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George

Greece
615 Posts

Posted - 09 Jul 2007 :  17:46:58  

 

As I'm rethinking Cratylus, thanks to your opening this thread, I tend to believe that Plato tries to show where exaggeration can lead. He uses a lot of more or less plausible etymologies of various concepts in order to show that etymologies by themselves leave us without real knowledge, even if all or some of them were true. For example, even if andreia meant what Socrates said it to mean by its etymology, he does not explain how such an etymology is related with the ordinary known-to-all meaning of andreia. Isolated from any other cultural context this series of etymologies became in the course of the dialogue more and more arbitrary and meaningless.

Besides this, if one thinks on some of these etymologies trying to forget the rest, that is, to avoid what I believe is an exaggeration-plan of Plato's, interesting things might arise. Kalos for example, as related with appearance, form, beauty, etc., it seemed almost irrelevant with "naming" and the verb "to name" (καλῶ). Is then kalosyni (fairness and even goodness) related with klesis (name, vocation), and in or through what kind of ways?

It's not surprising that my etymological speculations on anthropos coinside to some degree with Socrates', because these relations are inherent in language and easy to be discerned. However, in the context of the whole Cratylus, all etymologies are somehow diminished, while I used it as just an example and without focusing on it in itself. In such a manner, avoiding exaggeration, an etymology seems somehow useful as just indicative of possible ways.

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Don Paarlberg

USA
50 Posts

Posted - 12 Jul 2007 :  11:29:24  

 

"[E]ven if andreia meant what Socrates said it to mean by its etymology, he does not explain how such an etymology is related with the ordinary known-to-all meaning of andreia. Isolated from any other cultural context this series of etymologies became in the course of the dialogue more and more arbitrary and meaningless."

Earlier in the dialogue, Socrates argues to address exactly this problem. But his analysis seems to go a step or two deeper than you do. How, he might ask, do we express the "known-to-all meaning of andreia"? With a dictionary definition, perhaps? But then we've got the problem the dialogue jumps off with. Are the names in the dictionary definition conventional or natural? (383c-84d) If names are conventional, then all statements are true. (386c-d) Therefore, it must be instead that names express things' essences. (386d-87d) Then, in the section of the dialogue we've been considering, Socrates purports to show in various concrete cases that he knows how it is that words in the Greek language name things in accord with their natural essences.

I don't doubt you are right that Socrates' 413d-e claims do not express the "known-to-all meaning" of andreia. But the questions then would go over to you. Can you do better than he did, coming up with a linguistic expression of the essence of andreia? Or do you deny that andreia has an essence?

Don

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George

Greece
615 Posts

Posted - 12 Jul 2007 :  12:38:54  

 

Maybe I was not clear enough; I didn't say that Socrates "ought" to connect etymologies with current meaning, but that he was trying to show the absurdity of searching for the truth only by linguistic means. Thinking about definitions, etymologies and current use, together with other probable cultural testimonies, would make him deviate from his purpose, which is not the investigation of a culture's character, but words and absolute truth.

To your second question. If I wanted to know the meaning andreia had in ancient Greeks, I would search for the use of the word in Homer and the poetry that followed. If I wanted to know the meaning of andreia in Christianity, I would investigate the concept as is formed in various central Christian texts. We are searching always for the meaning of a concept in a specific culture. If there exists an absolute reality that is indeed andreia, such a reality can not have a meaning in language, unless it is expressed in a specific culture and civilization. This means, that even if I knew what absolutely andreia is, I could not prove it to anyone, because I would necessarily express it by means of a language, that is of a specific culture and civilization. In my opinion we open our own way by coming into contact with cultural contexts; meaning is not born in the void, nor can it be expressed in a void, no matter how absolute its reality might have been felt to be.

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Don Paarlberg

USA
50 Posts

Posted - 12 Jul 2007 :  13:48:37  

 

That's a valid response. Unsatisfying to me, but I don't know a better way of answering the questions I posed. And I'm sorry for my tone in asking which, in retrospect, seems a bit snide. Sorry if I gave offense.

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Don Paarlberg

USA
50 Posts

Posted - 10 Aug 2007 :  08:04:46  

 

I'm no longer so interested in this subject, and I doubt that others are. But I now have completed my study of the Cratylus, and the following ties up a few loose ends.

1. Plato is not providing “etymologies”. He doesn’t use that term. He has Socrates say that he is showing how words have natural references. Anyway, Plato was in no position to do "etymology" in our way, tracing word histories from one language to another over thousands of years.

2. I think Plato’s linguistic explanations are half-serious - not entirely facetious. He presents them as illustrations of the linguistic theory he has Socrates present at 387d-91a. There, Socrates argues from elaborate analogies (a) that names express things' true natural forms, but (b) that conventional languages name things differently. Each language has, Socrates claims, its own "legislator", who assigns words their meanings. Moreover, there are dialecticians who supervise the Greek and barbarian legislators, ensuring that (to illustrate with an example Plato does not use) the Greek and Persian words for fire, though differing conventionally, both refer to the same thing – namely, the natural form of fire. Ordinary people, Socrates adds, find it difficult to understand why the legislators and dialecticians assign meanings as they do.

I think Plato realized that if his theory was correct he should be able to have Socrates show concretely with examples that Greek words express things’ true natural forms. And I think he could not in fact come up with any successful explanations. Possibly, he hoped that, through tweaking his theory and/or thinking harder about his Greek words, he might later be able to identify some examples. But for now he asserted his explanations only as illustrative place-holders. ("This kind of assertion, if it were true, would show how this word has a natural meaning.") And he deceptively covered his tracks by presenting these illustrations as jokes. Plato’s jokes in the Cratylus are of two overlapping kinds. First, they mock explanations by a contemporary sophist, Euthyphro. Second, they reflect an assumption Plato does not sincerely believe – that words reflect the Greek legislators' beliefs that things in the world are constantly moving in a Heraclitean flux. (According to Aristotle - Metaphysics, Book III, 1010a7-17 - Cratylus was an extreme Heraclitean who famously claimed that one cannot step into the same river even once, which would have implied a complete skepticism as to correct names and knowledge. Aristotle claims moreover - Metaphysics, Book I, 987a30-35 - that Plato adopted his "theory of forms" because, having fallen under Cratylus' spell, he uncritically assumed that knowledge of moving, sensible things was impossible.)

Later in the dialogue at 424b-27d, Plato somewhat more seriously tries to show how the sounds of the Greek language - i.e., letters and syllables - supposedly imitate Heraclitean aspects of nature. Thus, Plato asserts what we might call an “onomatopoetic” theory of language.

Plato’s theories of language sound dubious. We must remember, though, that this question of natural and conventional meanings in language is extremely difficult. No one has ever come up with a satisfactory theory; most have never tried.

3. I speculated playfully June 21 about Heidegger. It turns out, his commentary on Plato’s Sophist includes, in an appendix, notes on the Cratylus. Apparently, Heidegger sees considerable merit in Plato’s two theories of language (387d-91a and 424b-27d); but he does not mention this dialogue’s numerous explanations of words. In particular, Heidegger glosses over Plato’s 421b explanation of "αληθεια" (that it comes from "θεια αλη", "divine wandering"), which does not support Heidegger’s famous etymologically-based assertion that truth is that which is unconcealed.

Don

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