BMCR 2011.12.60

The Cratylus of Plato: A Commentary

, The Cratylus of Plato: A Commentary. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xx, 538. ISBN 9780521763479. $140.00.


Since the publication of Goldschmidt’s Essai sur le ‘Cratyle’ in 1940, at least six other books entirely, or to a large extent, devoted to the Cratylus have been printed, including a commentary,1 not to mention a generous number of articles. Yet, it is only now, at long last, that a complete and in depth commentary has been published. Ademollo’s commentary is the pinnacle of a long-standing discussion on the Cratylus within the academic community, and it will establish itself as the canonical philosophical commentary on the Cratylus for a long time to come. Three features of this work justify that status. First, Ademollo does justice to the dialogue’s scope and incredibly diverse array of philosophical topics and hermeneutical issues, which include the relation between names and their referents or nominata, relativism, conventionalism, naturalism, truth and falsehood, the role of names in philosophical inquiry, Heraclitean Flux, the Theory of Forms, the history of etymologies, and the ancient commentary tradition on the Cratylus. Second, Ademollo’s systematic treatment of these issues is always philologically illuminating and insightful, as well as rigorous, imaginative, profound, and stimulating. Third, Ademollo’s commentary has the exceptional asset of reporting and assessing contending interpretations on specific issues and passages, as well as different translation of the dialogue, including Ficino’s Latin translation. At times Ademollo brings supplementary arguments for what he thinks is the best interpretation, at times he argues for his own interpretation, and more often than not unarguably supersedes the existing secondary literature.

Ademollo’s is a running commentary insofar as it progresses by quoting chunks of text, all in his own translation, and explaining them line by line in full detail. It should be noticed that the text of the Cratylus is not quoted or studied in its entirety. The passages selected contain an argument, information relevant to an argument, or philosophically pertinent information. This selection criterion, in conjunction with Ademollo’s approach, results in a philosophical commentary. Issues of textual criticism and interpretation are considered, provided they have some philosophical significance. As a result, philological comments are ancillary to philosophical interpretation.

The book is divided into an introduction and nine chapters, each one with sections of its own usually devoted to a small chunk of text and occasionally to a specific issue. The Introduction identifies the subject of the dialogue, its structure, the dramatic characters, their relationship to historical figures, the dramatic date, and the place of the dialogue within the chronology of Plato’s works. In Ademollo’s view, the Cratylus is not a late dialogue and “it is designed to be read after Phd. and before the Tht..” The first two chapters, 1 Cratylus’ naturalism (383a-384c) and 2 Hermogenes’ conventionalism (384c-386e), respectively analyze the two contending theories of the dialogue. In chapter 3, Naturalism defended (386e-390e), a series of arguments designed to refute conventionalism in favour of naturalism are carefully assessed. The next four chapters, 4 Naturalism unfolded (390e-394e), 5 Naturalism illustrated: the etymologies of ‘secondary’ names (394e-421c), 6 Naturalism illustrated: the primary names (421c-427e), and 7 Naturalism discussed (427e-433b), deal with the longest, most puzzling, and least studied section of the dialogue, which consists in the development of a naturalistic theory of names supported by an apparently motley collection of etymologies frequently dismissed by interpreters as blatant nonsense and a trivial joke. In chapter 8, Naturalism refuted and conventionalism defended (433b-439b), Ademollo examines a final refutation of Naturalism and the etymologies, and determines which philosophical aspects of the Naturalistic position are, in Plato’s view, to be preserved and which are to be rejected. This leads to an elucidation of the role convention plays in naming and the role names play in the understanding of reality. The final chapter, 9 Flux and forms (439b-440e), interprets the final four elliptical arguments of the Cratylus, which appear to contain Plato’s final word on naming in the dialogue. The book has two appendixes, one devoted to the text of 437d10-438b8, which has been transmitted by the MSS in two different versions. The second appendix registers interpolations and non-mechanical errors in MS W (Cod. Vind. suppl. Gr. 7) and its family of MSS δ. In addition to a General Index, the book has three handy indexes for ancient texts, Greek expressions, and words discussed in the dialogue.

Given the extent and attention to detail of the commentary, I will limit the rest of this report to a handful of exegetical achievements that either exemplify Ademollo’s mode of operation, represent a significant development beyond previous scholarly discussion, or could be of help for those willing to undertake further work on the Cratylus. Commentators usually condemn Plato for committing the fallacy of division at Cratylus 385c1-6, where they take Plato to hold that all parts of a false proposition are false. In fact, a false proposition need not have the same truth-value as its terms (cf. p∧q and p∨q). But Ademollo argues that Plato is making a different claim, namely that a sentence such as ‘Callias walks’ is true iff ‘walks’ is true of Callias and ‘Callias’ is true of something that walks, and it is false iff ‘walks’ is false of Callias and ‘Callias’ is false of something that walks. The advantage of this economic and sound reading is not only settled by the principle of charity, but by the context itself. Insofar as Plato’s interest in the Cratylus is the correctness of names, he is focusing on names and their referents and not on the logical syntax of propositions – not to mention the fact that Plato in the Cratylus, unlike in the Sophist, is still subject to the view current in his time that sentences were noun phrases.

The passage where the alleged fallacy of division is found, 385b2-d1, is problematic for one more different reason. Even though it has been transmitted in the very same location by all MSS, it does not square with its context. Schofield proposed to place it after 385c7, but Ademollo correctly argues that the passage does not fit there either, and since Proclus read it where the transmitted MSS have it and there is no compelling reason to place it anywhere else in the dialogue, it should not be moved. This treatment of 385c1-6 and 385b2-d1 illustrates Ademollo’s method, whose motto seems to be that every explanation and comment should be charitable, historical minded, philosophically insightful, sound, textually faithful, and non-intrusive.

The bulk of Ademollo’s contribution to the study of Plato’s Cratylus lies in his exhaustive examination of the “etymologies section” of the dialogue. Here, Ademollo brings to light the historical antecedents and inspiration for the etymologies. In his view, the etymologies provide a philosophical sketch of the history of Greek wisdom and thought from Homer down to Plato, with explicit or implicit mention of Heraclitus, Diogenes of Apollonia, Empedocles, Anaxagoras, Protagoras, the Atomists Democritus and Leucipus, but with the remarkable exception of Parmenides. Plato’s implicit reference to the Atomists in Cratylus had already been noticed, but Ademollo goes further to content that there is an atomistic hypothesis in the background of both the etymologies and the Flux Theory.

Against the opinion that the “etymologies section” is a parody or a joke, and that neither Plato, nor Socrates, could have seriously entertained the view that names or letters reproduce the nature of things, Ademollo maintains that the dramatic character Socrates seriously believes that Greek letters resemble certain features of things and that names resemble objects. Ademollo argues that Socrates, the dramatic character, is convinced that the etymologies are correct as he analyzes them, though the flux thesis they are based on is wrong. He, however, recognizes that the tone of the etymologies is humorous and that Socrates’ claim to have been inspired by Euthyphro (396c6-d8) is a bad start and leads one to expect the total refutation of naturalism. Yet, although Socrates may at times appear to say that his etymologies are ridiculous, that is not a disavowal of the etymologies, but rather an indication that they strike the reader as novel and surprising. The role of humour in the etymologies, Ademollo suggests, can be compared to Plato’s use of myth in other dialogues. He does not fully develop this claim, but he obviously implies that humour is a literary as well as a philosophical device.

Ademollo recognizes that the dialogue in the end concludes that it is false that a name can indicate its referent by simply resembling it, however great the resemblance may be. He believes that Socrates, the dramatic character, either fails to fully see the falsity of the etymologies or has reasons not to disclose his views, while Plato, the author, was fully aware of the falsity. It may well be the case, Ademollo suggests, that Plato has Socrates hold something false for the sake of the discussion. Unfortunately Ademollo does not explain what use this disparity between Plato and his apparent mouthpiece, Socrates, has, nor does he fully and convincingly explain why the character Socrates might hold a view inconsistent with the conclusion of the dialogue. It strikes the reader as odd that Ademollo did not consider that Socrates might be ironical through all or some of the etymologies. The “etymologies section” of the Cratylus has once again proven to be difficult to interpret, and it seems that in addition to historical elucidation, it demands a study of its relationship to the other sections of the dialogue.

One more widely discussed issue on which Ademollo has something to say about, is the meaning of δηλοῦν (to show) and σημαίνειν (to signify), and the relationship between name and nominatum in the Cratylus. Ademollo, like most interpreters, thinks that δηλοῦν and σημαίνειν are equivalent, but unlike them he goes on to argue that if for Socrates names such as Ἄναξ and ῞Εκτωρ signify almost the same thing and refer to something insofar as they give a description of that thing (399c, 415cd, 419a, 437ab), then to signify the same for Socrates is not to have the same referent but to have the same etymological meaning, sense, or connotation. Consequently, a name ‘signifies’ not merely a referent but some sort of informational content about the referent conveyed by the name’s etymology. A detail emphasized by Ademollo which interpreters have overlooked, is that expressions of will and communication such as ὅτι βούλεται τὸ ὄνομα, i.e. ‘what the name wants/intends’, mean the same as δηλοῦν and σημαίνειν. This suggests, according to Ademollo, a close connection between the meaning of a name and what a name-giver means by the name.

This analysis of the name- nominatum relation, however, is extracted from the etymologies, which are based on a theory that at the end of the dialogue is refuted. What, then, would Plato’s final word be on that relation at the end of the Dialogue after the refutation of the etymologies? This question seems to be left to the reader. Ademollo’s commentary unfolds diachronically with anticipatory and retrospective remarks, but it neither offers a synchronic and synthetic view, nor any global reflection on the dialectical interplay between the different sections of the dialogue. The commentary is intended as an analysis of individual passages and individual arguments, and it is thus apparently conceived as a tool for further comprehensive philosophical work.

This commentary is an indispensable tool for anyone who intends to understand and work on the Cratylus. Despite being a book exclusively devoted to one single Platonic dialogue, it offers extensive information on Platonic philosophy and how to do philosophical and philological work in the field of Ancient Philosophy. Graduate and undergraduate students will find in this book an invaluable source of help and inspiration, while specialist on Ancient Philosophy will find a stimulating and bright interlocutor. This is a priceless book for Hellenists interested in Greek intellectual culture and lore, as well as for anyone interested in the history of grammar and ancient Greek reflection on language in general.


1. Goldschmidt, V. (1940) Essai sur le ‘Cratyle’. Paris. Gaiser, K . (1974) Name und Sache in Platons ‘Kratylos’. Heidelberg. Rijlaarsdam, J.C. (1978) Platon über die Sprache. Ein Kommentar zum Kratylus. Utrecht. Baxter, T. M. S. (1992) The Cratylus. Plato’s Critic of Naming. Leiden, New York and Cologne. Barney, R. (2001) Names and Nature in Plato’s Cratylus. New York and London. Sedley, D. (2003) Platon’s Cratylus. Cambridge. Derbolav, J. (1972) Platons Sprachphilosophie im Kratylos und in den späteren Schriften. Darmstadt.