Linguistic Correctness in the Cratylus
Today, professional philosophy is dominated by the assumption that literary language is either merely ornamental or that it even detracts from the purposes of philosophical discourse. Ancient philosophers, however, did not share this assumption. Thinkers like Heraclitus, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Plato all recognized that their manner of expression contributes to the philosophical purposes of a text in a way that does not merely confirm or illustrate what is said. This is why Plato couches his account of linguistic correctness (his only sustained treatment of linguistic meaning) in a thoroughly poetic dialogue—the Cratylus. Many scholars have recognized Plato’s debt to the literary tradition by trying to identify the provenance of his literary practices (such as etymologizing) in the Cratylus. And on the other hand, many have developed sophisticated interpretations of the dialogue’s arguments. However, no research adequately represents the expressly philosophical contribution made by Plato’s appropriation of the literary tradition in the Cratylus. My dissertation engages Plato’s appropriation of the literary tradition by looking at both his adoption of literary concepts and his enactment of literary practice. It does so with a focus on two philosophical questions that are fundamental to the Cratylus and yet have been neglected in the scholarship: (1) what exactly does Plato mean by “correctness,” and (2) why does he have Socrates demonstrate this correctness by etymologizing? The first chapter tackles the first of these questions by replacing the nearly universal understanding of “correctness,” as a correspondence between the semantic content of a name with a true description of the name’s referent, with an understanding based on the concept’s provenance in the literary tradition, a broader appropriateness of language to what is spoken about that I call “resonance.” Each subsequent chapter address a key instance where the standard understanding of correctness (and of etymology’s role in exhibiting correctness) is inadequate—and where an understanding of correctness as resonance makes more sense. The second chapter demonstrates that Cratylus makes positive philosophical contributions to an understanding of correctness as resonance through his own stylized use of language. Therein, I argue that Plato uses Cratylus’ style to express the idea that language’s correctness increases as it is made increasingly conspicuous in its insufficiency, thus precluding closure or reification of what is what is spoken about. The third chapter demonstrates that a crucial argument early in the dialogue is analogical in the strongest sense—that a correct understanding of the argument requires an understanding of the correctness (as resonance) of the argument’s analogues. Like Chapter 2, this demonstrates how language can be made meaningful, paradoxically, through a sort of destructive manipulation. The fourth chapter shows how the standard understanding of correctness cannot be true of Socrates’ paradigm instance of correctness, the Homeric god-given names, and how these names are more correct because they require us to seek their varied and unapparent resonances. And the final chapter shows how the entire dialogue is unified by a brief and previously overlooked allusion to a scene in the Iliad. This recognition provides the interpretive key to understanding the philosophical contributions made by the dramatic structure of the dialogue. Hence, this dissertation provides a renewed understanding of the dialogue’s central concern, correctness, and its central practice, etymologizing. Its interpretation is interesting for what it says about the relation of meaning to such diverse things as phonetics, context, language’s mode of expression, etc. And by demonstrating how this sophisticated account of meaning results from attention to Plato’s appropriation of his predecessors, my dissertation contributes to the growing scholarship that recognizes the philosophical import of Plato’s “literary” engagement.