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On the Correctness of Names : Plato's objective in the Cratylus
The Cratylus opens with the question of what is the correctness of names. Hermcgenesand Cratylus offer the so-called "convention-theory" and the so-called "nature theory", respectively, which are both criticised by Socrates. One of the questions to be asked concerning this criticism is : What is Socrates' ownview on the correctness of names? In answering this question many interpreters assumed that Socrates is himself entangled in the battle between the convention theory and the nature theory.I wish to call into question this assumption itself.Hermogenes' thesis contains two different parts which have not been clearly distinguished so far. One is the view concerning the way people began to use names or gave names to things, which can be called "the convention theory proper". According to it, we can participate in name-giving through learning how to use names in conversation.The other is the view that any name that has been thus given to something is to be positively qualified as correct. I suggest that the target of Socrates' refutation is this view, and not the convention theory proper. On this view, because all names that are given to things are regarded as correct, one could rely on names in order to distinguish and teach the nature of things, and the mastery of verbal communication would guarantee the full acquaintance with their nature. Then, there could be no special art of using names except rhetoric or poetics ; there could be no room for dialectic by means of which we should examine our opinions and attempt to discover truth. Socrates cannot accept this conclusion. He denies, therefore, that everyone can be an authoritative name-giver, and asserts that there is the natural correctness of names which can be judged only by a dialectician who is the expert at using names for the purpose of discovery.Cratylus neglects this role of the dialectician and divorces the correctness of names from their dialectical use, by regarding the correctness of names as consisting in the natural correspondence between
descriptive contents embodied in names and things in the world. He denies the misuse of names on the ground that the understanding of the descriptive contents is not only a necessary condition for the use of names but also the sufficient condition for their correct use. But Socrates reveals the irrelevance of the understanding of the descriptive contents to the use of names. He shows also that descriptive contents represent merely opinions of name-givers, and not the nature of things. Therefore, to overestimate the role of names, as Cratylus does, is to trust the name-givers in an unreasonable way, and it makes it impossible for us to go beyond names. Socrates urges us to refuse such trust and to launch our owninvestigation. Socrates' aim in the Cratylus is to save the possibility of dialectic, i. e. the art of using names that serves the purpose of penetrating names and reaching reality. This is why he had to refute Hermogenes and Cratylus, whose theories allow no room for dialectic.
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Graduate School of Integrated Arts and Sciences