Home (Wittgenstein's Logic of Language) | Site Map - Plato's dialogs

Plato's Cratylus and the Origins of Names

Tr. Benjamin Jowett. In classical times this dialog was also titled "On Correctness of Names" (Diog. L. iii, 58).


I do not think that everything I have written ought to be read. But I do think that the notion of "logic of language" is worthwhile, that it identifies the first, the most basic question of philosophy, although not of course its ultimate question of ethics-life-death (Apology 40c-41c, 29a). What I have done on this page is simply to record things Plato said that strike me as interesting. (And, with apologies to all primary-school English teachers ("I liked this book because it was interesting"), in most cases I have given no reason for their inclusion.)

Outline of this page ...

Are things as Protagoras says, or Do the things words name have natures of their own independent of language as well as of individual perception?

385e-386a - SOCRATES: But would you say, Hermogenes, that the things differ as the names differ [i.e. do the things named differ just as the names of those things differ from language to language (385d-e)]? And are they relative to individuals, as Protagoras tells us? For he says that man is the measure of all things, and that things are to me as they appear to me, and that they are to you as they appear to you. Do you agree with him, or would you say that things have a permanent essence of their own?

[Plato's text goes on to concisely criticise Protagoras' view, unlike the verbose criticism of it in Theaetetus 160c-166d (or thereabouts). But I don't discuss Plato's criticism of Protagoras here. Sorry.]

Whom do we call a 'dialectician'? (Logic or dialectic in Plato)

390c - And him who knows how to ask and answer [questions] you would call a dialectician? -- Yes, that would be his name.

There is further, however, a distinction between a companionable dialectician, and a "word wrester" or "verbal juggler" (Diog. L. i, 17-18) whose concern is for winning the argument (even if by making "the worse appear the better" reason) rather than the truth. Socrates is himself the companionable philosopher (dialectician) of both Plato and Xenophon, both by his mastery of the method of dialectic and by his willingness to be refuted in argument if the truth ("the better reason") is against him.

"The holy daemons upon the earth"

397e - [Hesiod in Works and Days 121] speaks of a golden race of men who came first ... "But now that Fate has closed over this race, / They are holy daemons upon the earth, / Beneficent, averters of ills, guardians of mortal men."

The daemon of Socrates. Without belief in the gods, it would make no sense, because the daemons are the children of gods. If Socrates believes in the one, he must believe in the other too. (W.K.C. Guthrie, Plato: the man and his dialogues: earlier period (1975), p. 83n1; Plato, Apology 27a-e)

Plato contrasts 'soul' with 'body', treating both words as names of things

399d - You know the distinction of soul and body?

THEAETETUS: What do you mean by 'all things'?

STRANGER: My meaning is beyond your comprehension at the very outset. It seems you do not understand what is meant by 'all things'.... Well, 'all things' is meant to include you and me and, besides ourselves, all other animals and plants.... and besides that, sea and sky and earth and gods and everything else there is. (Sophist 233e-234a, tr. Cornford)

Theaetetus would not understand the question "Why is there anything rather than nothing at all?" [Questions without Answers]. Because he has no concept 'all' or 'the whole' in this context; he does not look at or see "the world" that way. Sophist 249d uses the formula: "reality or the sum of things". Question, then: as to the soul-body distinction, can someone be concept-blind (as opposed to concept-ignorant) -- i.e. unable to form the concept 'soul' (unable to learn to use the word 'soul' in Plato's sense of that word)? Must one be able to form the concept 'the whole world' (which some philosophers claim is a nonsense combination of words in any case)?

The picture of the body as a tomb

400b - For some say that the body is the grave of the soul which may be thought to be buried in our present life .... they were under the impression that the soul is suffering the punishment of sin, and that the body is an enclosure or prison in which the soul is incarcerated, kept safe ... until the penalty is paid.

400d - ... there is one excellent principle which, as men of sense, we must acknowledge -- that of the gods we know nothing, either of their natures or of the names which they give themselves, but we are sure that the names by which they call themselves ... are true.

Heraclitus (Plato's teacher in philosophy): the essence of reality is nothing but constant change

401d - ... the opinion of Heraclitus, that all things flow and nothing stands ...

402a - Heraclitus is supposed to say that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the stream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same water twice.

403a - People in general appear to imagine that the term Hades is connected with the invisible, and so they are led by their fears to call the god Pluto instead.

403e-404a - Note also that he [the god of the other world] will have nothing to do with men while they are in the body, but only when the soul is liberated from the desires and evils of the body. Now there is a great deal of philosophy and reflection in that, for in their liberated state he can bind them with the desire of virtue, but while they are flustered and maddened by the body [he cannot].

407e-408b - I would imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter, or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language.... the legislator [of names] formed the name of the god who invented language and speech, and we may imagine him [the legislator, the law-giver of names] dictating to us the use of this name. O my friends, says he to us, seeing that he [the god] is the contriver of tales or speeches ...

409a-b - Anaxagoras ... his recent discovery, that the moon receives her light from the sun.

411b-c - I believe that the primeval givers of names were undoubtedly like too many of our modern philosophers, who, in their search after the nature of things, are always getting dizzy from constantly going round and round, and then they imagine that the world is going round and round .... 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 ...

413c - At last, my friend, I find myself in far greater perplexity about the nature of justice than I was before I began to learn.

416c - Let me ask you what is the cause of why anything has a name. Is not the principle that imposes the name the cause?

418a - ... great changes are made in the meaning of words by putting in and pulling out letters ...

This is etymology, one meaning of 'meaning'. By 'elements' below, Plato seems to mean 'root words', but he may also mean the elements -- whatever they may be (syllables [sounds] or combinations of letters e.g.) -- of root words.

422a-b - At what point ought he [i.e. the person who analyzes "names into words", and inquires "also into the elements out of which words are formed" (421d-e)] to lose heart and give up the enquiry? Must he not stop when he comes to the names which are the elements of all other names and sentences? For these cannot be supposed to be made up of other names.... if we take a word which is incapable of further resolution, then we will be right in saying that we have at last reached a primary element, which need not be resolved any further.

[Cf. Theaetetus 201e-202b (tr. Cornford): "... the first elements of which we and all other things consist are such that no account [i.e. logos: explanation, definition] can be given of them. Each of them just by itself can only be named ... for a name is all there is that belongs to it."]

Heraclitus' metaphor of the river

Query: only concepts are real since they do not change over time as do the object they represent. Plato. Discuss. | Plato believes that concepts are real but objects are not real; what does this mean?

The query's "represent" would mean 'stand for', as in "the meaning of a name is the object the name stands for", but what are these "unreal" objects? how are they identified? what do we see when we look at them (Later the idealists will ask if there is any object there to see, for is there any reason to believe there must be)?

If the query's "concept" = 'meaning of common name' = '(invisible) common nature' = 'Form', is Plato's view that the objects we see (unlike the Forms, which we don't see) are "not real"? Because what is the query's "not real" to mean? because 'real' normally contrasts with 'illusion': would Plato say that "the objects that concepts represent" are an illusion, a shadow-play? Well, isn't that the meaning of Plato's metaphor of the cave (Republic 515c)? The Forms, which we do not see, are real, whereas the objects, which we do see, are not. (Plato's paradox arises from Parmenides' principle: "Don't let habit force you to be governed by your eyes and ears, but let reason decide this issue" (Diog. L. ix, 22).)

That knowledge can only be of what is invariable is an idea Plato takes from Heraclitus): one cannot step in to the same river (object) twice, because the river -- which is composed of moving water -- is constantly changing; and therefore the river we see cannot be known (because how can we have knowledge of what is constantly changing?), but man can grasp hold of the concept 'river' (because the concept itself is unchanging). Question: but is the river comparison applicable to everything we see?

... the opinion of Heraclitus, that all things flow and nothing stands ... that all things are in motion and nothing at rest; he compares them to the stream of a river, and says that you cannot go into the same water twice. (Cratylus 401d-402a)

Heraclitus' picture of reality. If the stuff (physis) of the river -- namely its water -- is forever changing, then there is no firm object to grasp hold of, nothing unchanging to fix our thought on (Plato, Parmenides 135b-c), and therefore there is nothing to have knowledge of. (The idealist Fichte will deny that there are any objects, that there are only concepts, which the furthest development of Parmenides' principle.)

It has been asserted that everything in the world was subject to generation and nothing was ungenerated, but that after being generated some things remained indestructible while the rest were again destroyed.... what these thinkers maintained [i.e. asserted] was that all else has been generated and, as they said, "is flowing away", nothing having any solidity, except one single thing which persists as the basis of all these transformations. So we may interpret the statements of Heraclitus of Ephesus ... (Aristotle, "On the Heavens" (De caelo) 289b~25-30, tr. Stocks) ... and when they saw, what no one previously had seen, that there could be no knowledge or wisdom without some such unchanging entities ... (ibid. 289b~20)

According to Heraclitus' thinking, fire is the single "unchanging entity" [persistent basis] that is nonetheless itself always in a state of fluctuation [transformation], either being kindled [generated] or "flowing away" [being ungenerated] (i.e. going out).

Do names reveal the nature of things?

The following could be added to the question of "natural signs" -- because if names are given by nature, then there are true names and false names (although the latter according to Cratylus [429c, 433c] in the dialog are not names at all). To find the true names would be etymology -- however, it would not be a simple historical investigation, because names might need, not to be accounted for, but to be revised, that is, reassigned. For example, suppose a child were given the name 'Leo', but that his nature proved to be just the opposite; and therefore, wouldn't a "natural etymology" refuse him the name 'Leo' and instead rename him to his real name -- i.e. 'Lamb'? That is a possible sense for 'natural language': if a name is claimed to indicate the nature of things. -- But it does not get us very far, because we must consider the primary elements: can a root-word indicate the nature of the thing it names? (For example, it seems that we explain the meaning of the name 'Leo' by pointing to lions, not the nature of lions by pointing to the name 'Leo'.)

422d - All the names we have been explaining were intended to indicate the nature of things.... And that this is true of the primary quite as much as of the secondary names is implied in their being names.... But the secondary, as I conceive, derive their significance from the primary.... but then how do the primary names which precede analysis show the nature of things, as far as they can be shown, which they must do, if they are to be real names?

A "real name" accordingly is one that states the essence of the thing it names. Someone might take the word 'cow' and suggest that it comes from the sound a cow makes -- i.e. from the gush of air of the cow's 'moo'. Would that make 'cow' a primary element as Plato conceives it? This is certainly not the notion of etymology we find in our dictionaries. Compound words, which are perhaps examples of "secondary names", show their roots, but not necessarily their meanings, 'cowboy' e.g. On the other hand, making the moo sound is not the essence of a cow (and indeed a mute cow is still a cow).

423e - Again, is there not an essence of each thing?... Well, and if anyone could express the essence of each thing in letters and syllables, would he not express the nature of each thing?

Of course, that is the very question: whether there is "an essence of each thing" -- i.e. of everything, for may it not be that some things have essences, others not? (Now we require a definition of 'essence', because its meaning has become unclear. Try to state what the essence of a cow is; and yet don't cows have a common nature?)

425d-426a - That objects should be imitated in letters and syllables, and so find expression, may appear ridiculous, Hermogenes, but it cannot be avoided -- there is no better principle to which we can look for the truth of first names. Deprived of this, we must [say] that "the gods gave the first names ..." [or that name origins are in barbarous words] for the barbarians are older than we are, or may we say that antiquity has cast a veil over them, which is the same sort of excuse as the last, for all these are not reasons but only ingenious excuses for having no reason concerning the truth of words.

425b-c - Shall we leave them [the primary elements], then? Or shall we seek to discover, if we can, something about them, according to the measure of our ability, saying by way of preface, as I said before of the gods, that of the truth about them we know nothing, and do but entertain human notions of them.

[What is the relation of the above to "Man is the measure of all things?" here 'man' meaning not the individual, which Plato states is what Protagoras meant by it (386a), but 'man' in the sense of 'mankind'? Is this not Wittgenstein's "forms of life" in cases where those are similar to Kant's categories -- i.e. involuntary: "human notions of them"?]

426a - ... any sort of ignorance of first or primitive names involves an ignorance of secondary words, for they can only be explained by the primary. Clearly then the professor of languages should be able to give a very lucid explanation of first names, or let him be assured that he will only talk nonsense about the rest.

Philosophy is never-ending (for whatever one affirms today one may refute tomorrow; cf. Protagoras 360e)

427e - CRATYLUS: Well, but surely, Hermogenes, you do not suppose that you can learn, or I explain, any subject of importance all in a moment -- at any rate, not such a subject as language, which is, perhaps, the very greatest [in importance] of all [subjects].

428a - HERMOGENES: No, indeed, but, as Hesiod says [in Works and Days 9.359], and I agree with him, "to add little to little" is worth while.

The following could be added to the conscientiousness that philosophy requires: going over the same ground again and again and again.

428d - For there is nothing worse than self-deception -- when the deceiver is always at home and always with you -- it is quite terrible, and therefore I ought often to retrace my steps and endeavor to "look fore and aft", in the words of ... Homer [Iliad 1.343, 3.109].

429b-c - SOCRATES: Well, what do you say to the name of our friend Hermogenes ["son of Hermes"] ... assuming that he has nothing of the nature of Hermes in him, shall we say that this is a wrong name, or not his name at all?

CRATYLUS: I should reply that Hermogenes is not his name at all, but only appears to be his, and is really the name of somebody else, who has the nature that corresponds to it.

429d - Why, Socrates, how can a man say that which is not -- say something and yet say nothing? For is not falsehood saying the thing which is not?

[Cf. Theaetetus 189a, quoted in PI § 518; ibid. § 95: "Thought can be of what is not." That is also the topic of Plato's Sophist, in which dialog Plato invents "logical form".]

Cratylus offers a definition of 'nonsense' (But what is the antithesis of mere noise?)

Below Cratylus gives a definition of 'nonsense' -- although not of 'sense'. (Aristotle will later give something similar: nonsense is "mere sound without sense", such as the noise cicadas [or crickets] make (Anal. Post. 83a30-33, tr. Mure):

429e-430a - SOCRATES: [Because, according to Cratylus falsehoods may "neither be spoken nor said", Socrates asks if Cratylus were saluted by the words 'Hail, Hermogenes', would those words] have no application to you but only to our friend Hermogenes, or perhaps to nobody at all?

CRATYLUS: In my opinion, Socrates, the speaker would only be talking nonsense.... I should say that he would be putting himself in motion to no purpose, and that his words would be an unmeaning sound like the noise of hammering at a brazen pot.

433c - SOCRATES: And the proper letters are those which are like the things [named]?


433c - CRATYLUS: There would be no use, Socrates, in my quarreling with you, since I cannot be satisfied that a name which is incorrectly given is a name at all.

433d-e - SOCRATES: Do you admit a name to be the representation of a thing? [Plato is here likening e.g. the name of a person to a drawing of that person] .... Or do you prefer the notion of Hermogenes and of many others, who say that names are conventional, and have a meaning to those who have agreed about them, and who have previous knowledge of the things intended by them, and that convention is the only principle? And whether you abide by our present convention, or make a new and opposite one, according to which you call small great [i.e. exchange the usages of the words 'small' and 'great'] and great small -- that, they would say, makes no difference, if only you agreed? Which of these two notions do you prefer?

434a - CRATYLUS: Representation by likeness, Socrates, is infinitely better than representation by any chance sign [because likeness tells you what the nature of the thing named is; whereas a name which is merely a "chance sign" does not].

The Origin of language

There are two questions here: the first about the present status of "names" (which is conventional), the second about their origin. The origins of human language is hardly imaginable as a negotiated agreement (convention); "to those who have agreed about them" applies to future language (i.e. to any new conventions that we may make), not to present language. None of us agreed to the conventions of our mother tongue [native language] when we acquired it in childhood; nor indeed do we make agreements with anyone when we learn a foreign language: the rules are simply "a given". Only after the fact of its origins lost long ago in our natural history (if indeed anyone was ever aware of this question when those origins were still discoverable) -- whatever they may have been -- can we speak of the conventionality of language with any assurance. As to what the origins of human language were, we simply haven't the imagination to invent a satisfying theory, but Plato's Cratylus can be read as an attempt at inventing such a theory.

Real names versus Conventional names

434d-435a - [Cratylus suggests that the Greek word for the English word 'hard', as indicated by its "etymology", has been incorrectly spelled, and Socrates replies:] but still the word is intelligible to both of us [regardless of whether it is "incorrectly spelled" with an 'l' (lambda) or "correctly spelled" with an 'r' (rho)]. When I say sklerós (hard), you know what I mean.

CRATYLUS: Yes, my dear friend, and the explanation of that is custom.

SOCRATES: And what is custom but convention? When I utter a sound which I understand, and you know that I understand the meaning of the sound -- that is what you are saying?


Well, I don't think Cratylus should have so easily agreed that custom is to be identified with convention (434d). In many cases, 'custom' = 'convention', but not necessarily in all. Some customs may plausibly be said to have their origin in instinct, and that the changing of such customs would not be so simple a matter as changing the conventional name of something or other. (Of course I cannot think of an example off hand. But I think the idea is shown by the word 'ouch'; because although foreign languages use different sounds for that English-language cry of pain, it would not be at all easy for an English-speaker to substitute a different sound -- i.e. word -- for 'ouch'.)

"Silence implies consent"

435b - But as we are agreed thus far, Cratylus, for I shall assume that your silence gives consent, then custom and convention must be supposed to contribute to the indication of our thoughts.

435a-b - ... the correctness of a name turns out to be convention, since letters which are unlike are indicative equally with those which are like, if they are sanctioned by custom and convention. And even supposing that you distinguish custom from convention ever so much, still you must say that the signification of words is given by custom and not by likeness [to the thing named], for custom may indicate by the unlike as well as by the like.

But why should it always be one way or the other: even where it is not possible to make an absolute [all] statement, it is still possible to make a general [expectation of all] statement. For example, all stray dogs are to be treated with wariness [caution], although not all stray dogs are in fact dangerous. Why shouldn't "the signification of words" sometimes be "given by likeness", despite our expectation to the contrary?

But must Plato be making a logical [which would be an absolute] rather than an empirical [which would be a generalization] point here: is it ever the case that the signification of words is given by likeness -- i.e. is that logically possible (defined, describable)? Or is this a matter of empirical possibility too: why shouldn't there be a tribe who thought as Cratylus does: if we call Hermogenes by the name 'Hermogenes' in front of them, they stare at us without understanding (like Sextus Empiricus' barbarians who hear the sound when Greek is spoken but do not know its meaning)?

What the ideal language would be according to Plato

435c - For I believe that if we could always, or almost always, use likenesses, which are perfectly appropriate, this would be the most perfect state of language, as the opposite is the most imperfect.

[Aside: on the reform of language. Confucius makes a point about the importance of the names by which we call things thus: that if a father who is not fatherly -- i.e. who has not the likeness of a father in that respect -- were not called 'father', this might lead us to correct abuses in the way we live that are now covered up by words.]

435d - CRATYLUS: The simple truth is that he who knows names knows also the things that are expressed by them.

436a - CRATYLUS: I certainly believe that the methods of enquiry and discovery are of the same nature as instruction.

436d-e - SOCRATES: ... in geometric 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 consideration of his first principles -- are they or are they not rightly laid down? And when he has duly sifted them, all the rest will follow.

Are we here (436d) drawing figures in the sand and basing deductions on them, rather than treating our drawings as mere conventions, from the appearance of which nothing is to be deduced -- i.e. are we treating our drawings as visual aids to the proof, or as part of the proof itself? [The Role of Drawings in Geometry.] The latter may be what Plato means here.

437d - Yes, Socrates, but observe, the greater number [of roots] express motion [as if the legislators of names agreed with Heraclitus "that all things flow and nothing stands" still (401d)].

SOCRATES: What of that, Cratylus, are we to count them like votes? And is correctness of names the voice of the majority?

[cf. Gorgias 473e: is that how we learned to determine what the truth is -- but taking a vote? That is, of course, a "grammatical" question (but here we see also that to imagine a language is to imagine a form of life, because we might imagine a tribe whose concept 'truth' were different from our own. "Is that a tree?" -- "We must take a vote."]

What is the origin of names (i.e. concepts)?

438b - But if things are only to be known through names, how can we suppose that the givers of names had knowledge, or were legislators [i.e. those who made the "laws" giving names to the objects named], before there were names at all, and therefore before they could have known them?

For the origin/s of human language. That there should exist names of bodies (or, as we self-mystifyingly say, of "physical objects" -- Why, are there non-physical objects (ghosts e.g.)?) such as cows, cats, apples, is not, I think, in itself perplexing: bodies are there for us to trip over, and there are practical reasons for even primitive human begins to give names to them.

But what is the origin of our concepts that are not names of objects (or, as we self-mystifyingly say, of "abstract ideas")? How did man come to have the concept 'knowledge' e.g.? Look at all the "bodiless ideas" in language -- where did these come from: they were not all invented by philosophers; they pre-existed philosophy. Are we to presume that the concepts of profound thought originated among men who were not themselves profound thinkers, but even naive and simple-minded? And yet the Greek language existed long before the Greek philosophers, and it came to them already packed with concepts of the non-name-of-object type.

It is as if I were inclined to agree with what Cratylus went on to say: "I believe, Socrates, the true account of the matter to be that a power more than human gave things their first names" [438c]. Question: how can the profound exist among the non-profound, the deep among those who are not deep? What is the origin of our concepts -- if it wasn't a god, what was it? [Yes, of course, there are straight-forward, practical reasons for asking "How do you know?" But let us set Wittgenstein's picture of language games aside for now, and try to ask this question in an ancient Greek way.]

Is the origin of our concepts any less -- perhaps it is more -- perplexing than how can it be that language was once grammatically-syntactically far more complicated than it is now? According to religious myths, "in the beginning", before there was order in the world, there was chaos. But how is language to be pictured originating out of chaos, when language seems to be becoming more chaotic (rather than more orderly) -- that is to say, its grammar less complicated, rather than more? Was there a prehistoric [i.e. pre-historiography, pre-oral-tradition] "golden age" (397e), one of which no trace remains?

Conjectures, wild imaginings of that sort are really not compatible with our notions of archeology, anthropology, so that we are unable to seriously speculate like this. We are not like savages who wander out of the desert, confront the pyramids and are convinced they must be the works of gods, or of a god-like people, not that of mere humans like ourselves. We seek, not merely a rational explanation (i.e. not merely a self-consistent and accounting-for-all-the-data speculation, like Hegel on fossils e.g.) but also an empirically falsifiable explanation; we demand an hypothesis: not "Language, therefore, gods or super-men".

Are we to imagine that our evolutionary ancestors -- presuming that they existed -- spoke like the birds sing or sang like the birds sing (i.e. apparently without meaning), that they sang a language full of profound concepts of which they had no understanding? If we (you and I) had not inherited -- i.e. acquired as children from those we lived among -- our language, could we have invented it for ourselves? Surely language is not in the least a matter of instinct (i.e. such a thesis is not consistent with experience): language has to be learned from other human beings who themselves had to learn it. But cannot one then ask: but who then were the first teachers?

[Does this tell -- i.e. argue -- against Plato's notion of Forms, because surely if we had known the Forms in a prior state of existence (outside our bodies) we would be able to create concepts entirely on our own, before learning our native language (and even if we were born deaf and blind), like Mr. Ballard in William James claimed to have done (PI §§ 342-349)?]

"The Greek language existed before the Greek philosophers, and came to them already packed with concepts of the non-name-of-object type." But it also came with meaning, and philosophers were puzzled by that; they tried to explain-understand what linguistic meaning is; and yet what could be more fundamental: how can we use language if we can't even say what linguistic meaning is or from whence it comes? Do we sing like the birds (but unlike the birds apparently -- i.e. by definition, for what would it mean to say otherwise --, we want to understand what we are doing when we "sing"; we say that Mozart sang like the birds, but instrumental music has no linguistic meaning)?

In the Sophist [261e-262a] Plato goes some way toward this understanding by saying that noun + verb = statement (261a-262d), and that any combination or string of words other than a statement (e.g. noun + noun, or verb + verb) does not "signify any nature of anything that exists or does not exist" (262c, tr. Cornford). -- But that is true only if the particular noun + verb combination is a "meaningful" combination of words; and so Plato does not explain the concept 'meaningful'. [He also excludes -- or at least does not consider -- other meaningful forms of expression, such as e.g. 'Help!, which if we are to explain the meaning/s of 'meaning' we must not do.]

It is true that Plato's first question concerns sense and nonsense (If "forms" cannot be "woven together" to make statements the way the letters of the alphabet are put together to make words, then discourse is impossible [259e-260b]), but he does not define 'meaning': he only says that some words fit together and some words do not (just as not all combinations of letters make words). But he does not tell us how to distinguish between the two. If the words fit together, they signify -- i.e. are meaningful -- and if they do not, then they don't. But this is a tautology, because Plato does not define 'signify'. (261d-e) [Of course, he might do that with examples, but definition by examples is not Plato's program in philosophy: which is to identify (tell us) what the common nature of all forms of language that signify is.] It is, nonetheless, an insight when Plato says that some combinations of words "fit together" and some do not.

[What is Wittgenstein's way of distinguishing between sense and nonsense: did I not call that his "logic of language" and doesn't that require many pages of explication-description. There are two parts to Wittgenstein's famous saying (PI § 43). First, "the meaning of a name is sometimes explained by pointing to its bearer"; this is the class of names-of-objects or names-of-bodies [I would include here names-of-actions such as reading, walking], the existence of which as I said, rightly or wrongly, above is not perplexing. It is the existence of the second large class -- i.e. those cases where "the meaning of a word is often its use in the language" that is troublesome -- i.e. the class where words are not names of objects or bodies [examples of which are 'idea', 'knowledge', 'meaning', 'mind']. Wittgenstein nowhere gives a formula, a mechanism, for determining whether any particular account of the use of a word is true or false, correct or incorrect; he does, on the other hand, say that the meaning or use of a word is to be looked for "in the language-game that is its original home" (ibid. § 116) -- i.e. words are tools that have uses in our life. Now, if we may set aside Plato's Forms, then does Plato too have a "logic of language" (as distinct from a "theory of language"); maybe, but I don't think one can be derived from the Cratylus or Sophist alone (but maybe elsewhere, I don't know).

438e - But if that is true, Cratylus, then I suppose that things may be known without their names?... But how would you expect to know them? What other way can there be of knowing them, except ... when they are akin to each other, and through themselves? For that which is other and different from them must signify something other and different from them.

The "akin" and "different" alludes to Socratic definition, I think. "... things may be known without their names?" -- That is the very question. In the case of cows, perhaps. But what of non-name of object words? As I wrote about that class of words (PI § 43), and I don't think incorrectly: "Take away from us the words 'idea', 'mind' and 'elf', and we are left with nothing to cling to; but give us those words and we seem able to grab hold of ghosts."

The nature of things is not made clear by their names but by the things themselves

439b - But we may admit so much, that the knowledge of things is not to be derived from names. No, they [things] must be studied and investigated in themselves.

Question: how does one investigate a non-name-of-object ("abstract") concept -- i.e. the meaning of a non-name-of-object word? Well, that is of course our master question in logic-of-language. The answer Wittgenstein gave was that we can only describe (e.g. in language games) conventions for using the concept-word. How after all could we give a real definition of what has no physical reality -- i.e. of an idea? [Of course 'physical reality' does not contrast with 'spirit' here.]

439c - There is a matter, master Cratylus [Cratylus is a young man], about which I often dream, and should like to ask your opinion. Tell me whether there is or is not any absolute beauty or good, or any other absolute existence.

Plato is here contrasting 'absolute' with 'things that are in motion' -- i.e. things that are unchanging with things that change -- which is the contrast found in Parmenides and Heraclitus (401d, 402a).

Plato's Conclusion

440b-c - Whether there is this eternal nature in things, or whether the truth is what Heraclitus and his followers and many others say, is a question hard to determine, and no man of sense will like to put himself or the education of his mind in the power of names [as being true representations of the natures-essences of the things they name (e.g. the etymology that suggests that the root of all names is: things in motion)]. 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 [which is, I think, what things in flux are in Plato's view, because what is "real" is eternal, unchanging]; 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 [I think Plato means these are both examples of things that are in constant flux]. This may be true, Cratylus, but it is also very likely to be untrue ...

Site copyright © September 1998. Please send corrections and criticism of this page to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 13 October 2007 : 2007-10-13

The URL of this Web page:

Back to top of page

Wittgenstein's Logic of Language | Bibliography | Site Search | Site Map