Chapter 5 Forms and Names

On Cratylus 389a5–390a10

In: Plato’s Cratylus
Anna Pavani
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In discussing the way “the artisan of names” works, Socrates introduces the puzzling notion of the “pephykos onoma” (Crat. 389d4–5). What is usually downgraded to a “ghostly name” (R. Robinson) is to be understood within its argumentative context. Within the framework of the “tool analogy”, Socrates defines both the kerkis (a weaving tool to be identified not with a “shuttle”, but rather, as I argue, with a kind of comb) and the name as instruments whose specific function is to differentiate. As the structural and terminological parallels testify, producing a name is presented as strictly analogous to producing a kerkis. To refute Hermogenes’ conventionalism as unfolded in the first part of the dialogue, Socrates shows that producing a name, just as producing a kerkis, entails two non-arbitrary components. There is room for arbitrariness when it comes to the actual choice of the phonetic material and this is the reason why lawgivers from different places can produce names that are equally correct. By contrast, there is no room for arbitrariness for the Ideal Name, which the artisan has to look at, and for the pephykos onoma, which the artisan has to put into sounds and syllables. What different concrete names share, if they are to be equally correct, is the same pephykos onoma. This does not correspond to a “Platonic Form” nor to a “linguistic type” nor to a “meaning”, but rather, as I argue, to a concept.

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