The Legacy of Hermes: Deception and Dialectic in Plato’s Cratylus

Journal of Ancient Philosophy 10 (1):26-58 (2016)
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Against the background of a conventionalist theory, and staged as a defense of a naturalistic notion of names and naming, the critique of language developed in Plato’s Cratylus does not only propose that human language, in contrast to the language of the gods, is bound to the realm of myth and lie. The dialogue also concludes by offering a set of reasons to think that knowledge of reality is not within the reach of our words. Interpretations of the dialogue’s long etymological sections often neglect this critique and tend to end up with an overly optimistic assessment of the theory of language on offer. In the light of one of the dialogue’s central etymological accounts, Socrates’ etymology of the name Hermes, this paper discusses two recent and influential versions of such a view: David Sedley’s theory of onomatopoetic encapsulation and Franco Trivigno’s qualified referentialism. It argues that the complex relation between language and reality expressed in the Cratylus cannot be exhaustively captured by either of these theories because Plato considers all names to be semantically underdetermined until they are put to use. It suggests that Plato rather works with a functionalistic notion of names and naming, and that the dialogue’s account of natural and correct naming is to be understood in these terms.
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