Thursday

Random Readings 1

In “Cratylus,” Plato again discusses the notion of an abstract reality that we humans perceive only through imitations of the ideal, and that perspective lies behind the dialogue in which Socrates discusses the appropriateness of names. Applying the idea of imitation, the argument states that names should imitate what they represent, in which case languages should be constructed on some complex system of onomatopoeia.

Socrates uses an analogy that relates letters as the units of a name to colors as units of a portrait. Since the colors on the canvas represent the colors of the live subject, then letters should imitate the true nature of the thing named. He argues that since certain letters appear in words of a certain type, those letters must somehow be representative of the nature of the things so named. So if the letter R, for example, appears in words such as “run,” “rotate,” “revolve,” “race,” “transfer,” “rocket,” “rocking chair,” “restless,” “rumble,” “careen,” “throttle,” “thrust,” “scratch,” “shear,” “trip,” “trembling,” “strike,” “crush,” “bruise,” “break,” “crumble,” and “whirl,” then the letter R must somehow represent the notion of movement or change in state. But I find this reasoning to be ridiculous.

Both Socrates and Plato are obsessed with this idea of representation, which stems from their belief that everything exists in some kind of unearthly ideal state and therefore everything in the world is a representation of something else. All things are therefore idealized, even the mysterious “name giver,” a concept similar to the story of Adam in Judeo-Christian myth -- that is, the first man who named everything he saw. Ferdinand de Saussure, in his Course in General Linguistics, argues against the ideas held by Plato, insisting that there are no pre-existing ideas and that naming is an arbitrary process. Whereas Socrates and Cratylus argue whether an inappropriate name can be a name at all, Saussure posits that no name can be intrinsically better than another, for it is in the difference between words that significance arises, not within the words themselves.

It is interesting to see the movement in attitude concerning the certainty of truth among different writers in different times. Plato’s speakers argue from very definite positions, the validity of which they are completely convinced. Saint Augustine, in the fourth-century treatise On Christian Doctrine, remains firm in his Christian convictions, but questions his own abilities and qualifies nearly everything he says. He puts forth his realization that metaphor and analogy aid understanding, but still struggles to use “plain words” and to express himself as clearly and straightforwardly as possible. In the modern era, Saussure calls the Platonic kind of thinking naïve, and is intent to go beyond a standard of “reasonableness” to find evidence to support his convictions. Roland Barthes, on the other hand, in works such as 1963’s “The Structuralist Activity,” puts himself at a great distance from his subject and deals with it on a very objective plane.


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