A reflection on Plato’s Cratylus

The names that we give to concepts, concrete and abstract, are of vital importance to the way in which we conceive ideas, and the manner in which we conduct debate. If two people are unable to agree on the concepts that are entailed within the scope of a name, then communication between them can be tricky, and at worst impossible. With this in mind, I will examine first the theory of names, as in how names come to exist, and secondly how we can protect ourselves against their slippery nature.

The first theory of language assumes that all names refer to metaphysical truth, and so that the objects that we name derive the meaning from a ‘first’ tongue, which linked names directly to the nature of objects. If this theory of language were correct, it would appear to fail to account for the novel and inventive use of language, sometimes derivative and other times inventive, which plays with sound to generate new words at an alarming rate. Furthermore, even if there was some ‘pure’ language from which all spoken forms of communication are derived, it is clear that the modification of time has warped them to a point unrecognisable. Any attempts to rediscover such a language probably would show the reconstructors implicit bias rather than a universal tongue.

The second theory of language asserts that it is nothing more than convention, in which the grunts and noises emanating from our mouths have become assigned to a particular set of sense perceptions which groups of humans have agreed upon over time. Writing, as I am using now, is merely an extension of this communication into the inscribed format – preferable for transport and preservation. The problem of this theory is that it implies that as there is no hard truth from which we derive the meaning behind our words, that our understanding of any given particular word is fuzzily mapped to a specific sense or concept. As such, each individual possesses their own unique language, one which only they understand – as it exists purely within their own mind. If we take it to its extreme, it would appear that no true communication is possible, as without mutual understanding any conversation becomes warped through the differing perceptions of names.

So is there no possibility of genuine communication? The fact I am writing this reflection probably signals my own opinion. I believe that the rejection of communication as a possibility ignores the realities of day to day conversation and interaction which we all experience regularly. However, I do think that several key points can be derived from this second theory of language.

Firstly, if you are talking or debating with a person who is speaking a second language, or reading a text which has been translated from another language, recognise the fungibility between different tongues. There are many words which do not map entirely correctly between languages (as a multi-lingual I have experienced the frustration of having to explain a single word in one language using a full sentence in another). Furthermore, a word in one language may have secondary, even sinister meanings which do not appear in the translation. When in doubt, ask your interlocutor and also have them attempt to explain the concept in full – using the time-tested method of circumlocution.

Secondly, when reading a text translated from another language, try returning to it after some time and reading it from a different version. The gems which slip through the cracks in one translation may become apparent in another. If you are a student of languages, try reading the text in the original version – bilingual copies often exist which make for excellent comparative and critical reading.

Finally, always approach debate – even with those who share your mother tongue – in a generous manner. Never attempt to use weasel words, playing on the slippery edges of definition in an attempt to win – this is deception, unworthy of genuine debate. Furthermore, even when you and your interlocutor are engaging in honest discussion, ensure that you both understand the specific parameters and definitions of the terms you are debating, as this will prevent the accidental misunderstandings which see partners in a discussion talking past each other – two ships passing in the night.

Original text

Plato’s Cratylus


Jacob Jordaens, Odysseus In Polyphemus’ Cave, c.1653

2 Replies to “On Names”

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