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Plato's Theory of Language

Author(s): Morris Henry Partee

Source: Foundations of Language, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Jan., 1972), pp. 113-132
Published by: Springer
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The Cratylus, the earliest study of the origins of language, reveals a crucial
issue in Plato's philosophy.' Many of the problems in his metaphysics,
epistemology, and aesthetics have a basis in his ambiguous response to
language.Mingling the divinewith thehuman and the conventionalwith the
natural, Plato refuses to take a systematicposition towards language.Based
on the theory of Forms, the eristic Cratylus with caution probes the origin,
nature, and use of words.2 Socrates himself recognizes the inaccuraciesof
some of his etymologies and phonetic analyses. His fanciful exaggerations
apparently representa satireof contemporary interpretationsof words.3 But
despite the pervasive irony and the tentativenature of theCratylus,we can be
sure of Plato's contempt for the close study of words.4 Socrates can speak of

1 The
uncertainty of the date for the Cratylus does not have a great importance for the
present purposes. As Paul Shorey states in What Plato Said (Chicago, 1933), "Whether
early or late, it shows Plato already in possession of many of the principles which he
elaborates more fully in the Theaetetus and the Sophist" (p. 260). Gilbert Ryle in Plato's
Progress (Cambridge, 1966) agrees that the Cratylus "has close links with the Theaetetus
and the Sophist, and, being philosophically more primitive than either, itmust be earlier
than the Theaetetus" (p. 273). Ryle then suggests that the Cratylus was at one time intended
to be part of a trilogy with the Theaetetus and the Sophist.Most contemporary scholarship
accepts a fairly late date for the dialogue.
2 J. A. Stewart in Plato's Doctrine of Ideas (Oxford, 1909) links the Cratylus with other
dialogues which discuss the Forms. Only minor differences in expression separate the
theory here from that expressed in such dialogues as the Phaedrus, Euthydemus, Gorgias,
and Theaetetus. "The chronological treatment of theDoctrine of Ideas has, inmy opinion,
diverted attention from what is constant in it to verbal alterations in the statement of it
which aremade to appear as essentialmodifications of itsmethodological character - modi
fications which, if they had existed, would, indeed, have left the Doctrine without any
methodological character at all" (p. 35).
3 J. Tate in 'Plato and Allegorical Interpretation', CQ 23 (1929) points out the use of
etymologies used by the sophist Prodicus and especially by the Heracliteans to explain
poetry. Democritus of Abdera also appears "to have made occasional use of etymology -
that pseudo-science which, assuming that the original form (T6Exruov) of a word represent
ed its truemeaning, furnishedmany fanciful clues to the hidden significance of themyths"
(p. 143).
4 This
dialogue also attacks the sophists' claim to interpret language. Socrates says ironi
cally toHermogenes: "If I had not been poor, Imight 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 questions about
the correctness of names" (Cratylus 383). His erstwhile allies of Republic X are again his

Foundations of Language 8 (1972) 113-132. All rights reserved.

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names only when possessed by spirits, a reliable indicationof Plato's reserva

tions about such an inquiry.
Plato tends to use visualmetaphors and physical analogies to discuss lan
guage. "Itmay be doubted whether he always succeeded in shieldinghimself
rigorously against this visual contamination." 5He argues generally that the
worth of an artifact other than for its immediateuse lies in its ability to stim
ulate harmony in the observer.6Sincewords are already a physical imitation
of reality, both poetic manipulation and critical study of language can only
fixman's attention on a level inferior to reality itself.7Other physical imita
tions, through theirmathematical proportions, can express the necessary
harmony. But in language ordinary human convention provides a necessary
modification of the correspondence to nature. This inherenthuman element
prevents language from being completely faithful to reality.Expressing only
a partial truth, language is neither beautiful nor trustworthy.
Since he thinks thatwords imitate reality either closely or loosely,knowl
edge for Plato lies outside the realm of language.8As an imitation, language
can only reflect imperfectlya reality beyond itself.The Laws makes a word
even further from reality than the Cratylus does: "We know an essence
(ouoaiav),the definition of the essence, and the name" (LawsX 895).9Lan
guage, likeany physical artifact, is at a first remove from reality.Faithfulness
to nature determines the worth of language. While a name can serve as a tool
to teach and to distinguish,words are treacherousguides to any higherknowl
edge. Since different names can be applied to the same object, the legislator
of names must have been some fallible human agent. The gods would not
thus contradict themselves. Both the original maker and the current user of a
word apply language to an immediatepractical use. Thus, human limitations
and ignorancewill flaw individualwords as well as their arrangement in
speech or poetry.
Plato's recognition of the complexity of his subject representsa commen
5 Eric A.
Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass., 1963), p. 268. See the chapter
'Originsof theTheory of Forms', pp. 254-75 for a fuller discussion of this point.
6 F.
Sontag in 'The Platonist's Conception of Language', JPhil 51 (1954) reasons that
language cannot be isolated as an end in itself: "Language, when it leads us to a study of
the natural structures themselves, can be a powerful ally. When it leads only to itself,
language can be theworst of all deceivers, since it has enough similarity to the structure of
theworld to give a good imitation of real knowledge" (p. 826).
7 The people in Plato's cave metaphor are incapable of real communication: "If they
could talk to one another, would they not suppose that theirwords referred only to those
passing shadows which they saw?" (Republic VII 514). See also Republic V 476 and
Phaedrus 259. A good speaker must know the truth before he can speak meaningfully.
8 Cf. the Theaetetus on the
primacy of knowledge: "And is it not shameless when we do
not know what knowledge is, to be explaining the verb 'to know'? The truth is,Theaetetus,
thatwe have long been infectedwith logical impurity" (196).
9 The
Sophist 218makes a similar distinction between name and definition.

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dable sophistication for his time. The two other persons of the dialogue,
Cratylus and Hermogenes, propose radically differing errors.10Cratylus
would deny any valuewhatsoever to convention; language takes itsmeaning
through nature.l Hermogenes, on the other hand, would make language
meaningful by custom. But an individualhimself decideswhat to call an ob
ject. Ignoring the social origins of language,Hermogenes feels one's personal
choice is always correct. Socrates takes a much sounder position between
these extremes.He particularly objects toHermogenes' contention that lan
guage is completely arbitrary.But despite his dissatisfactionwith his analysis
of languageas an imitation, he cannot bring himself to endorse social custom
Socrates repeatedly expresseshis skepticismnot only about the end of the
inquiry,but also of theworth of the search.As the Stranger says to Socrates,
"If you continue to be not too particular about mere names, you will be all
the richer inwisdom when you are old" (Statesman 261). Any study of the
language of men provides at best an obscure way to the truth. "If a man had
all the nit-picking knowledge of words that ever was, he would not be at all
the wiser; he would only be able to play with men, tripping them up and
oversetting themwith distinctions of words" (Euthydemus278).All we can do
is seek to discover something about words according to themeasure of our
abilities. Any higher truth about language, like knowledge about the gods,
does not come with any certainty to mere mortals; we can entertain only
human notions of them. "In this present inquiry, let us say to ourselves, be
fore we proceed, that the rigorous method is the one which we or others must
follow; but under the circumstances, as men say, we must do as well as we
can" (Cratylus425).While Socrates, aman himself, cannot fully understand
this higher approach, he need not on this account compromise his standards.
Socrates refuses to ground the origin of basic words inman's uninformed
society. He admits the ridiculousness of his theory that things can be imi
Traditionally, scholars have accepted that Hermogenes expresses an Eleatic position,
Cratylus a Heraclitean. But G. S. Kirk in 'The Problem of Cratylus', AJP 72 (1951) pro
poses that Cratylus is not a convinced Heraclitean. Since Plato fails to condemn Cratylus
as a total believer in flux, Aristotle is probably mistaken in his treatment of Cratylus as
a Heraclitean and nothing else. Basing his interpretation heavily on Cratylus 440, Kirk
states that Socrates introduces the concept of flux before Cratylus does; Cratylus mistaken
ly accepts the idea to support his thesis of the natural validity of names. For a discussion
of the basic similarity in the apparently contradictory positions of Hermogenes and
Cratylus, see Paul Friedlander, Plato II: The Dialogues, First Period (London, 1964),
p. 198 and A. E. Taylor, Plato: TheMan andHis Work (London, 1949), pp. 85-6.
11The position of Cratylus is far too simple and mechanical. Friedlander inPlato II states
that "Kratylos, as we know, is a Herakleitean; but for him the secret harmony between
words and things, which the great Herakleitos himself felt intuitively, has become a purely
rational exercise by which themind tries to gain easy access to the nature of things" (p.

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tated by letters and syllables, but he can think of no better principle. Thus,
like painting (and by Plato's analogy, poetry), language is a physical imita
tion of physical objects. One could - like the tragicpoets - appeal to divine
authority for the truth of the earliest names, or one could assert that these
firstwords come from some ancient barbarous people (Cratylus425). But to
reason that antiquity has cast a veil over the source simply denies the possi
bility of any serious inquiry.
Current usage gives no clue to the all-importantpristinemeaning of words.
Awareness of an entire languagewould not lead directly to knowledge, for
languageas presently used has various degrees of purity.One must know the
meaning and relevance of original words; any ignorance of the primitive
names involves a corresponding ignoranceof words derived from them.But
knowledge of language resemblesknowledge of any other physical imitation.
The observermust dispassionately seek the relationshipof the particular rep
resentation to the general reality.The application of words to things differs
little from any other practical skill; the creation or the use of a name re
quires aman's conscious participation.


Plato does not allow knowledge to reside statically in the languageofman.12

Existing independentlyof any verbal embodiment, knowledge precedes the
correct application of language to a human situation.Words also must have
an objective existence; otherwise the consistent study and use of language
would be impossible. Plato is not sure, however, about the relationship be
tween language and meaning. The opponents of Socrates in the Cratylus
simply do not realize the complexity of the problem. Hermogenes would
maintain that the name of anything is that which anyone affirms to be the
name: "I can conceive no correctness of names other than this; you give one
name, and I another. And in different cities and countries there are different
names for the same things; Hellenes differ from barbarians in their use of
names and the severalHellenic tribes from one another" (Cratylus385).The
name in his personal language has no integral relationship with the word as
commonly used. But Socrates reasons (unconvincingly to a modern) that
since true and false propositions exist, the proposition must be entirely true
or false down to the smallest part, the name. Simply, Hermogenes, while
agreeing with Socrates on absolute standards of truth and virtue, does not
realize that a system of language relative to one individual would be trivial.

12 For further comments on the

identity of thought and felicity of expression, see Phaedrus
260, 269-70 and Laws XII 956-66.

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Language for Plato can be relativeneither to the individualnor to human

ity. The existence of standards in ethics and metaphysics suggests that the
same certaintiesmust apply to language.Protagoras erroneously thinks that
man is themeasure of all things, thusmaking distinctions between wisdom
and folly impossible.On the other hand, Euthydemus cannot correctly claim
that all things equally belong to allmen, for then vice and virtuewould apply
equally to all. "If neitherman is right, and things are not relative to individ
uals, and all things do not equally belong to all at the same moment and per
petually, theymust have some fixed realityof theirown. They are not in rela
tion to us or caused by us, fluctuating according to our fancy, but they exist
of themselves in relation to their own reality according to nature" (Cratylus
386). The alternatives are either variationwith thewhim of the individualor
stability by accordance to eternal truth.That languagecould be relative to a
body of individuals and thus achieve some sort of standard does not occur to
Plato. Convention contributes to the indication of thought, but the correct
ness of names takes precedence over custom (Cratylus435).
Plato does not make a sharp distinction between speech and thought.The
essentially human process of thought can find an immediateand direct pre
sentation in speech.13"Thought and speech are the same, with this excep
tion, thatwhat is called thought is the silent inner conversation of the soul
with itself.... The streamwhich flows from the soul invocal utterance through
the mouth is called speech" (Sophist 263). Plato makes speech akin to the
things of the senseswhich trouble the soul, yet elsewherehe would also have
speech and thought fairly closely identified.Utterance of any sort corrupts
the pursuit of truth,14for "thought is best when themind is gathered into
herself and no thingsof the senses troubleher - neither sounds nor sights nor
pain nor any pleasure, - when she takes leaveof the body, and has as little as
possible to do with it,when she has no bodily sense or desire, but is aspiring

13 Effective speeches often flow from themind without any intervening faculty for verbal
composition. Socrates knows that he has heard a better speech than that of Lysias,
"because I perceive thatmy bosom is full, and that I could make another speech as good as
that of Lysias, and different.Now I am certain that this is not an invention of my own, who
am well aware that I know nothing, and therefore I can only infer that I have been filled
through the ears like a pitcher from thewaters of another, though I have actually forgotten
in my stupidity who was my informant" (Phaedrus 235). This metaphor agrees with
Plato's more direct statement in such dialogues as the Sophist and theTheaetetus.
14 In particular, poetry, a loose combination of song, meter, and discourse, always has an
unfortunate public dimension for Plato: "Suppose that we strip all poetry of song and
rhythm and meter, there will remain speech. And this speech is addressed to a crowd of
people. Then poetry is a sort of rhetoric; the poets in the theaters are rhetoricians"
(Gorgias 502). Addressing their rhetoric impartially to a crowd of men, women, and
children, freemen and slaves, these entertainers seek to give pleasure rather than to im
prove man.

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after truebeing" (Phaedo65): The truly inspiredman will be self-contained;

the aspiration toward true being admits no verbal discourse.'5
Thought arises fromman's perception of the Forms, not from his manip
ulatingwords and sentences.16Only observation of things can lead to under
standingwords. Primary names, those created by the firstname-giver,must
show the 'natureof things' so far as possible. If thesewords do not imitate
their referent, they are not real names in any sense. "Suppose thatwe had no
voice or tongue, and wanted to communicatewith one another, should we
not like the deaf and dumb, make signs with the hands and head and the rest
of the body?" (Cratylus 422). Obviously thinking of the physical world,
Plato cites severalhuman gestureswhich indicate direction andmovement.
These motions are the limit of such conversations, for the body can express
things only by direct physical imitation.Language is primarily an extension
of physical gestures. Socrates suggests tentatively that "whenwe want to ex
press ourselves, eitherwith the voice, or tongue, or mouth, the expression is
simply their imitation of thatwhich we want to express" (Cratylus423). But
he rejectsa completelymechanistic language.Peoplewho imitate sheep, chick
ens, or other animals do not name that which they imitate. Here as in the
Republic, Plato scorns thosewho would mistake the sounds of physical na
ture for acceptable human discourse.
Plato wishes to distinguish only partially the nature of language from the
natures of music and painting.On one hand,while the ingredientsmay differ,
all these arts are essentially imitative.On the other, language cannot exclu
sively be a vocal art, since words do not imitate the kind of thing which music
imitates.And a name expresses a more fundamental relation to the under
lying reality than domusic or painting: "Is therenot an essence of each thing,
much as there is a color or a sound? And is there not an essence of color and
sound as well as of anything else which may be said to have an essence? And
if any one could express the essence of each thing in letters and syllables,
would he not express the nature of each thing?"(Cratylus423). The musician
and the painter are two sorts of imitators; the name-giver is the third maker.
Unlike themusician, this giver of names expresses the essence, the nature of
the thing, as he utters the physical sounds. Yet Plato will argue that most
subsequent embodiments of theword - especially the creations of the poets
- imitate the physical only.
Since sounds may indeed express immutable essences, nothing prevents
Plato from allowing the study of language a legitimate role in education. But
just as the painter deliberately chooses colors and shapes as a prerequisite to
15 I have discussed this
point more fully in 'Inspiration in theAesthetics of Plato', JAAC
30 (1971), 87-95.
16 SeeParmenides132.

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making a picture, the namermust firstunderstand both his material and his
subject.The analysis of language, like the study of music, proceeds from a
process of generalization.We begin with basic sounds (arotXeTa);first sepa
rating and classifying thevowels, then the consonants,mutes, and semivowels.
"And when we havemade these divisions properly, we shall give the names
to the appropriate things and see whether, like the basic sounds, there are
any classes towhich theymay be all referred;and hencewe shall see theirna
ture,and see, too,whether theyhave in themclasses as thereare in the sounds"
(Cratylus424). This studywill suggest how to apply them to what they re
semble- whether one letter isused to denote one thing, or whether there is to
be an admixtureof several.Thus, either single ormultiple sounds can express
objects.Out of the combination of sounds come syllableswhich in turnmake
up nouns and verbs.17And finally from the combinations of nouns and verbs,
one arrives at language, "large and fair andwhole" (Cratylus425). In learn
ing, one works toward thismighty synthesis.'8But once theman has come to
this knowledge, no further arrangement can improve language. Only the
painter's understanding of the smallest elements of color and shape enables
him tomake a figure.Every sound in aword, theword itself, and all possible
combinations express or should express an essence.Thus no skillful arrange
ment of words is ultimately superior to another; fidelity to natural processes
alone determines the value of speaking (Cratylus 387).


Although words imitate reality, they originate in a knowledgeable human

response at a particular moment.19 Any subsequent use of a word must be
judged by the same standards as the first application. Since actions as well as
objects have a reality of their own, one may judge thewords applied to both
for correctness.20In addition, words resemble other physical objects in that
they have a maker and a proper use. The giving of names is an important
part of the action of speaking.The action of naming should be done naturally
andwith a proper instrument.But theword itself isat thepresentmoment an
instrument to convey information and to distinguish things according to
17H. S. Thayer in 'Plato: The Theory and Language of Function', PhilosQ 4 (1964),
303-18 points out that Plato says that each statementmust have at least one noun and one
verb (see Cratylus 431, Sophist 261). Each sentence then has at least two names - one of an
action, and one of an agent or object. Thayer agrees with Plato that the action word is
more basic to themeaning and has amore general application within the sentence.
18The Sophist 261ff reasons that words which have no meaning when in sequence cannot
be connected. Man's first linguistic act is to name; thereafter he learns to connect nouns
and verbs. Discourse consists of words fitting together, a rathermechanical arrangement.
19 Cf. Parmenides 147-8.
20 Cf.
Theaetetus 155.

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their nature.Names are the tools of the teacher.When the teacheruses the
name, he uses thework of that nebulous figure, the legislator.Only the skill
ful can have any success at the task: "Not everyman is able to give a name,
but only amaker of names; and this is the legislator,who of all skilled arti
sans in theworld is the rarest" (Cratylus388-9). This maker deserves the res
pect accorded to the reveredmen of the past: "As the ancientsmay be ob
served to have givenmany nameswhich are according to nature and deserving
of praise, so there is an excellent one which they have given to the dances of
men who in their times of prosperity aremoderate in their pleasures - the
giver of names, whoever he was, assigned to them a very true, and poetical,
and rational name" (Laws VII 816). Every present individual has the power
to apply names to particular things, but he can add nothing of value to the
further application or development of language.
The product of theword-maker (voloOeTig,,6vogaToupy6o), like those of
all artisans, isat one remove from reality.The worth of theseartifactsdepends
on their conformity to the eternal Forms. The good craftsman thinks about
the purposes of his handiwork, not about his personal reaction to his mate
rials. The humanity of the word-maker is either irrelevant or destructive.
"When aman has discovered the instrumentnaturally adapted to eachwork,
hemust express this natural form, and not otherswhich he fancies in thema
terial,whatever itmay be" (Cratylus 389).All names should closely corre
spond with the ideal of that name. The legislator should not only possess
knowledge of the prototype, but be able to embody the truenatural name of
each thing in sounds and syllables.To be aworth-while namer, hemust work
with the Form of that name always before him. By relegating the rawmate
rials of language to the physical world, Plato can maintain that different
legislatorsneed not use the same syllables.By analogy, althoughmaking the
same instrument for the same purposes, various smiths do not have to use the
same iron. "The form must be the same, but the material may vary, and still
the instrumentmay be equally good of whatever ironmade, whether inHellas
or in foreign country; - there is no difference" (Cratylus 390).Minor differ
ences in sounds and syllables count for little; the languagesof different coun
tries point to a common truth. Since Plato refuses to confine knowledge to its
verbal embodiment, he is not committed to defend the supremacyof his own
language. Probably for Plato, all existing languages are about equally re
moved from the ultimate reality.
Plato makes a sharp distinction between maker and user of words. Being
bound by directly serving the user, theword-maker has little freedomof crea
tion.21 In keeping with his theory of division of labor, Plato proposes the
product passes from him to the user of language. Plato has argued a similar division
of producer and user in his analogy of flute playing.

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analogy of word to practical objects. The weaver is a better judge of the

proper form for a shuttle than is itsmaker, the carpenter.Similarly, the user
alone can judge theworth of a lyreor a ship.The user of language is theman,
in particular, the one who can respond actively to the appropriatenessof the
words. Just as the pilot directs thework of the carpenter inmaking a rudder,
so the dialectician, the proper judge of discourse,must direct the legislator
of words. The Phaedrus 266 likewise distinguishes mere speakers such as
Lysias and Thrasymachus from the real authorities, the dialecticians. The
dialectician judges the extent to which the name-giver has faithfully repro
duced reality inwords. Just as thephilosopher recollects the formshe formerly
saw, the dialectician seizes upon thewords previouslymade.
The dialogues maintain that all good things are made by the intelligent
individual, not the ignorant mob. Accordingly, the mass of people can neither
generate nor usewords correctly.Reflecting popular thought,Protagoras has
stated thatman "was not long in inventing articulate speech and names"
(Protagoras 322). The aristocratic Plato has no such faith inmankind's na
tural creative powers. The giving of names can be no such lightmatter as
Hermogenes thinks,nor thework of any chance persons.Cratylusmore near
ly statesPlato's thesis that thingshave truenames, and that not everyman is
an artificerof names. The maker of words must have three skills. First, he
must understand the object to be named. Secondly, he must perceive the name
which each thing by nature has. And finally, he must be able to express or
embody the true forms of things in letters and sounds. These three areas of
knowledge are essential to the study of language; the superficialclevernessof
the sophists will be of little help in determining the nature of words. But
lackingother records from the past, Plato must fall back on the poets to sug
gest some etymologies. And as always, the pastmust be honored, but accept
ed no further than reason decrees.


With the passage of time, society has introduced corruption into language.
More certainty comes from seeking truthdirectly, of course, but etymological
studiesmay penetrate the cloud of ignorance.22Socrates can display a great
familaritywith traditional lore to support his conjectures about etymology.
Homer often cites different names used by gods and by men, thus implying
differing degrees of correctness.Wise men or the gods aremore likely to give
Nehring in 'Plato and theTheory of Language', Traditio 3 (1945), 13-48 distinguish
es between the epistemological and the linguistic interests of Plato. A pioneering linguist,
Plato has a serious purpose in his etymologies (p. 16). Nehring contends that Plato's dis
cussion of sound symbolism has been supported by themodem studies of Humboldt and
Jespersen (pp. 18-9).

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'correctnames' (Cratylus 392), just as they do everythingmore skillfully. If

themeaning or essence remains the same,we can alter freely a few syllables
or individual sounds.Many words may be appliedwith equal justification to
a single object. These synonyms show that even great variations in the phys
ical form of a word do not make a corresponding change in the underlying
meaning of the object. Like drugs or other physical substances, the real na
ture of a word may not be plain to the ignorant.23 But the wise man can see
beyond these superficialphysical changes.Certainwords within a languagedo
not clearly fit into any pattern. But words seeminglyof a foreign originmay
just be corrupted by the passage of time. In its entirety, present language
seems to be a corruption of an original fidelity to nature.Names have been so
twisted that the original languagemight appear to be a barbarous tongue to
present speakers.
Nevertheless, Socrates stresses thenonrational basis of his own inquiryinto
etymology. His mistrust of this easy source of apparentwisdom shows his
awareness that thismethod of study has definite limitations.24"If I could
remember the genealogy of Hesiod, I would have gone on and triedmore
conclusions of the same sort on the remoter ancestors of the gods, - then I
might have seen whether this wisdom, which has come to me all in an in
stant, I know not whence, will or will not hold good to the end" (Cratylus
396). Lacking the discipline of reason, any inspirationof this sortmay sour
and turn inconsistent.Socrates claims to be like a prophet newly inspired to
utter oracles; thewisdom and enchanting ravishmentof Euthyphro has not
only filled his ears but taken possession of his soul (Cratylus 396).We dare
not readPlato too seriouslyhere.25Still, this same rapture seizesSocrates be
fore the chariotmyth of thePhaedrus.These etymologies, like themyths, sug
23 Cf. Laws I 659-60.
24 Socrates
says that Euthydemus and Dionysodorus, two noted sophists, "will plead
themselves and teach others to speak and to compose speeches which will have an effect
upon the courts. And this was only the beginning of their wisdom, but they have at last
carried out the pancratiastic art to the very end, and have mastered the only modes of
fighting which had been hitherto neglected by them; such is their skill in the use of words,
that they can refute any proposition whether true or false" (Euthydemus 272). These men
began this art of disputation late; just one or two years ago they had none of their so
called wisdom.
25A. E. Taylor says inPlato: TheMan and His Work, "It is plain that we are not to find
the serious meaning of the dialogue here, especially as, after delighting Cratylus by a
pretended demonstration that language supports the Heraclitean philosophy, and the
names of all bad things to arrest of movement, he turns round and produces equally
ingenious and farfetched etymological grounds for supposing that the original 'giver of
names' must have held the Eleatic doctrine thatmotion is an illusion, since all the names
of good things appear to denote rest or stoppage of motion. Obviously, we are to take all
this as good-humoured satire on attempts to reach a metaphysic by way of 'philology'; as
far as etymologies go, a little ingenuity will enable us to get diametrically opposite results
out of the same data" (pp. 77-8).

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gest an approach rather than a conclusion. Plato would not lock the door to
any house where knowledge might reside.
Because society seldom looks to natural fitness, names given to ordinary
men may not correspondwith a truth.Socrates has begunwith proper names
engraved in tradition. Since convention or arbitrarydecision may have ob
scured correctmeanings in such names, we cannot achievemuch certainty
here. "Therewill be more chance of finding correctness in the names of im
mutable essences - there ought to have been more care taken about them
when theywere named, and perhaps theremay have been somemore than
human power at work occasionally in giving them names" (Cratylus 397).
Sincemankind has less to do with theunchanging, therehas been lesshuman
distortion of thewords. Just as poetic enthusiasmoriginates beyondman, the
source of words might possibly be superhuman.But as usual, the gods and
their actions are not readily susceptible to rational examination. So tradition
rather than empirical observation must provide a clue to the meaning of
words describing lofty beings such as gods and heavenly bodies, heroes and
The first name-giversmay have had some sort of special knowledge. Pos
sibly theymight have beenworthy of the name 'philosophers'.Nevertheless,
even these original makers can be mistaken (Cratylus 436).Whatever truth
may reside inwords originally,we have no clear principles for present inves
tigation. Certain words "may be variously interpreted; and yet more vari
ously if a little permutation is allowed" (Cratylus 400). Certainly, violent
interpretation should be avoided (Cratylus 410). Any original confusion
about words may extend into the present; human ignorance is persistent
The primeval givers of names were undoubtedly likemany of our modem thinkers,who in
their search after the nature of things, are always getting dizzy from constantly going round
and round, and then they imagine that theworld is going round and round and moving in
all directions, and this appearance, which arises out of their own internal condition, they
suppose to be a reality of nature; they think that there is nothing stable or permanent, but
only flux and motion, and that theworld is always full of every sort of motion and change.

Sincemost of the names of thevirtues seem to suggestflux, even serious study

of languagemay not result in philosophical certainty.And the demonstrably
false etymologies by the sophists cast the whole method into disrepute.
Eventually, this inquiry into the constituents of names reaches the limitsof
its usefulness. A thinker must stop when he comes to the names which are the
elements of all other names and sentences. These basic names cannot be sup
posed to bemade up of other names. "Theword dyaO6v (good), for example,
is a compound of dyacor6S(admirable)and Oo6o (swift).And probably Ooo6
is made up of other elements, and those again of others. But if we take a

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word incapableof further resolution, thenwe shall be right in saying thatwe

have at last reached a primary element,which need not be resolved any fur
ther" (Cratylus422). Both primary and derived names are supposed to indi
cate the nature of things, but the derived take their significance from the
primary. Since some names turnout to be irreducibleelements, a direct study
of theircorrespondence to naturewill bemore profitable than haggling over
a particular verbal embodiment. The difficult and largelyarbitraryexamina
tion of tradition to derive etymologies lackswhatever certainty comes from a
philosophical inquiry into the physical correspondence of language to na


Clearly, then, Plato sets almost impossibly high standards on the study of
words. Derived words mingle with the primary, and no one can seemuch
correspondence between word and physical nature.Human words are tools
to attain truth.As such,words must not be bandied about: "If a person does
not attend to themeaning of terms as they are commonly used in argument,
hemay become involved ingreatparadoxes" (Theaetetus 165).A specialbeauty
for languageof course cannot be accepted, but a word's truth in expressing
nature can point to a general beauty. Cratylus 385 has argued for a truth or
falsity inwords on the basis that a trueproposition cannot have false parts.
Naming must accordwith reality just as actions are done "according to their
proper nature, and not according to our opinion of them" (Cratylus 387).
While a word can theoretically express a nonphysical as well as a physical
reality, only the dialectician is likely to see these relationships.
But Plato does recognize the human dependence on language.While ab
solute standards should precede the rational study of language,practicality
determines human usage. Whatever its standing as an imitation of nature, a
name is an invaluable human instrumentof teaching and of distinguishing
one object from another. Plato recognizes three legitimateauthorities in this
realm: the dialectician, the name-giver, and the teacher. First in point of
time, the legislator of words creates the name; he is the rarestof all skilled
artisans. But since he makes a name according to its natural form, the legis
lator is bound by nature.The second authority, the dialectician, actually has
a knowledge superior to that of the name-giver. Whereas the legislator can
only imitate what he sees in nature, the dialectician knows how to use the words
to ask and answer questions. The greater knowledge of the dialectician enables
him both to apply words effectively and to correct deficiencies in theword
artisan's creation. The dialectician alone can judge the effects of these created
words. But as the Theaetetus 167-8 states, a serious dialectician will never ar
gue from the customary use of names and words, unlike the vulgar who per

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vert these terms in various way to the infinite perplexity of one another.
Third, later in time and farmore insignificant, the teacherof words simply
tells how to use a particularword well. In giving a name, the instructoruses
the work of the namer. While Plato states that a teacher can be effective in
manipulating words, he makes little else of this figure.Perhaps his silence
derives from his contempt throughout for men or institutions that claim
unmerited authority.
Whereas Plato sees language as a changing product of man, Cratylus
would make language a reality independent of the human thinker.Words
apply to the object or they do not apply in anyway; all words for Cratylus
have been rightly imposed.Cratylus thus denies the existence of falsehood.A
personwho speaks nonsense "would be putting himself inmotion to no pur
pose; a falseword would be an unmeaning sound like the noise of hammer
ing at a brazen pot" (Cratylus 430). Language always expresses truth and
meaning; soundswithout sense are simply not words.
To the contrary,Plato feels that languagemay reflecttruthwith varyingde
grees of accuracy.The familiar analogy of vision to languageemphasizes the
physical basis of words. Both Socrates and Cratylus admit that a name differs
fromwhat is named, the name being an imitationof the thing. Socrates asks
whether "pictures are also imitations of things, but in another way?"
(Cratylus430). Both forms- words and pictures - apply equally towhat they
imitate; only themedium differs.A picture brings before theman his visual
likeness just as the name brings "to his sense of hearing the imitation of
himself" (Cratylus431). Truth or falsity of a word does not depend on lin
guistic context, but on theword's fidelity to physical nature.
Even though a perfect image is impossible- and perhaps undesirable- lan
guage should conform asmuch as possible to the object.Whereas thewritten
word or thememorized poetic word has a dangerous authority, themind can
judgemost language for its appropriateness.Properly used by men, words
have a dynamic rather than a static relationship to nature. If primitive or
first nouns represent things,we should assimilate the verbal representations
to the objects. The untenable alternative - as held by Hermogenes - would
make words simply the conventions of an ignorant society. If words have
meaning through arbitraryhuman agreements, languagewill have no direct
bearing on anything beyond human knowledge.
Plato suggests thatman's limited knowledge does not prevent his using
words effectively.He must maintain a balance between the immediateand the
ultimate: "The free use of words and phrases, rather thanminute precision,
isgenerally characteristicof a liberaleducation, and the opposite ispedantic;
but sometimes precision is necessary" (Theaetetus 184).Rather thanmanip
ulating chance signs, one can seek a representationby likeness."If the name

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is to be like the thing, the lettersout of which the firstnames are composed
must also be like things.Returning to the image of the picture, Iwould ask,
how could any one ever compose a picturewhich would be like anything at
all, if therewere not pigments in naturewhich resembled the things imitated,
and out of which the picture is composed" (Cratylus434). The original ele
ments which compose a word, the sounds, have some degree of resemblance
to the objects of which the names are the imitation.This correspondencewith
nature enables names to resemble things actually existing.But the identifica
tion need not be total to be useful.


Plato's physical metaphors suggest a spatialmovement which makes lan

guage irrelevant in the highest pursuit of knowledge. The dialectic, which
leads to the perception of the intelligible,most closely resembles the power
of sight (RepublicVII 533):

The method of dialectic alone takes this direction, destroying assumptions and travelling
up the the first principle of all, so as tomake sure of confirmation there.When the eye of
the soul is really sunk in a barbarous slough, thismethod gently draws it forth and guides
itupwards, assisted in thiswork of conversion by the arts we have described. From force of
habit we have several times spoken of these as kinds of knowledge; but they need some
other name implying something less clear than knowledge, thought not so dim as opinion.
'Thinking,' I believe, was the termwe fixed on earlier; but in considering matters of such
high importancewe shall not dispute about a name.

Glaucon agrees that any name which clearly expresses the working of the mind
is acceptable. This action of the intellect,unhindered by partial truthsor the
senses, has no need to dwell on verbal subtleties.
Just as Plato has refused to allow an inter-reacting of sentences to establish
a context for a poetic utterance, he denies any sentence indiscourse the ability
tomake a unified assertion.Taking a very questionable position, Plato argues
that truth or falsity apply to a more minute level than the sentence as well as
the sentence itself. And meaning lies neither in the object nor in language. In
stead, the application of aword towhat it purportedly representsdetermines
truth or falsity. Using an argument also found in the Theaetetus 193-4,
Socrates states, "If I can assign names as well as pictures to objects, the right
assignment of them we may call truth, and the wrong assignment of them
falsehood. Now if there be such a wrong assignment of names, there may also
be a wrong or inappropriate assignment of verbs; and if of names and verbs
then of the sentences, which are made up of them" (Cratylus 431). Truth
cannot contain any element of falsehood. The noun is the first and most ob
vious element of consideration; other words have the same relation to na

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ture. If each word is a statement about nature, examination of an entire

sentencemust come after an investigation of each individual component.
The words one assigns to an object may not be a perfect representation.
But a person at thepresentmoment must have at least as good a grasp of the
principles of the name as the firstnamer had. "Primitivenounsmay be com
pared to pictures, and in pictures you may either give all the appropriate
colors and figures,or you may not give them all - somemay be wanting; or
theremay be toomany or too much of them" (Cratylus431). Plato then ex
tends the analogy to language; the imitatorwill use syllables and letters to
produce his imitation.By adding or subtracting,amaker will make a less ac
curate image. Thus the word-maker who gives a complete representation
gives a perfect picture or figures.Any addition or subtraction from this stan
dard will still give an image, but not a good one. The maker of names may be
good or bad; this talented legislator can be judged by the same criteria as
other artists.
Admitting that themaker of words can imitatewell or badly, Cratylus tries
to distinguish language from the other arts: "When by the help of grammar,
we assign the letters a or b, or any other letters to a certain name, then, if we
add, or subtract, or misplace a letter, the name which iswritten is not only
written wrongly, but not written at all; and in any of these cases becomes
other than a name' (Cratylus431-2). Either theword corresponds to its ob
ject in every particular, or theword does not apply at all. Any variation of
sound, even the slightest, destroys all use of theword. He basically agrees
with Socrates that language begins by a conscious imposition of meaning
upon sounds and letters.But unlike Socrates, Cratylus puts an absolute and
unreasoning reliance on themechanical faithfulness of language to nature.
Good images are neither the true creation by a god nor the superficialrep
resentation by the painter. Socrates believes that the statement of Cratylus
may apply to numbers, which must be just what they are, or not be at all. For
example, the number ten at once becomes other than ten if a unit be added or
subtractedand so for any number.But this inflexibilitydoes not apply to that
which isqualitative or to anythingwhich is representedunder an image. If an
image expressed an objectwith perfect fidelity, the copy would no longer be
an image. The verbal copy must be a faithful imitation (giqTrIga), but it cannot
be exact.
Some images, then, are more useful than the reality. Socrates suggests,
"Let us suppose the existence of two objects: one of them shall be Cratylus,
and the other the imageof Cratylus; and we will suppose, further, that some
god makes not only a representation such as a painter would make of your
outward form and color, but also creates an inward organization like yours,
having the samewarmth and softness; and into this infusesmotion, and soul,

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and mind, such as you have, and in a word copies all your qualities, and
places them by you in another form; would you say that this was Cratylus
and the imageof Cratylus, or that therewere twoCratyluses?" (Cratylus432).
He concludes that therewould be two of him. Socrates implies that the real
Cratylus consists of the exact physical and intellectualman as he is; there isno
Form which thisparticularCratylus embodies.Here again isPlato's dilemma:
the imitation of this man must either be exact - and therefore not an image -
or vary in someway from the reality and thus be imperfect.As an image, lan
guage must necessarily diverge from reality. The names of thingswould be
ridiculous if theywere exactly identical to the things.Then word and object
would be doubles, and no onewould be able to determinewhich was thename
and which was the reality.
The enlightenedman will take a casual attitude toward any particular use
of words. Socrateswould ultimately judge language in termsof absolute cor
rectness,but languageas commonly used need not have itspristine relevance
to truth. We should allow people to use language in their own way, and not
quarrelwith them aboutwords. Instead,we should be thankful forwhatever
truth is present (Euthydemus285). Cratylusmust "have the courage to admit
that one name may be correctly and another incorrectlygiven; and do not
insist that the name shall be exactly the same with the thing; but allow the
occasional substitution of a wrong letter, and if of a letter also of a noun in a
sentence, also of a sentence inappropriate to thematter, and acknowledge
that the thing may be named, and described, so long as the general character
of the thingwhich you are describing is retained" (Cratylus432). Language
has to give only a rough approximation to the physical reality.Despite his
stature as awriter of prose, Plato expresses a complete disinterest in stylistic
details. If letters and words need not be respected, the finermetrical points
will have no merit at all.
Despite the imperfection and variability of specificwords, language can
convey at leastpartial truths.Even a loose approximation of truthwill suffice
formany situations.Language neither expresses reality itself nor varies in a
completely arbitraryfashion: "When the general character ispreserved, even
if some of theproper lettersarewanting, still the thing is signified- well, if all
the letters are given; not well, when only a few of them are given.... Other
wise, you must find out some new notion of correctness of names, and no
longer maintain that a name is the expression of a thing in letters or syllables;
for if you say both, you will be inconsistentwith yourself" (Cratylus433).
Language state does not accurately describe an object; in all
in its present
secondary words only "the general character" need be preserved. Letters
themselves contribute a discrete part to sketching in the object. A poor choice
of letters can still result in an intelligible concept, "but there will be likewise

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an improper part which spoils the beauty and formation of the word"
But Socrates recognizes that at times, convention and custom provide the
only explanation for the communication of sense.When a man makes a
sound which he understands, another can somehow grasp his meaning. A
fairly accurate indicationof intent can come despite the use of soundsunlike
what they represent.When this happens, one has made a convention with
himself, and the correctnessof a name comes from the convention (Cratylus
435). Through this individual sanction, letterswhich are unlike their referent
may indicatemeaning as well as can thosewhich are like. There is no real
difference between established custom and more or less arbitrary conven
tion in their contribution to the significationof words.
The previously cited example of number proves that custom and conven
tion play an essential role in some areas of human communication. Names
could never fit every individualfigure in the infinityof possible numbers.Con
vention and agreement have almost sole authority here. But although words
should as far as possible resemble things, Socrates admits, "I fear that this
dragging in of resemblance,asHermogenes says, is a shabby thing,which has
to be supplementedby themechanical aid of conventionwith a view to cor
rectness; for I believe that ifwe should always, or almost always, use likeness,
which are perfectly appropriate, thiswould be themost perfect state of lan
guage; as the opposite is themost imperfect" (Cratylus435).While conven
tion contributes to the indication of thought, the applicability of word to
thing remains the best criterion of judgement.Unfortunately, Plato does not
discuss the extent and manner one can apply the mechanical aid of

The danger in a close studyof languageperhaps outweighs the benefit of the

practical use of words. The fascination of language engenders toomuch re
liance on themedium of expression.26Since knowledge precedes language,
our understandingof the object has no inherentrelationship to itsname.One
learns about words and objects in the same process of thought. Because of
the derived nature of much of language, inquiry into the things themselves
ismore likely to achieve certainty. Cratylus naively supposes that the name
and thing are identical; to know the name is to know the thing. Thus, the
26 Even Socrates admits
(ironically) that a fascination with discourse leads him to opinions
which later reflection deems incorrect: "I was thrilled by the speech. And it was you,
Phaedrus, thatmade me feel as I did: I watched your apparent delight in thewords as you
read. And as I'm sure that you understand such matters better than I do, I took my cue
from you, and therefore joined in the ecstasy of my right worshipful companion" (Phae
drus 234). If Socrates can bemistaken, themasses are certainly susceptible.

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informationgiven by names is the best and only form of knowledge.Cratylus

would confine all methods of inquiry and discovery to those of instruction
in language. Socrates, on the other hand, sees that the first legislator of
words gave them a name according to his personal conception of the thing
signified. Thus, if the original conception was erroneous, names given
accordinglywill evenmore deceive the laterusers.
The consistency of languagedoes not prove its truth.Cratylus thinks that
all uttered words have a common character and purpose. But even if
Cratylus is correct, Plato thinks that truth depends on original correctness,
not on consistent following (Cratylus436):
For if the name-giver did begin in error, he may have forced the remainder into agreement
with the original error and with himself; therewould be nothing strange in this, any more
than in geometrical diagrams, which have often a slight and invisible flaw in the first part of
the process, and are consistently mistaken in the long deductions which follow. And this is
the reason why every man should expend his chief thought and attention on the consider
ation of his first principle: - are they or are they not rightly laid down? and when he has
duly sifted them, all the restwill follow. Now I should be astonished to find that names are
really consistent.

There seems to be no pattern in letters representing rest and motion. The

majority of letters seem to indicate rest, but mechanical counting cannot be
trusted as a guide to certainty.
Since knowledge of an object precedes the application of its name, the name

giver firstmust understand nature in general. Only then can he work with
thematerials of his craft. The creation of names does not perpetuate itself;
onemust continuously investigate the correspondenceof word to object. The
acquisition of knowledgemay come about in either personal discovery or in
instruction from without. Discovery, being related to recollection, could be
trustedmore than the acceptanceof authority. If knowledge could come from
names alone the origin of knowledge becomes problematical.The application
of names to objects comes at a specifictime ratherthandeveloping gradually.
The wordgiver comes upon eternal knowledge at a particular moment in
time; from this encounter comes the names.
Because men instead of gods made language, confusion is inherent in its
use. If the giver of names were an inspired being or a god, he would not have
contradictedhimself.As Laws IV 719 suggests, the complexity of human lan
guage implies contradiction and uncertainty. Two separatewords or senten
ces cannot point to a common truth, for truth lies behind, not between, asser
tions. Only knowledge itself can give certainty amidst the conflicting claims
of language. "If this is a battle of names, some of them asserting that they
are like the truth, other contending that they are, how or by what criterion
are we to decide between them? For there are no other names to which appeal
can be made, but obviously recourse must be had to another standard which,

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without employing names, will make clearwhich of the two are right; and
thismust be a standard which shows the truth of things" (Cratylus 438).
The standard cannot reside in language itself. The natural and correct
(eiK6g r Kcai8tKat6TaTov) way to know things is through their relationships
and by themselves;words are too loosely attached to things to be trustworthy.
Even names rightly given are only intermediariesbetween man and the
truth.The study of the underlying reality of these images profits less in all
areas than an examination of the truth itself.The dialectical skill of the in
telligentman requiresknowledge of minute details of human existence.The
endeavor of the dialectic is (Sophist 227):

to know what is and is not kindred in all arts, with a view to the acquisition of intelli
gence; and having this in view, she honors them all alike, and when shemakes comparisons,
she counts one of them not a whit more ridiculous than another; nor does she esteem him
who adduces as his example of hunting, the general's art, at allmore decorous than another
who cites that of the vermin-destroyer, but only as the greater pretender of the two.And as
to your question concerning the name which was to comprehend all these arts of purifica
tion, whether of animate or inanimate bodies, the art of dialectic is in no way particular
about fine words, if she may be only allowed to have a general name for all other puri
fications, bring them up together and separating them off from the purification of the
soul or intellect. For this is the purification at which shewants to arrive and thiswe should
understand to be her aim.

Only the soul deserves special attention. The wise man lookswithout distinc
tion at all arts;words tend tomake human a divine quest.As in theRepublic
X, man has no faculty to reject corrupting impressionsbefore they sink into
the soul. The intellect is infinitelyresponsive to all physical influences; com
plete acquisition of thingsof the senses can only impede the proper action of
the soul.
One can learnmore about the accuracy of the verbal reproduction by
looking directly at truth.But Plato cannot state amethod for this direct ap
proach: "How real existence is to be studied or discovered is, I suspect, be
yond you and me. But we may admit so much, that the knowledge of things
is not to be derived from names. No, theymust be studied and investigated
in themselves" (Cratylus 439). Since names are derived from things, one
should go back to the sources.An immediategrasp of these realities should
not be hindered by the screen of words, which may or may not be reliable.
With the ambiguity naturally present in language,Plato will not accept the
partial truth inherent in this human tool.
Not only has the human origin tainted words, but the whole fabric of lan
guage may be dangerously corrupt. Socrates' analysis of verbal sounds has
indicatedmore change than stability inmany words. Since knowledgemust be
fixed to exist at all, words grounded in motion have no substance in truth.
But falsewords canmasquerade as truth along with the correct. The fault

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goes back to a sincerebut mistaken opinion by the name-givers.Their error

has a powerful tendency to infect all subsequentusers of thewords. Plato's
theory of Forms argues that flux cannot exist on a basic level. Since true
beauty is always beautiful, the absolute existence of beauty need not be long
doubted. Any instability in the essence of beauty would be transferredcom
pletely to theword. If beauty were constantly changing, its substancewould
be created, uttered, and destroyed while the word was being uttered.27
Nevertheless, despite his vigorous restatementof his thought on permanen
ce, Plato refuses to statedogmatically that there is an eternal nature in things.
Heraclitus and his followers could possibly be right about flux.On the other
hand,words with pleasant connotations suggest stability, thus supporting the
Eleatic position. So whatever limited truth these rivalphilosophiesmay have,
"no man of sensewill like to put himself or the education of hismind in the
power of names. Neither will he so far trust names or the givers of names as to
be confident in any knowledge which condemns himself and other existences
to an unhealthy state of unreality; he will not believe that all things leak like
a pot, or imagine that the world is a man who has a running at the nose. This
may be true,Cratylus, but is also very likely to be untrue; and I therefore
would not have you be too easily persuaded of it" (Cratylus440). Socrates
thus counters the charlatanswho have seducedCratylus intoworshiping the
power of language.The soulmust keep its awareness of the tentative stature
of all language.The path to knowledge by sifting true from false words is
arduous, if not impossible.
In short, despite his tendency to use visual metaphors, Plato takes a far
more sophisticated view than do his contemporaries.Recognizing the com
plexity of language, he admits that custom reigns over certain provinces of
language.Nevertheless, he refuses to dignify any human convention as a
universal.All human representations- whether poetically ofman's actions or
verbally of things- fall shortof the reality itself.Bound by the common inad
equacies of humanity, the poet, the philosopher, and the name-giver imitate
the physical as they use language.Their products inescapably fall into the
public domain and must be judged for their encouragement of excellence.
Both word and poetry (theword writ large)have the same potential as any
other beautiful physical artifact to inspireharmony in the beholder. But the
unreconciled mingling of truth and falsity in human words makes the seduc
tive beauty of languageparticularly dangerous.

University of California, Los Angeles

27 Cf. Theaetetus 157.

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