What do you folks make of Plato's dialogue, the Cratylus - especially of the etymological explanations of various Greek words that Plato has Socrates present? Would Plato's contemporaries have thought those etymologies were plausible? Did Plato seriously present them? Or were they pretty obviously a joke, perhaps a burlesque of some un-named sophist's pretentious declarations?
Briefly to summarize, after explaining how various gods got their names, Socrates launches into explanations of various scientific and philosophical terms (mostly at about 411-21). The following (from Jowett's translation at 411d-e) is a sample: "Phronesis (wisdom), which may signify phoras kai rou noesis (perception of motion and flux), or perhaps phoras onesis (the blessing of motion), but is at any rate connected with pheresthai (motion); gnome (judgment), again, certaily implies the ponderation or consideration (nomesis) of generation (gone), for to ponder is the same as to consider. Or, if you would rather, here is noesis, the very word just now mentioned, which is neou esis (the desire of the new); the word neos implies that the world is always in process of creation."
In this 411-21 passage, we've got similarly bizarre explanations of (among other things) kakos at 415, kalon and aishron at 416, and aletheia, pseudos, on (being) and onoma at 421.
Heidegger, I'm sure, must have gone wild when he came upon this passage. I'm wondering if I should too.
Since Plato is not a laboratory-thinker, I guess that Cratylus proves that there was already existing some sort of a heideggerian approach to language. It is obvious, as you write, that Plato wanted to show the limits of such an approach, to the point of making fun of it. Cratylus can be a school for modern heideggerians, to let them know how dangerous is this field. It could also help (if they were open to be helped) those who identify knowledge of the ancient Greeks with arithmology, "secret" meanings of Greek words, etc.
Supporting alkm's speculation, I think there are three circumstantial reasons to suppose that Plato was indeed making a joke of some sort when he had Socrates advance his etymological claims in the Cratylus.
First, Plato does not behave as we might expect if he were proposing his etymologies seriously. Our etymologies trace historical developments. To my understanding, though, Plato and his contemporaries did not have available much historical evidence to consider, for there weren't many genuinely old documents or inscriptions. (Homer and Hesiod, for example, were only a few centuries earlier.) And Socrates in the Cratylus does not, at any rate, make any historical claims.
Second, Plato and his contemporaries would have been well aware of the differing Greek "dialects". Plato's etymological work might validly have addressed these differences, but it does not. It looks as though he unabashedly serves us up a big dose of Attic chauvinism.
Third, when he addresses difficult issues Plato more normally identifies problems and debates them. There is no debate as to the merits of the Cratylus etymologies though: Socrates just declaims them, one after the other.
I wouldn't give these reasons much weight if those on this board who know Greek claimed that Plato's Cratylus etymologies somehow ring true to them. If others share alkm's sense that they sound fishy, however, I'm willing more confidently to speculate that Plato was not serious.
Not that etymology is useless or (at least not always) irrelevant. I agree with your point about Cratylus, and although we can't stress the value of etymology to Heidegger's extreme devotion, if we are to stay in the path of Plato, we must, on the other hand observe some differences that are meaningful.
For example, the word anthropos (ἄνθρωπος, human being, male and female) may not be the key to the hidden meaning of manhood, but it does have a difference with the Latin homo (whence the modern "human"), and this difference reveals something about the two cultures, if not about man as such. By this difference we have a hint about the Latins perceiving man as related mainly with humus (dust) while the Greek word anthropos relates man mainly with a direction upwards (ano), with flowers and flowering (anthos, anthisis, etc), and with seeing and be seen (opsis). We can estimate such linguistic hints together with other aspects of these cultures and see if we can build a valid general view of them.
Re-reading the Cratylus, I'm discovering that a number of my airy pronouncements were dead wrong. I am sorry to have cluttered this board with such drivel. I will hope to have something better to say once I've completed my reconsiderations.
Mine of June 21 was wrong in at least two respects. First, Plato makes it quite clear that he is not proposing his etymologies seriously but rather is mocking sophists whose views his audience would have known. Like Aristophanes, he pokes fun through gross exaggerations. Second, he has Socrates identify two specific targets - Euthyphro primarily, but also Prodicus. Again and again in the etymological section, Socrates ironically claims he is temporarily inspired by "the great Euthyphro". Most of his pronouncements, according to an essay on the web by Jowett, the English translator, are "ridiculously bad;" "yet among them are found, as if by accident, principles of philology which are unsurpassed by any ancient writer . . ." (Jowett does not, so far as I can see, specifically identify the gems he thus praises.)
New questions now.
1. I cannot follow Socrates' explanation of courage (andreia) at 413d-e. Is his line of thought clear in the original Greek, so that we should blame Jowett for a muddled translation? Or is Socrates spouting nonsense in the Greek too (so that Plato evidently was setting his audience up for a chuckle over the subsequent observation of Socrates' interlocutor that this explanation is "surely probable")?
2. George, your explanation in this thread of 'anthropos' seems to overlap about 40% with Socrates'. Is this just coincidence, or were you undertaking to defend Socrates' view?
For reference, Socrates claims at 399b that 'anthropos' was once a sentence and now is a word. This 'anthropos' implies that other animals never examine, or consider, or look up at (anathrei) what they see, but that man not only sees (opope) but considers and looks up at that which he sees. Hence, he alone of all animals is rightly called 'anthropos,' meaning 'anathron a opopen'.
Regardless whether you agree with this 399b claim, what are the grounds of your own view of 'anthropos'? Is there some etymological method that you use, or some authority to whom you refer; or are you reporting your own intuitions?
3. Another question primarily for you, George. Socrates' explanations of 'kalos' and 'agathos' seem vaguely to differ from those you've proposed on other threads. Would you say that Socrates' explanations are plainly ridiculous and wrong? Or, do you see some sense in Socrates' proposals?
For reference, the following are Jowett's English translations of Socrates' various claims.
'Agathon' is the name which is given to the admirable ('agasto') in nature. For, although all things move, still . . . there are some things which are admirable [in their motions] and this admirable part of nature is called 'agathon'. (412c)
'Kakon' is a word about which Socrates can form no opinion. He infers it must be of foreign origin [which, according to a principle he states earlier, means he need not explain it]. (416a) Previously, however, Socrates claims that 'kakia' means 'kakia ienai' or going badly, or limping and halting, of which the consequence is that the soul becomes filled with vice. And, he adds, if 'kakia' is the name of this sort of thing, 'arete' will be its opposite, signifying an ease of motion [where] the stream of the good soul is unimpeded. For 'arete' more correctly is called 'aeireite' (ever flowing). (415c-e)
'Aischron' evidently means 'aei ischon roes' (always preventing from flowing). (416a-b)
'Kalon' appears to denote mind. For it is mind which called (kalesan) things by their names, and mind is the beautiful (kalon). For the mind is called beauty because it does the works which we recognize and speak of as the beautiful.
(Note all the references above to "flowing" and "flux". Many of Socrates' Cratylus etymologies are similarly expressed in terms of the Heraclitean metaphysical doctrine that all things flow. This Heracliteanism may be part of Plato's grand joke, perhaps a view of Euthyphro's which he intended to mock; but it seems also to echo themes Plato takes more seriously elsewhere.)