Hermogenes Was Right, Socrates Wrong

Steve Hoenisch

1 Cratylus: Form and Meaning Are Linked

In Harris and Taylor's chapter on Plato's "Cratylus" in Landmarks in Linguistic Thought, Cratylus takes the position that the form and meaning of a word are inextricably related. For Cratylus, "everything," including Hermogenes, "has a right name of its own, which comes by nature" even though some people, like Hermogenes, are named incorrectly (Cratylus 383, as quoted in Harris and Taylor, p. 1).

In contrast, Hermogenes maintains that there is no relation between a name's form and its meaning. For Hermogenes, names are "correct" merely by way of convention and agreement. Names are not determined by nature, nor is one name for a thing more correct than another. To illustrate his point, Hermogenes notes that the name of a servant can be changed and that the new name is just as correct as the old.

2 Sophist Rhetorical Trickery

Socrates, however, enters the argument and, taking the torch from Cratylus, dismisses Hermogenes' point by a piece of Sophist rhetorical trickery the likes of which he himself so abhorred in the courts of Ancient Greece. Socrates asks Hermogenes, "Whatever name we decide to give to each particular thing is its name?... Whether the giver be a private person or state?" By putting forth such questions, though, Socrates entices Hermogenes to agree to a misstatement of his own view. Specifically, Socrates, in the horse-man example he presents to refute Hermogenes' view, fails to take into account that Hermogenes originally said a name is correct by agreement and convention even if it is the convention of only one person. And by asking the question, "Is there anything you call speaking the truth and speaking falsehood" (Cratylus 384), Socrates' presentation of Hermogenes' argument, according to Harris and Taylor, "validates the recognition of as many private languages as there are individuals" because it "makes nonsense of our normal understanding of the difference between truth and falsehood" (1990, p. 5).

While enunciating Socrates' view, Harris and Taylor say that a statement such as `A horse has four legs' is taken as true. But under Hermogenes' position as interpreted by Socrates, it becomes unknown whether such a statement is true or false because the word "horse" can just as well be used to denote a man. This is not an accurate summary of Hermogenes' argument, however, especially if it is examined before Socrates puts it through a series of rhetorical twists. Hermogenes would hold (and Socrates probably would too) that the statement, "What we call a horse has four legs" is true, assuming convention has established that the word "horse" refers to a four-legged animal.

3 Socrates and Plato on the Relation Between Form and Meaning

As Socrates leads Hermogenes into his argumentative trap of individual acts and dodges in this way the substance of Hermogenes' original position, Socrates proceeds to reveal the rest of his view of the relation between form and meaning.

Specifically, while continuing to labor the point about the "correctness" of names, Socrates lays the foundation for the theory he is weaving: "Things have some fixed reality of their own, not in relation to us, nor caused by us..." (Cratylus 386). (Note that this view contrasts directly with Saussure's modern conventionalist view that "Words are not vocal labels which have come to be attached to things and qualities already given in advance by Nature" [from Translator's Introduction to Cours, by Harris, p. ix].) Likewise, actions are also "performed according to their nature."

Next, as summarized by Harris and Taylor, Socrates argues that speaking is an action and thus should conform with nature. Therefore, to function properly, a word must be designed in the right way -- that is, have a form, or sound, that represents its object in nature as best as possible -- to distinguish things and actions in the world. For Socrates, the thing in the world dictates the symbol or sound used to represent it, making the relation between form and meaning intrinsic. That is, form follows function. When Socrates' "name giver" assigned a name to the thing "dog," for example, the name giver knew how to choose the sounds that most naturally represent the thing.

This leads to the relationship between language, communication and ideas that is put forth by Plato, largely through the voice of Socrates. Plato proposes that abstract ideas actually exist in nature. And language, which is bestowed upon us by nature, is a functional medium. First, it allows people to conceptualize an idea that closely approximates but can never match the true ideas or forms given by nature. Second, it allows people to communicate these ideas to others within a natural framework established and given to us by nature. As Harris and Taylor note, the functionality of language implies that form is designed to serve a purpose -- and that purpose is not only communication, but truthful communication that accurately represents reality. Thus, again as pointed out by Harris and Taylor, this functionality also implies a certain rationality of ideas.

4 Plato's Legacy in Modern Linguistic Thought

Plato's rationalism and his universal truths that stem from nature endure, at least in part, in the modern linguistic theory of Noam Chomsky. But for Plato's universalism Chomsky substitutes his theory of universal grammar -- that the knowledge of a linguistic system is innate. Chomsky's treatment of nomenclaturism, however, departs from Plato's position. Plato maintains a kind of semantic nomenclaturism in which the names of things are, in effect, given in advance by nature. Chomsky, while postulating that certain grammatical concepts are innate, certainly does not believe that names are given to preexisting concepts by nature.

Part of Hermogenes' view also survives in modern linguistic theory. Saussure, for instance, has embodied Hermogenes' theory that attributes the meaning of names not to their form but to their relation to other names. Saussure's theory, like Hermogenes', also holds that names are a matter of social convention -- although Saussure's view goes beyond mere convention to assert that names are given arbitrarily.

A penumbra of Hermogenes' view also lives on in the behaviorist view of B.F. Skinner and Leonard Bloomfield. Hermogenes says that "no name belongs to any particular thing by nature, but only by the habit and custom of those who employ it..." (Cratylus 384). The behaviorists similarly believe that language is a habit. Thus hints of Hermogenes' undeveloped theory survive in both the structuralist and behaviorist theories.

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Last updated on Nov. 10, 2005.

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