The Society for Ancient Greek Philosophy Newsletter

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Interpreters of Plato’s Cratylus are faced with a puzzle. If Socrates’ etymologies (397a-421c) are intended to be parodies, as many have thought,[1] what is the status of the imitation theory of letters (421c-427d), which provides the theoretical foundation for etymology and, as some have thought, indicates Plato’s ambition to construct an ideal language?[2] In this paper, I focus on three questions: [1] whether Plato thought that imitation provided a suitable basis for an ideal language; [2] whether Plato thought that the development of an ideal language would be philosophical possible or desirable; [3] whether he thought that ordinary language is unsuitable for philosophical discourse. I argue, first, that Plato provides two arguments against imitation grounding an ideal language; second, that one can reconstruct three independent arguments against the possibility and desirability of ideal language; and, third, that his own use of ordinary language at least tells against the idea that Plato thought it unsuitable for philosophical discourse. I aim to contribute to the scholarly debate about Plato’s attitude towards an ideal language by laying out, in a maximally clear way, what I take to be the relevant arguments and by introducing Plato’s own use of language as relevant evidence.

[1] See e.g. Brock 1990; Arieti 1991; Sallis 1996; Gonzalez 1998; Nightingale 2003. For those taking them as serious philological accounts, see e.g. Grote 1867; Findlay 1973; Sedley 1998; Sedley 2003.

[2] See Weingartner 1970, 14ff; Kretzmann 1971, 137; Anagnostopolous 1972, 729; Baxter 1992. Kretzmann claims that the result of Platonic dialectic might be an ideally precise language (1971, 137), while Baxter maintains that a perfect language serves as a prescriptive ideal for a precise terminology (1992, 48ff.). Against the idea that Plato envisions an ideal language at all, see e.g. Kahn 1973, 167; Gonzalez 1998, 78ff.