Cratylus on choosing good names

I was just reading Plato’s Cratylus (see also its Stanford Encyclopedia article). In it, (Plato’s version of) Socrates talks about choosing good names:

[Having rejected Protagoras’ extreme relativism and admitted the existence of a more or less objective reality…]

SOC. Then actions, also, are done according to their proper nature, and not according to our opinion of them? In cutting, for example, we do not cut as we please, and with any chance instrument; but we cut with the proper instrument only, and according to the natural process of cutting; and the natural process is right and will succeed, but any other will fail and be of no use at all.

HERM. I should say that the natural way is the right way.

SOC. Again, in weaving, not every way is the right way; but the right way is the natural way, and the right instrument the natural instrument.

HERM. True. […And speech is a kind of action.]

SOC. And will a man speak correctly who speaks as he pleases? Will not the successful speaker rather be he who speaks in the natural way of speaking, and as things ought to be spoken, and with the natural instrument? Any other mode of speaking will result in error and failure.

HERM. I quite agree with you.

SOC. And is not naming a part of speaking?

HERM. That is true.

SOC. Then the argument would lead us to infer that names ought to be given according to a natural process, and with a proper instrument, and not at our pleasure: in this and no other way shall we name with success.

HERM. I agree.

SOC. But again, that which is woven has to be woven with something?

HERM. Yes; with a shuttle.

SOC. And that which is pierced has to be pierced with something?

HERM. Yes; with an awl.

SOC. And that which has to be named has to be named with something?

HERM. Yes; with a name.

SOC. Very good: then a name is an instrument?

HERM. Yes.

SOC. Suppose that I ask, “What sort of instrument is a shuttle?” And you answer, “A weaving instrument.”

HERM. Well?

SOC. And I ask again, “What do we do when we weave?” The answer is that we separate or disengage the warp from the woof.

HERM. Very true.

SOC. And may not a similar description be given of an awl, and of instruments in general?

HERM. To be sure.

SOC. And now suppose that I ask a similar question about names: Regarding the name as an instrument, what do we do when we name? Do we not give information to one another, and distinguish things according to their natures?

HERM. Certainly we do.

SOC. Then a name is an instrument of teaching and of distinguishing natures, as the shuttle is of distinguishing the threads of the web.

HERM. Yes.

SOC. And the shuttle is the instrument of the weaver?

HERM. Assuredly.

SOC. Then to use a shuttle well, means to use it like a weaver. And to use a name well, means to use it like a teacher.

This might be a good time to plug my C++Now 2021 video “When Should You Give Two Things the Same Name?”

Posted 2021-07-15