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An Interpretation of Plato's Cratylus

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image of Phronesis

Plato's main concern in the Cratylus, I claim, is to argue against the idea that we can learn about things by examining their names, and in favour of the claim that philosophers should, so far as possible, look to the things themselves. Other philosophical questions, such as that of whether we should accept a naturalist or a conventionalist theory of namng, arise in the dialogue, but are subordinate. This reading of the Cratylus, I say, explains certain puzzling facts about the dialogue's structure and dramatic emphasis, as well as making the dialogue look better on philosophical grounds. In support of my claim, I argue that Hermogenes' conventionalist theory of naming is quite sensible, and is not refuted by Socrates; that the main purpose of the etymological section is to undermine our con dence in etymology as a form of philosophical enquiry; and that the apparently tangential and inconclusive discussions in the nal section of the dialogue are best understood as illustrations of Plato's thesis about philosophical methodology.


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