Chapter 7 Commerce, Theft and Deception

The Etymology of Hermes in Plato’s Cratylus

In: Plato’s Cratylus
Olof Pettersson
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In the light of Socrates’ largely neglected etymological account of the name Hermes, this article reexamines the dialogue’s perplexing conclusion that reality should not be sought through names, but through itself. By a close scrutiny of three claims made in this etymology – that language is commercial, thievish and deceptive – it argues that Socrates’ discussion about the relation between names and reality cannot only be meaningfully understood in terms of his characterization of language as deceptive and therefore tragic, but that this point is also confirmed by the dialogue’s larger comedic structure and by Cratylus’ framing joke about Hermogenes’ name. As a consequence, the article also suggests that a closer examination of the etymology of Hermes can both help to assess a certain unwarranted optimism common in contemporary scholarship and the claim that the dialogue’s overarching purpose, rather than being an explanation of how human language grants access to the truth about the existing things, is a critical examination of such a project and of its hubristic assumptions.

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