Ineke Sluiter (Leiden University, Netherlands)
Anchoring discourses: etymology, genealogy, and the opening riddle of the Cratylus
Plato’s Cratylus famously opens with a riddle. In the disagreement over the natural correctness of names or their purely conventional nature Cratylus agrees that his own name is truly Cratylus, and that Socrates is truly called Socrates. But to Hermogenes’ dismay, he then denies that this holds for everyone – specifically, ‘Hermogenes’ is not Hermogenes’ name, not even if everyone calls him that. What is the role of this riddle in the construction of the Cratylus? It turns out to have multiple functions on the rhetorical, literary and philosophical levels of the dialogue. However, I mainly focus on the cultural-historical context of the riddle. ‘Etymology’ is one of the so-called ‘anchoring discourses’ available in ancient Greek culture, and is in that sense comparable to ‘mythology’ and ‘genealogy’. All three are discursive forms, suitable to connect whatever is under investigation to something familiar, capable of offering a form of stability. Mythology offers foundational stories underpinning social and cultural identities. Genealogy appeals to the most natural link between the old and the new available in common human experience: the succession of generations. Etymology anchors an understanding of the world as it presents itself in language. In a way, this is the most abstract of the three discursive practices, in that it presupposes a linguistic stability and independence that will in the end prove untenable in the Cratylus. The riddle of Hermogenes’ name introduces an easily understandable way of connecting names and reality through the genealogical principle underlying it, the principle that in a well-regulated universe offspring is connected to and resembles its parents, in essence and in name. This is the phusei relationship par excellence. In using genealogy to anchor an understanding of etymology, the Cratylus inserts itself intrac a long-standing Greek tradition.