D. SEDLEY: Etymology in Plato’s Sophist

David Sedley (Cambridge University, Great Britain)

Etymology in Plato’s Sophist

Plato is widely held to have dismissed the etymological methods practised in his own culture, considering them a spurious heuristic tool unworthy of the philosopher. This is based largely on the evidence of the Cratylus, a dialogue in which his speaker Socrates has long been understood as making fun of a manifestly unscientific intellectual craze, taught at the time under the heading ‘correctness of names’. In my 2003 book Plato’s Cratylus I argued against this near-consensus. Socrates in my view makes explicit his conviction that by probing below the surface meaning of a word you can extract and unzip, if not a statement of its object’s true nature, at any rate the very ancient beliefs about that object encoded by the original name-makers. In the present paper I take the same argument one step further, by seeking to show how what I call ‘Cratylean’ etymologies play two key roles in a very different dialogue, the Sophist, widely considered Plato’s masterpiece in the area of philosophical logic. The main speaker is now an unnamed visitor from Elea, Socrates little more than an audience member. I first examine 228c-d, the Visitor’s etymology of παραφροσύνη, ‘delirium’, according to which it connotes ignorance by describing things as becoming παράφορα συνέσεως, ‘running ahead of understanding’. In context, I seek to show, this cannot be meant as merely humorous. Yet it is drawn almost directly from a family of ‘flux’ etymologies worked out at greater length by Socrates in the Cratylus. I then turn to 221c, the Visitor’s trivial but usefully illustrative definition of angling, with its derivation of ἀσπαλιευτική, ‘angling’, from ἀ(νω)σπα-(ἁ)λιευτική, ‘upward-draw fishing’. I argue that both these etymologies must be seriously meant, being philosophically supportive of the dialogue’s main methodology, definition by division.