Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.10.12

David Sedley, Plato's Cratylus.   Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2003.  Pp. xi, 190.  ISBN 0-521-58492-2.  $60.00.  

Reviewed by Zina Giannopoulou, Classics and Philosophy, University of Redlands (

Cratylus is Plato's comprehensive discussion of 'the correctness of names,' and one of his most elusive dialogues. In the last decade or so a number of books and articles have attempted to cast valuable light both on the main philosophic purport of the dialogue and on the ways in which it anticipates Plato's more sophisticated linguistic concerns in Sophist.1 Sedley's book, which inaugurates the new Cambridge University Press series 'Cambridge Studies in the Dialogues of Plato,' is a philosophically rigorous and skillful interpretation of the dialogue that, while it poses old and quite familiar questions, manages to deal with them in a refreshingly novel manner. This is especially true of the first two chapters, which examine various issues pertaining to author and text as well as the nature and value of etymology, and to which I shall devote the bulk of my review. Sedley's exposition in chapters three to seven follows the order of the Platonic text, from Hermogenes' conventionalist position, through various aspects of Cratylan nominalism (etymologies, theory of linguistic imitation), to the need for a degree of conventionalism and for the study of the things themselves. The bibliography, though not exhaustive, lists all major studies of the dialogue while an index locorum and a general index are carefully assembled reference tools.

Sedley's overall thesis is that the fictional Cratylus depicts a dialectical confrontation between Cratylus, who, on Aristotle's testimony, was the first major intellectual influence on Plato, and Socrates, to whom Plato eventually transferred his allegiance. While Plato resisted Cratylus' whole-hearted commitment to the ability of names to convey the nature of their nominata, he still shared the conviction that names can be indicators of the nature of the objects they name. Plato's belief in the illuminatory power of names, however, is mitigated by Socrates' demand that things be studied directly, in their own right. The dialogue's conclusion thus reflects Plato's philosophical maturation as a student of Socrates. In order to show evidence of the reflexive interplay between the earlier and the later stage of Plato's intellectual life, Sedley reexamines two highly contested scholarly issues: the dialogue's chronology and Cratylus' intellectual commitments.

As far as chronology is concerned, Sedley skillfully reconciles the views of three scholarly groups: those who on the evidence of both stylometry and philosophical argument place Cratylus near the beginning of Plato's middle period (before Phaedo), those who consider it decidedly a post-Republic work (serving as a prologue to such later works as Theaetetus and Sophist), and those who deem it a late work.2 He calls Cratylus 'a possibly unique hybrid' (16) in that, although its general ideological tenor is distinctly 'middle' -- conveyed especially by the presence of the middle-period Form theory -- some of it was rewritten late in Plato's career, possibly close to the date of Sophist, and incorporated changes made by Plato himself in later life. Sedley supports his settlement of the long-standing chronology-debate by means of three considerations: (a) the occurrence of two intrusive passages (437d10-438a2, supplied by the Vindobonensis and considered a Platonic variant of 438a3-b4, and 385b2-d1, which appears to be out of place) marking incoherencies between either the immediate context of the dialogue or Plato's subsequent findings in Sophist and suggesting, in Sedley's careful argument, that both passages are accidental survivors from an earlier, superseded edition of Cratylus; (b) the mention of aether in 408d, which, qua distinct element, is of Aristotelian origin; and (c) the positing of earth as one of the moving bodies at 397c-d, a belief which Plato came to espouse in his old age.

Regarding Cratylus' intellectual commitments, Sedley follows Kirk in claiming that Cratylus came to believe in some version of Heraclitean flux for the first time in this dialogue.3 It was therefore linguistic nominalism (and Socrates' influence) that sparked his interest in ontological instability, not vice versa. Instead of heeding Socrates' warning against adopting a thoroughgoing Heracliteanism that would incapacitate language, Cratylus evolved from being wedded to a moderate version of ontological flux in our dialogue to espousing an extreme view of this thesis later in life. Although Sedley makes a strong case for this interpretation, I remain skeptical as to whether the issue can be settled. Allan has already plausibly argued that Cratylus' nominalism derived from, rather than preceded, his ontological presuppositions, and, in any case, the fundamental paradox of Cratylus' beliefs, namely the difficulty of reconciling any version of flux with the fixed correctness of names, remains unresolved on any interpretation of his evolution as a thinker.4 The important issue, and one for which Sedley argues quite persuasively, is that Cratylus' Heraclitean affinities underpin the early, flux-ridden cosmological etymologies of the dialogue since they suggest that cosmic fluidity is encoded in cosmological terms. The extension of the application of the flux thesis to the metaphysical and epistemological domains broached later betrays the pre-Socratics' monolithic fascination with cosmological principles, a focus which precluded a proper assessment of the relation of real values to stable entities. By pointing out this limitation, Plato suggests, contra Cratylus, that the study of names cannot be the route to understanding the essence of things.

The dialogue's depiction of the transition from an early to a later phase in Plato's philosophical evolution is most convincingly attested by the etymologies that occupy its central part. Whereas most scholars have dismissed the etymological enterprise as frivolous, Sedley invests it with philosophical significance. The main thesis underlying his analysis of this section is that the flux etymologies are 'exegetically correct,' in that they successfully decode the unstable nature of cosmic entities. The 'stability' etymologies (411a-421c) also share in exegetical correctness because they reflect the early namegivers' fleeting glimpse into the Platonic notion that knowledge and ethical values should be informed by stability. The inability to settle the emerging contradiction between 'being' (which pertains to epistemological and ethical notions) and 'becoming' (attributable to the cosmos) is emblematic of the ancients' exclusive concentration on fluidity, and mars the 'philosophical correctness' of their etymologies, their power to teach us philosophical truths. The long etymological section then, far from being jocular or ornamental, is shown to serve two important functions: it reveals that the early nomothetai are not wholeheartedly Heraclitean in their views and that their Cratylan affiliations are in need of philosophical modification and implementation. The latter Plato achieved under Socrates' intellectual guidance.

Sedley's insightful discussion bears ample evidence of his careful and intelligent reading of the text. A good example of this appears in Chapter Six, 'The limits of etymology.' In examining one of the stages of naturalism, the imitative power of names made evident in the irreducibly single phonemes (stoicheia), the author discusses the function of the etymology of the word sklêrotês as a limiting case of successful imitation. Socrates' choice of this word, Sedley submits, is instrumental in disarming Cratylus' naturalism because it contains both the appropriate R sound (which connotes hardness) and the inappropriate L sound (which indicates softness) in exactly equal numbers. If therefore use of the word sklêrotês successfully conveys the notion of hardness, only an independent awareness of its conventional meaning can eliminate the semantic impasse. Socrates' appeal to conventionalism in this case, as in the rest of the dialogue, does not supplant the heuristic value of vocal imitation but nicely complements it.

This penetrating and sustained study of Cratylus will be useful to any serious student of Plato or of ancient Greek linguistics. The author shows admirably well both why Plato considers the study of language to be of relatively minor importance and why he is nevertheless convinced of the powers of etymology. Although the reader may at times wish for a discussion of the literary aspects of the dialogue or an examination of the relationship between Cratylus and other dialogues that bear upon some of the issues addressed here, the high quality of Sedley's philosophical observations, enhanced at every step by his philological sensibilities, far outweighs the book's occasional and at times perhaps unavoidable omissions.5


1.   See, among others, T.M.S. Baxter, The Cratylus: Plato's Critique of Naming. Leiden, 1992; A. Silverman, 'Plato's Cratylus: the naming of nature and the nature of naming,' Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 10 (1992): 25-72; C. Dalimier, Platon, Cratyle. Paris, 1998; and R. Barney, Names and Nature in Plato's Cratylus. New York and London, 2001.
2.   Among those in the first group see D. Ross, 'The Date of Plato's Cratylus,' Revue Internationale de Philosophie 32 (1955): 187-96; J.V. Luce, 'The Date of the Cratylus,' American Journal of Philology 85 (1964): 136-54; C.H. Kahn, 'Language and Ontology in the Cratylus,' in E.N. Lee, A.P.D. Mourelatos, and R.M. Rorty (eds.), Exegesis and Argument. New York, 1973: 152-76. The second group includes M. Warburg, 'Zwei Fragen zum "Kratylos" ', Neue Philologische Untersuchungen 5 (1929): ; R. Barney, Names and Nature in Plato's Cratylus, New York and London: Routledge, 2001; and G.S. Kirk: 'The Problem of Cratylus,' American Journal of Philology 72 (1951): 225-53. For the arguments advanced by those in the third group see G.E.L. Owen, 'The Place of Timaeus in Plato's Dialogues,' Classical Quarterly 47 (1953): 79-95; and M.M. Mackenzie, 'Putting the Cratylus in its place,' Classical Quarterly 36 (1986): 124-50.
3.   G.S. Kirk, 'The problem of Cratylus,' American Journal of Philology 72 (1951): 225-53.
4.   D.J. Allan, 'The problem of Cratylus.' American Journal of Philology 75 (1954): 271-87.
5.   Sedley's references to Sophist, especially in the last chapter, are rather brief and the reader could have certainly benefited from a more detailed comparative examination of the two dialogues. The same applies mutatis mutandis to his treatment of Theaetetus. The book is well-edited and produced. I have noted only three typographical errors: 'spring' for 'springs' (49); '... on the Platonic understanding of flux, it includes ...' for '... the Platonic understanding of flux includes ...' (119); and 'Annas (1983)' for 'Annas (1982)' (125 n. 4).

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