saw in ''sophist'' the unsolvable reasoning (or aporia) related to the word ''nothing'' because we cannot refer to ''nothing'' in linguistic terms. Besides, it would be a long debate to discuss the true names of the things and to determine if names that are already established represent correctly, the meaning of such things. This is a book for learning about functions of language, etymology and finally, the philosophical aspect behind each topic.




Name of things

Cratylus is convinced that names of each thing represent exactly what they are. He also added the name of things were not invented through an agreement among men. In fact, barbarians refer with the same names to things that Greeks refer. So, how can names not represent what things really are?

Not only that. Cratylus asserts that his name represents what he really is. ''Socrates'' also represents what Socrates is; however, Hermogenes does not represent what his name is. Hermogenes, who wanted to know the answer, asks Cratylus why his name does not represent him, but he didn't give him an answer and then he left. 

Anxious about what happened, Hermogenes asks Sócrates what he knows about the origin of names and how they fit with their names. Accepting this, Socrates decides to research and to develop the topic. 

Are names conventional or natural?

Hermogenes strongly believes that names are conventional, that means, a kind of agreement among men about how things should be called. Nevertheless, Hermogenes wants to listen to Socrates about what he thinks in relation to this issue.

Socrates begins stating what is to speak the truth and to speak falsely. Therefore, who calls things as they actually are he/she speaks the truth, but someone who labels things as they are not he/she speaks false. Thus, we have two types of speech: one is true and the other one is false.

The discussion starts with the following question: Is the true speech entirely true? Or just in parts? When we say ''parts'' we refer to sentences, phrases and names of a speech. Hermogenes says that if the speech is true, its parts also will be true. 

Considering this, Hermogenes should accept that every name represents exactly what things really are because he admits there is a true speech. In addition, he said that things receive names because of perception of each human, that means, a person can name a thing and another person can name a thing with another name.

Socrates asks Hermogenes if he believes in Protagoras phrase ''Man is the measure of all things'' and if he also believes that men give essence to things. However, Hermogenes says he does not believe in Protagoras.

If Hermogenes accepts that there are bad men, he accepts that things have something that is not conventional.  There is a kind of essence within things where there is not an intervention by man.

Actions and instruments

Talking as an action

So, the essence of things are given by nature and not for men's action. In fact, men's actions, which he intervenes in nature, must be according to nature. 

''Then the actions also are done according to their proper nature, and not according to our opinion of them''.
For example, if I want to cut (action) a thing (nature) it must be with an instrument according to the nature of the thing. If I want to cut wood, I have to do it with an appropriate tool, not with something that is not suitable.

On the other hand, talking is an action because if I want to talk about a thing, I have to do it properly and according to its nature. I cannot talk about a thing without consider the nature of a thing.

And if taking is an action, naming will be an action a fortiori.


As it was stated that names come from proper nature and not for our will, such name can be known through an instrument.

For example, what has to be cut must be cut with something.

  • What is the thing that cuts a paper? a Scissor.
  • What is the thing that burns a paper? a lighter.
  • What is the thing that names a thing? a name.

Hence, a name is an instrument What kind of instrument? an instrument that gives us information about another thing. Subsequently, a name is an instrument that helps us to distinguish the different nature of things.

The person in charge of naming is the teacher, according to Sócrates. However, Who gives us ours names?  teacher names, but finally, laws give us our names. In other words, is the legislator who gives us names. Can any man be a legislator? No. Who will be? A man who is wise and skillful about legislation.

Creation of names

In order to create wood structures, craftsmen have to look the original form of the structure, besides, craftsmen also discover the material of the structure. For example, if a sculptor wants to create a bronze statue, he should know how to manipulate bronze in order to create a statue.

Thus, a legislator must know how to put names to things. He must know syllables and sounds that names are composed of. Then, distribute names to everything and each legislator will use different syllables. They will not use always the same because as blacksmith uses different materials in order to forge metals, a legislator will use different syllables and sounds to create names. 

So, who can say that names are good or bad? Socrates tell Hermogenes that this person is the dialectician. 

Homer and names

Hermogenes is convinced of he cannot found an answer based on Protagoras's philosophy, therefore, Socrates ask them to look back to Homer. It is true that in Odyssey and Iliad Homer calls to everyone with their respective names not only to gods, but also to humans throughout the story. This proves that only wise and skillful people can give names to things.

Etymology and names

When Socrates explains about names that Homer gave to the characters, at the same time, he explains about the etymology of each one of them and how well they represent them. Here we have some examples:

Names of heroes:

  • Agamemnon: A hero from the Greek mythology who appears in Odyssey and in some Greek tragedies. His name in Greek language means ''Stubborn''.
  • Orestes: Agamemnon and Clytemnestra's son. his name in Greek means ''the man of the mountain''.  Socrates says that the person who gave him his name wanted to capture his bravery and fierceness. 
  • Astyanax: Hector and Andromache's son. His name means ''the king of the city''.
Names of gods:

  • Zeus: God of the men. His name means ''cause of life always to all tings''.
  • Poseidon: God of the sea. His name means ''Earth-shaker''.
  • Hades: God of the underworld: His name means ''the unseen''.

Names of nature:

  • Sun: It comes from the Greek word Halios (Ἥλιος). It is the construction of words as ''gather'' (halizei) and ''turn'' (heílein). 
  • Moon: It comes from the Greek word Selene (Σελήνη). It is a variation of ''selas'' that means ''light''.
  • Stars: It comes from ''Astron'' (άστρον) and it comes from the word lightning (ἀναστροφή).

Intellectual names:

  • Daemon: Here it is taking into account what Heraclitus said about ''demons'' which he denominated as a golden race. Daemon means  ''wise or expert''.
  • Hero: It comes from the Greek word Eros (ἥρως) and it means, according to Socrates, ''who were born in love''. On the other hand, heroes born from the union of a god and a mortal.
  • Man: It comes from the Greek word Anthropos (ἀνήρ) and it means, according to Socrates, ''who examine what he has seen''.

Names of what man is composed of 

  • Soul: It comes from the Greek word Psyche (Ψυχή). It is the construction of words as ''carries'' (ochei), ''supports'' (heílein) and ''nature'' (physis). It means that soul carries and supports nature.
  • Body: It comes from the Greek word Soma (σώμα) and it means ''prison of soul''.

There are more etymologies but these are some of them. When Socrates talked about these words, he realized that when we talk about them, it seems those things are described without movement, but on the contrary, they are always moving. Another kind of movement Socrates refers, it is related to the changes that language has suffered through the time. Of course, it is anticipating what we called modern Greek. 

Nevertheless, there are words which has a primary origin (words without changes). On the other hand we have words which has a secondary origin. Perhaps, imitation of words can explain what things are and they would do it through sounds and syllables. However, Socrates tells us imitation cannot revels what things are. Without a solid argument, Sócrates says that name of things represent what things are because god has done that work.

Now is Cratylus's turn to defend the position of nature of the names.

Cratylus's turn

Cratylus and Socrates come back to the same topic about who put names. Both agree that is legislator who do it, but Cratylus said that legislator do not commit mistake when he/she give names to people. That means, every thing that legislator does with names are completely correct.

But, What about Hermogenes? Is he descendant from Herme's caste? Cratylus says that that is not his real name. It is just an appearance. Therefore, it would be a mistake to call Hermogenes by his name because ''Hermogenes'' is not his name.  

In order to give a counter argument, Socrates begins to talk about what is false and true.

Socrates tells us names are like pictures, they are imitations of the real things, for example, if I call someone by his name, when he/she talks I would immediately know if it is man or woman. Otherwise, as names are imitations they can be created as good as bad. Cratylus accepts this and he falls in a  contradiction because he told Socrates that legislator can not fail putting names. 

The function of the names

Once disprove things about legislator Socrates asks Cratylus to mention the function of the names and he said this:

''I think teaching, Socrates. And this is very simple: the one who knows the names also knows things. ''

Indeed, who knows the names also knows things because names are similar to things. But, What would happen if the man who gives us names were not good judgement and he still putting names to the citizens? Cratylus insists that a legislator perfectly know what he is doing, and Socrates asks a very good question to Cratylus: How is it possible that a legislator could know the primary names when they even did not exist? Which object or reference he could have it in that moment? we had stated that the only way to know things is to know names, but How could have the legislator do it?

Cratylus gives up and tells us that there is a superior force which created primary names and it is impossible to know. This permits that is possible to know things without to know their names.


A very hard topic for Socrates. Although he could argue to Hermogenes and Cratylus, there is something strange about names origin. It seems to be more convenient to say that all names have been agreed because it is very difficult to determine if they are accord to things nature. Names and imitations can not reveal to us the truth. Remember how contrary was Socrates about arts in ''The Republic'' because arts can not represent reality how it is. And maybe, names can not do it either...

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