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Cratylus

Read Cratylus for an entertaining attack on postmodernism, for insightful analyses of the relationship b/w language and reality, b/w linguistics & natural history – & for Soc’s usual pragmatic axioms: “Everyone should expend his chief thought and attention on the consideration his *first principles* – are they rightly laid down? And when he has duly sifted them, the rest will follow.”

Plato’s dialogue Cratylus discusses words, ideas, objects, and the relationships b/w them. Socrates begins by discrediting an idea that postmodernism would champion two millennia afterwards: that any given object can be correctly be called by an infinity of names. He suggests instead: “A name is the instrument for distinguishing the truth: so, every object has a right name [in a given language].” When a woodsman chops wood, we must have the right axe; a tailor must have the right measuring-tape; philosophers (he calls them “legislators”) must use the right words when parsing reality into words.

Here as elsewhere, Soc’s self-abnegatory humour shines through; as always, he seems interested not in winning the debate, but in collaborating with his interlocutor to discover the truth. He warns Hermogenes: “Watch me: ensure that I play no tricks with you.” Elsewhere, checking himself in a bout of zest: “If I’m not careful, I shall be wiser than I ought to be.” The scope of his wit is delightfully, irreverently wide: “I fancy that the ancient philosophers, contemplating reality, were always dizzy from going round&round, & moving in all directions; this appearance, arising from their own internal condition, they fancied a reality of nature: that there’s nothing stable/permanent, only flux.”

(Soc doesn’t deny that change happens; he only denies that change is the essential nature of life; he only denies the postmodern notion that flux preempts any inquiry into the nature of reality.) *Why* is it theoretically impossible for flux to be reality’s fundamental characteristic? Because the universe, being beautiful, cannot be defined by flux. “Just as true beauty is always beautiful, so a thing which is real cannot be always in flux.” Just as a good portrait resembles the subject, so a good name-for-an-object must somehow represent the object in language.

Cratylus delves into etymology: tracing the evolution of phonemes & words in Greek – already a language in flux. He speculates how names for gods & elements originated, and how they became corrupted via phoneme shifts & the wear&tear of everyday language.

Read Cratylus for an entertaining attack on postmodernism, for insightful analyses of the relationship b/w language and reality, b/w linguistics & natural history – & for Soc’s usual pragmatic axioms: “Everyone should expend his chief thought and attention on the consideration his *first principles* – are they rightly laid down? And when he has duly sifted them, the rest will follow.”

Read a PDF or Kindle copy to save paper. I recommend Benjamin Jowett’s translation.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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