Cratylus, Plato
2:51 h Ideas Lvl 10.58
Cratylus is the name of a dialogue by Plato. Most modern scholars agree that it was written mostly during Plato's so-called middle period. In the dialogue, Socrates is asked by two men, Cratylus and Hermogenes, to tell them whether names are "conventional" or "natural", that is, whether language is a system of arbitrary signs or whether words have an intrinsic relation to the things they signify. The individual Cratylus was the first intellectual influence on Plato (Sedley). Aristotle states that Cratylus influenced Plato by introducing to him the teachings of Heraclitus, according to MW. Riley.




Persons of the Dialogue: Socrates, Hermogenes, Cratylus

Hermogenes. Suppose that we make Socrates a party to the argument?

Cratylus. If you please.

Her. I should explain to you, Socrates, that our friend Cratylus has been arguing about names; he says that they are natural and not conventional; not a portion of the human voice which men agree to use; but that there is a truth or correctness in them, which is the same for Hellenes as for barbarians. Whereupon I ask him, whether his own name of Cratylus is a true name or not, and he answers “Yes.” And Socrates? “Yes.” Then every man’s name, as I tell him, is that which he is called. To this he replies — “If all the world were to call you Hermogenes, that would not be your name.” And when I am anxious to have a further explanation he is ironical and mysterious, and seems to imply that he has a notion of his own about the matter, if he would only tell, and could entirely convince me, if he chose to be intelligible. Tell me, Socrates, what this oracle means; or rather tell me, if you will be so good, what is your own view of the truth or correctness of names, which I would far sooner hear.

Socrates. Son of Hipponicus, there is an ancient saying, that “hard is the knowledge of the good.” And the knowledge of names is a great part of knowledge. If I had not been poor, I might have heard the fifty-drachma course of the great Prodicus, which is a complete education in grammar and language — these are his own words- and then I should have been at once able to answer your question about the correctness of names. But, indeed, I have only heard the single-drachma course, and therefore, I do not know the truth about such matters; I will, however, gladly assist you and Cratylus in the investigation of them. When he declares that your name is not really Hermogenes, I suspect that he is only making fun of you;- he means to say that you are no true son of Hermes, because you are always looking after a fortune and never in luck. But, as I was saying, there is a good deal of difficulty in this sort of knowledge, and therefore we had better leave the question open until we have heard both sides.

Her. I have often talked over this matter, both with Cratylus and others, and cannot convince myself that there is any principle of correctness in names other than convention and agreement; any name which you give, in my opinion, is the right one, and if you change that and give another, the new name is as correct as the old — we frequently change the names of our slaves, and the newly-imposed name is as good as the old: for there is no name given to anything by nature; all is convention and habit of the users;- such is my view. But if I am mistaken I shall be happy to hear and learn of Cratylus, or of any one else.

Soc. I dare say that you be right, Hermogenes: let us see; — Your meaning is, that the name of each thing is only that which anybody agrees to call it?

Her. That is my notion.

Soc. Whether the giver of the name be an individual or a city?


Soc. Well, now, let me take an instance; — suppose that I call a man a horse or a horse a man, you mean to say that a man will be rightly called a horse by me individually, and rightly called a man by the rest of the world; and a horse again would be rightly called a man by me and a horse by the world: — that is your meaning?

Her. He would, according to my view.

Soc. But how about truth, then? you would acknowledge that there is in words a true and a false?


Soc. And there are true and false propositions?

Her. To be sure.

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