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Abstract

In his dialogue Cratylus, Plato presents λóγος as meaning both word and notion. Thought is in language, and this means that it is connected to the senses, to embodiment and to thinking through the exterior world. If he is to resist the Protagorean view that knowledge is perspectival and arbitrary, he must try to show that language is not merely conventional. As a human action, speaking is an art; arts imitate, but what do speaking and thinking imitate? They must imitate the essences of things but those only appear indirectly through matter and sensation. I shall defend the view that Plato offers an “onomatopoeic” theory of language in this dialogue and that this is compatible with the final discussions in the dialogue: words were originally composed of mimetic elements. However, a copy can only be a copy, Socrates suggests, by its difference from the original. This difference is not just a lapse, but has a positive valency. Plato allows that the very conventionality and later development of language away from its mimetic roots is paradoxically still onomatopoeic. He suggests, via Socrates, that the basic units of language indicate flow or stoppage of flow and being pulled down or escaping from this. Language as “punctuated flow” responds to and reflects time; as both animal and spiritual, it embodies the struggle between embodiment and mind. But both aspects generate inline image. If we think in language, did language ever begin? If language is onomatopoeic, why is etymology confused as to whether free motion is good or limitation is good? If the gods invented language, why are they themselves confused? Plato's answer in either case is to appeal to the recollection of the forms as known through the reach of the soul beyond ordinary cognition. Although the Cratylus offers parallels with other dialogues in this respect, the fact that the forms are invoked in order to save the linguistic and so embodied and passionate character of language (since language is viewed as mimetic) reveals with particular clarity how the theory of forms is in no way a denial of a link between human cognition and materiality. Indeed, the religious element in Plato's philosophy enables him to sustain materiality and reason in balance with his account of cognition.