Teratology and Truth: Socrates' Investigation of Poetic Names in the "Cratylus"

Dissertation, The Pennsylvania State University (2001)

Ashley Pryor
University of Toledo
This dissertation explores the emergence of the textual discipline of etymology in order to demonstrate its difference from earlier investigations of names---particularly those of Socrates in Plato's Cratylus , and to suggest the implications that this difference has for thinking about truth. My project is motivated by a two-fold observation: the historical fact that etymology was not established until several centuries after Plato wrote the Cratylus and that it emerges from within a political and social context that is dominated by different concerns than those that orient Plato's Athens, and the observation that etymology assumes a conception of language that is at odds with what Socrates' investigation reveals about the nature of language, its origins and authority. ;Socrates' investigations into names may be distinguished from those of later Alexandrian grammarians in the emphasis that each places on Homeric intention and authority in their respective theories of language. Whereas the Alexandrian grammarians were primarily concerned to retrieve an original Homeric intention, Socrates' analysis does not presuppose that the correctness of names is reducible to a singular authorial intention. Rather, Socrates' investigations have the peculiar effect of destabilizing authorial intention by demonstrating how names always mean more or differently than their author intends. ;Socrates' concern with this "excessive" moment of names not only has implications for the way that he conceives of language, but also for how he understands truth. Socrates reads in the name aletheia a dynamic interplay of two competing and apparently contradictory meanings emphasizing the productive tension and play inherent in the name aletheia. Thus, far from advocating a model of truth that is eternal, transcendent and stable, as many have assumed, in the Cratylus , Socrates presents us with a playful model of truth. In so doing, he offers us another beginning for philosophy, one that challenges the more serious minded philosophy of eternal Forms and Truth that is so often proffered under the name Socrates
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