The formal topic of the Cratylus is ‘correctness of names’, a hot topic in the late fifth century BC when the dialogue has its dramatic setting. Sophists like Prodicus offered training courses in this subject, sometimes perhaps meaning by it little more than lessons in correct diction. But that practical issue spawned the theoretical question, what criteria determine the correct choice of name for any given object? And in the Cratylus Socrates’ two primary interlocutors, Hermogenes and Cratylus (the latter of whom is reported by Aristotle to have been an early philosophical influence on Plato), represent two diametrically opposed answers to that question.
As a preliminary, it is important to be clear about what is meant by ‘names’. The plural noun onomata (singular onoma), translated ‘names’, in fact varies between being (a) a general term for ‘words’, (b) more narrowly, nouns, or perhaps nouns and adjectives, and (c) in certain contexts, proper names alone. In (a), the most generic use, it comes to designate language as such. Ultimately, for this reason, the Cratylus is Plato’s dialogue about language, even if the elements of language on which it concentrates are in fact mainly nouns. Proper names are included among these nouns, and at times are treated as paradigmatic examples of them.
The positions of Hermogenes and Cratylus have come to be known to modern scholarship as ‘conventionalism’ and ‘naturalism’ respectively. An extreme linguistic conventionalist like Hermogenes holds that nothing but local or national convention determines which words are used to designate which objects. The same names could have been attached to quite different objects, and the same objects given quite different names, so long as the users of the language were party to the convention. Cratylus, as an extreme linguistic naturalist, holds that names cannot be arbitrarily chosen in the way that conventionalism describes or advocates, because names belong naturally to their specific objects. If you try to speak of something with any name other than its natural name, you are simply failing to refer to it at all. For example, he has told Hermogenes to the latter’s intense annoyance, Hermogenes is not actually his name.
Socrates is the main speaker in this dialogue, and his arguments are generally taken to represent Plato’s own current views. He starts out by criticizing conventionalism, and persuades Hermogenes that some kind of naturalism must be endorsed. This leads to a long central section in which Socrates’ version of naturalism is spelt out by appeal to proposed etymologies of philosophically important words: those words, it turns out, have not been attached in a merely arbitrary way to their objects, but are encoded descriptions of them. So far the argument seems to be going Cratylus’ way. But in the final part of the dialogue Socrates turns to Cratylus and shows him that his expectations as a naturalist are set impossibly high: names cannot aspire to being perfect encapsulations of their objects’ essences, and some element of convention is must be conceded.
Scholarly opinion has long been divided as to how Socrates’ own eventual position should be understood — as a qualified vindication of conventionalism, of naturalism, or of neither. If Socrates is read as actually dismissing naturalism, it is almost inevitable that his naturalistic etymological decodings of words, to which well over half the dialogue is devoted, should be taken as not seriously intended, and in fact as making fun of the entire etymological practice. This has been the majority position among interpreters for well over a century. It rests partly on the conviction that (a) the etymologies are ridiculous, and (b) Plato knew as well as we do that they are ridiculous.
However, at least some caution is required here. The Greeks knew little about the historical origins of their own language, and the style of etymology practised by Socrates in this dialogue is not very different — except perhaps in its elaborateness — from that practised by a great many ancient writers, one which had its roots in Homer and Hesiod. None of Plato’s readers in antiquity, starting with his own pupil Aristotle, seems to have suspected the Cratylusetymologies of being non-serious. The interpretation according to which Plato is mocking etymological practice, although not demonstrably wrong, may be suspected of crediting him with an anachronistic degree of insight into historical linguistics. That Socrates’ long etymological extravaganza is peppered with humour is not in doubt, but that the humour must be directed at the etymologies as such is less clear. Reading Socratic humour is a largely intuitive matter, and one which regularly divides readers. Socrates’ humour in the Cratylus is at least partly directed at his own uncharacteristic boldness in declaiming long strings of word derivations, contrary to his familiar disavowal of expert knowledge about anything. Whether some of it is left over for deflating the etymological enterprise itself is a question on which readers must make up their own minds. But the present article is based on the contrary assumption, that the etymological practice on display in the dialogue is seriously meant.
Where does the Cratylus belong among Plato’s works? It is conventional, though far from uncontroversial, to place an entire series of dialogues featuring the ‘classical theory of Forms’ in his middle period. And three of these — the Republic, Phaedrus and Parmenides — are often thought to belong late in that period, on the evidence of stylistic features. For those who accept this schema, the Cratylusought to belong relatively early in the group, since it contains the classical theory of Forms but lacks the late stylistic features. It might therefore, with some plausibility, be placed close to the Phaedo, and this dating has often been favoured. However, thematic links to the interests explored in late dialogues like the Sophist have encouraged some to date it later. Besides the manuscripts preserve two passages that seem to be traces of a superseded first edition of the dialogue, suggesting that what we have could be a revised edition, quite possibly of relatively late date. If so, the text as we have it may not straightforwardly represent any one period of Plato’s work.