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Cratylism as a philosophical theory reflects the teachings of the Athenian Cratylus (Ancient Greek: Κρατύλος, also transliterated as Kratylos), fl. mid to late 5th century BCE. The term in philosophy comes about from Plato's classic dialogue, Cratylus. Vaguely exegetical, it holds that the fluid nature of ideas, words, and communications leaves them fundamentally baseless, and possibly unable to support logic and reason. Within the dialogue, those philosophical positions of Hermogenes and Cratylus are now what are referred to as ‘conventionalism’ and ‘naturalism.’
In this dialogue, Cratylus discusses the ‘correctness of names.’ If the name of an object, word, or phrase is the correct name for that particular thing, what is it exactly that makes this true? The conventionalist Hermogenes contends that convention and agreement alone are what determine the correctness of names. Cratylus believes that names cannot just be given out at the will of convention or convenience; he holds that names have a natural belonging to their objects.
Cratylism confronts issues about the nature of reality and communication similar to Taoism and Zen Buddhism: how can a mind in flux, in a flowing world, hold on to any solid "truth" and convey it to another mind?
"Nothing exists. Even if something did exist, nothing can be known about it; and even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it cannot be communicated to others. And, finally, even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood."
Cratylus is said to have believed that nothing true can be said of things that change, and once a word is uttered, that thing has already changed and what was said is no longer true. Words, language, and the ‘correctness of names’ then give us a sort of false reality and sense of stability in a world where there is none. For Cratylus, we would be better off not speaking at all. Thus, we have cratylism.
There is also heavy and credited speculation of Socrates’ humor in the dialogue. Socrates can be read as dismissing naturalism; and thus everything he says should be regarded as simply making fun of the etymological practice of ‘names.’
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