Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.35

Rachel Barney, Names and Nature in Plato's Cratylus.   New York/London:  Routledge, 2001.  Pp. vii, 227.  ISBN 0-8153-3965-8.  $75.00.  

Reviewed by Malcolm D. Hyman, Harvard University (
Word count: 1380 words

Plato's Cratylus often frustrates. Some have dismissed it as frivolous; surveys and handbooks blithely assert its importance while disdaining serious engagement; and scholars have fallen time and again into controversies over fruitless and ill-framed questions. Most telling is the widespread disagreement over its purport. Does Plato come down, finally, on the side of nature or convention, or both, or neither? Rachel Barney's book, a revision of her Princeton doctoral thesis (1996), is a focused and sensible study of this difficult dialogue. She claims no single "wonder-working key" (p. 3), but instead explores the Cratylus carefully and from a variety of angles, avoiding commonplace and facile antitheses (such as Scherz oder Ernst?).

B.'s exposition follows the order of Plato's text, from the initial conventionalist argument, through several versions of naturalism (names as tools, the etymological showpieces, the mimesis theory of names), to the return of convention and the dialogue's conclusion. Two final chapters move beyond the Cratylus: the first deals with the seventh letter and the second with the account of false statement in the Sophist. (Sophist 261d1-262e2, which deals with the composition of λόγοι, is parallel in many important respects with the Cratylus's discussion of the composition of names.)

The topic of the Cratylus might initially seem remote from the concerns that many readers are likely to associate with Plato--the Republic's search for an adequate definition of justice, or the epistemological investigations of the Theaetetus. B. provides some valuable help in situating the Cratylus in the larger context of Plato's philosophical work. First, the Cratylus occupies a unique place in what she calls the "project of the strict sense": the attempt, common both to the early "definitional" dialogues and to a number of later works, to establish how some critical term--such as 'courage', 'friendship', or 'virtue'--should be used, and in exactly what it is to be held to consist. B. argues that "Plato's investigation of names in the Cratylus should be understood both as an instance of the project of the strict sense, parallel to works like the Statesman, and as groundwork for the project as a whole" (p. 15). In other words, Plato undertakes a general investigation of what constitutes the right use of names (e.g., 'courage'), and at the same time he investigates a specific name--the term 'name' (ὄνομα) itself. B. also draws attention to the presence of familiar metaphysical concerns in the Cratylus. For instance, Socrates demonstrates that names such as σκληρότης 'hardness' are fundamentally incapable of adequately disclosing (δηλοῦν) their content (434a ff.); here we can compare Socrates' argument in Republic VII that the senses fail adequately to disclose (δηλοῦν) hardness, softness, and the like (523e; p. 127).

B. points also to connections between the Cratylus and Plato's political thought. Naming has serious consequences and when done badly can lead to serious confusion and to wrong action--as in the famous Thucydidean account of the perversion of words during the Corcyrean conflict (3.82.4). This is a valuable (and, no doubt, timely) observation, and one which certainly merits further study. We might profitably compare the essay on the "Right Use of Names" (zheng ming) in the Confucian Xunzi (ca. 310-ca. 210 B.C.E). This is a lucid and intriguing analysis of naming that happens to be embedded in an important text of Confucian moral philosophy. We can keenly appreciate the relation between ethics and the study of names when we examine some of the fallacies discussed by Xunzi: "'To be insulted is not disgraceful', 'The sage does not love himself', 'Killing robbers is not killing people', these (claims) confound names by confusion in the use of names. If one tests them by the purpose of having names and observes which alternative applies generally, one can prevent these confusions" (22.29).1

Perhaps the most innovative feature of B.'s monograph is her interpretation of Socrates' etymologizing as an "agonistic display" (pp. 60 ff.). About half the Cratylus is devoted to these etymologies, which have typically elicited scorn or amusement from modern critics.2 Clearly an interpreter of Plato is obliged to account in some way for the etymologies rather than merely writing them off. B.'s insight is that the etymological section is in fact a competitive performance, an ἄγων. Telling is the frequency of chariot (and, more generally, athletic) imagery and the clear signs that Socrates is intent on repeatedly outdoing himself. B. helpfully presents a comparative survey of other agonistic displays in Platonic dialogues: Socrates' defense in the Phaedrus of μὴ ἐρῶν, his extended interpretation in the Protagoras of Simonides' poem, and the funeral oration of the Menexenus. Socrates' tour de force demonstrates that he can beat the etymologists at their own game, but in the end Plato makes us question whether that game is truly worth playing. Etymology doesn't lead all the way to the truth, whereas philosophy does.

Socrates moves beyond etymology when he arrives at what B. calls "the third stage of naturalism"--that is, the mimetic account of how names function. The etymologist explains one name in terms of others; but those names in turn become explananda, and the question of where to stop becomes urgent. At a certain point the etymologist feels the need to posit prime names--πρῶτα ὀνόματα.3 (B. rightly points to Sextus's infinite regress problem, in his criticism of etymology at Adversus Grammaticos 241-7.) We now get a theory that takes us all the way down to the στοιχεῖα: mere phonemes are meaningful (/r/, for instance indicates motion and hardness, whereas /l/ depicts what is smooth and soft: 434c1-6).4 (Are γράμματα, then, the names of reality? See p. 93 n. 13.) On this view, name use is sound-painting (see 431c3-d8). Now many readers, recalling some famous Platonic criticisms of image-making, will anticipate an attack on the mimetic account. It comes near the end of the dialogue, when Socrates asks: "Given that names are images, which is better: to learn the image and whether it is well made from the image itself, and also the reality [alêtheia] of which it is an image; or to learn the reality from the reality itself, and whether the image of it is well made?" (439a5-b2; B.'s translation, p. 146).

Ultimately Socrates retreats from naturalism; he declares, somewhat cryptically, "we must also bring to bear this vulgar thing, convention, on the correctness of names" (435c5-6; B.'s translation). As μιμήσεις, names reproduce reality poorly and partially. Further, there is little that seems to prevent naming by simple fiat. A series of arguments demonstrates that "convention is in at least some cases a necessary adjunct to mimesis" (p. 133). Where, then, are we left in the debate between νόμος and φύσις? Scholars remain divided.5 B.'s conclusion is that the Cratylus supports "linguistic pessimism"; in other words, names, judged from a naturalist standpoint, must ultimately fail. Names may bear sufficient resemblance to their objects that they serve as reminders, but they cannot inform us about reality.6 Since names can never live up to their promise, the project of reforming language is fruitless.

B.'s penetrating and sustained study of the Cratylus will be useful to any serious student of Plato or of ancient Greek language science. She concentrates on philosophical argument, yet she does not overlook the literary aspects of Plato's dialogue (see, e.g., her discussion of the significance of the words προπέμψει δέ σε καὶ Ἑρμογένης ὅδε at the dialogue's end, pp. 160-1). She refers occasionally to other ancient writings on philosophy of language but attempts no serious study of the Nachleben of the Cratylus. While she conscientiously discusses the Derveni Papyrus (pp. 53-4), one wishes at times for some more examination of Plato's linguistic thought in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries. For example, at 424c we find a scientific system of phonetic classes, which Socrates ascribes to οἱ δεινοὶ περὶ τούτων.7 Plato seems to take for granted some rather sophisticated work on phonetics and rhythmics. It is important to bear in mind that the linguistic τέχνη which he takes on in the Cratylus had achieved considerable results; there was more to it than just "wild" etymologies.

This volume is generally well-edited and produced. I note only a few gremlins, harmless enough ("Deveni" for "Derveni," p. 53 n. 11; "Middlestrass" [!] for "Mittelstrass" in the index). The index also suffers from some annoying omissions (no entries for "Diodorus Cronus" or "Wittgenstein").


1.   Many interesting parallels and contrasts could be drawn between the Cratylus and Xunzi. A. C. Yu, "Cratylus and Xunzi on Names" (in S. Shankman and S. W. Durrant, eds., Early China/Ancient Greece: Thinking through Comparisons, SUNY Press, 2002), is a start, but leaves many important points untouched. For more general background concerning Xunzi's essay on names, see the discussions of C. Harbsmeier (J. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, vol. 7.1, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998, pp. 321-6) and P. R. Goldin (Rituals of the Way: The Philosophy of Xunzi, Openr Court, 1999, ch. 4).
2.   Thus, for instance, W. Sidney Allen: "each word is derived from two or more component words, no distinction being drawn between stem and inflectional endings: the only rule is that the first part of the first component, the last part of the last, and at least one letter of the middle components must be represented in the word under analysis" ("Ancient Ideas on the Origin and Development of Language," Transactions of the Philological Society 81:35-60 (1948), 54). One must bear in mind that Socrates engages in etymology elsewhere in Plato: see e.g. the derivation of ἔρως from ῥώμη at Phaedrus 238c.
3.   The theory of such names -- otherwise called πρωτότυπα ὀνόματα (Dionysius Thrax GG I.1 25.3; for further references, see I. Sluiter, Ancient Grammar in Context, VU Press, 1990, p. 204 n. 117) or primigenia verba (Varro L.L. 6.37) -- plays an important role in ancient language science. In this regard, B. mentions Varro in a note (p. 85 n. 5), but more might be said of this Wurzelworttheorie, which is often associated with Philoxenus (and his Περὶ μονοσυλλαβῶν ῥημάτων). For some interesting passages in the Roman grammarians on the theory, see e.g.: Diomedes GL 1.323.17-20, Pompeius GL 5.202.2-4.
4.   B. quotes an amusing passage from Orwell, but she overlooks a number of other contemporaries (more or less) in whom these ideas turn up. First and foremost there is R. Paget's Human Speech: Some Observations, Experiments, and Conclusions as to the Nature, Origin, Purpose and Possible Improvement of Human Speech (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1930). Paget explicitly mentions Plato, in connection with his theory of oral gestures. Today this material is enjoying a lively resurgence: see e.g., D.F. Armstrong, W.C. Stokoe, and S.E. Wilcox, Gesture and the Nature of Language (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1995). Nor is phonosemantics dead and buried: see the labor amoris of Margaret Magnus, Bibliography of Phonosemantics.
5.   For a quick survey of some disparate positions, see J.E. Joseph, Limiting the Arbitrary: Linguistic Naturalism and its Opposites in Plato's Cratylus and Modern Theories of Language, John Benjamins, 2000, pp. 8-9.
6.   One might compare the more developed linguistic pessimism found in Augustine's De magistro. If names accurately reproduced reality, they would reveal their own meaning. But clearly this is not the case: "cum enim mihi signum datur, si nescientem me invenerit, cuius rei signum sit, docere me nihil potest, si vero scientem, quid disco per signum?" (33).
7.   B. briefly notes (p. 101) that Hippias must have been among these experts (see esp. Hipp. Maj. 285c7-d2). I think more might be said about the the content of their teachings.

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