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Posted by on Jun 18, 2013 | 10 comments

The Poet and the Philosopher: Enemies or Allies?

platoaristotleAs The Sound of Music’s Maria Rainer once advised, “let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start”. In the tradition of Western philosophy, to which this blog pays obeisance, that beginning place is occupied by none other than the infamous, the illustrious, the (probably) sexist Plato. This Platonic primacy is true for sundry philosophical issues, not least the question of the nature and function of human language—a topic I have deigned to muse upon for approximately enough paragraphs to keep your rapt attention.

While the case can (and likely has) been made that questions of the nature of language appear in all of Plato’s writings[1], his dialogues Cratylus and Gorgias address those themes explicitly which, had he had the opportunity to hashtag them, would’ve appeared with items like #howdowordsmeanthings, #onomatopoeiarules and #sophistryismynemesis. It is my contention that the arguments of these two dialogues, while they appear to be in direct opposition to each other, are actually consistent.

In Cratylus, Socrates (Plato’s mouthpiece) argues that words resemble in sound and other features the objects they represent due to an ontological relationship between word and thing, rather than due to entirely social convention and custom, as his interlocutor Hermogenes asserts. Most modern people side with Hermogenes’s conventionalism about language, noting that most words in no way exhibit onomatopoeia, yet we do not doubt their representational capacities in virtue of this fact. We tend to think that ‘gato,’ ‘chat,’ and ‘cat’ all denote the four-legged furry creature with equal efficacy. Cratylus is the divine command theorist of the lot. He says names have divine origins, making them necessarily correct due to the total overlap of sign and thing.

Stuck somewhere between Cratylus’s extreme naturalism and Hermogenes’s extreme conventionalism, Socrates argues that words have a mediating function, in that their mimesis, their resemblance to the objects they denote, brings us closer to those objects, which in turn brings us closer to the ultimate Forms which those objects represent. Socrates says, “the best possible way to speak consists in using names all (or most) of which are like the things they name (that is, are appropriate to them), while the worst is to use the opposite kind of names.” As Catherine Pickstock notes, for Socrates, “words somehow bind different senses together”, such that our experience of language in relation to reality is a synaesthetic phenomenon.

Now, we may think Plato’s resemblance theory untenable, but if we agree with Hans Georg Gadamer (and the whole ‘linguistic turn’ of postmodernity) that we can only think things within language, then we do not have extra-linguistic access to reality. This means that, while there is no way to verify the onomatopoeic signification of words, there is also no way of falsifying it.[2] Again as Pickstock notes, “If we cannot think things without the words which we fabricate, then neither do we have access to those ‘given’ or donated things before the advent of language”. We can prove neither the arbitrariness nor the naturalness of language. However, regardless of the mechanism or means by which we think mediation happens (e.g. through social construction or through conformity to nature), we can agree with Plato that language does mediate our experience of reality. With such an elevated view of language as mediation, we would think that poets, rhetors, philosophers, and all wordsmiths would be held in equally high esteemed for Plato.

We move from the basic linguistic unit ‘word’ in Cratylus to the larger unit of ‘genre’ in Gorgias, a dialogue that discusses the nature of rhetoric and oratory. Gorgias asks whether rhetoric and oratory are moral crafts aimed at truth or amoral money-making endeavors aimed at flattery (or worse—deception). It may come as no surprise that our dear Socrates casts rhetoric and oratory into the second camp, upholding his own discipline, philosophy, as the craft of noblest pursuit, unencumbered by issues of deception and propaganda. He compares rhetoric to pastry-making or cosmetics, saying that these superficial adornments contribute nothing to the arts of medicine or athleticism[3]. Socrates fundamentally distrusts artistry in language, consistent with his distrust of visual art writ large, which he forbids in his utopian Republic, believing it to be a counterfeit of reality, a means of beguilement taking us further away from the unmediated Forms of things. (If ever you’ve lamented the crusty, dried-out style of the prose of analytic philosophy, you now know whom to blame).

John Locke shares this deep distrust of language artistry, yet articulates his dislike with characteristic style:

“The artificial and figurative application of words eloquence hath invented . . . are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment, and so indeed are perfect cheat; and therefore . . . they are certainly, in all discourses that pretend to inform and instruct, wholly to be avoided, and where truth and knowledge are concerned, cannot but be thought a great fault either of the language or person that makes use of them.”[4]

So we have the Socrates of Gorgias and Locke on one side: the side that completely rejects sophistry, mimesis, and mediation. The side concerned with things in themselves, which they seem to conceive of as monolithic, transcendent, and directly accessible. On the opposite side we have the likes of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, who quipped that, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life”, and that “the loveliness of such effects” like the view of fog rolling over the hills “did not exist till Art had invented them”. Put crassly, this side rejects truth in favor of beauty.

In comparing these two dialogues, we at first seem to see a deep inconsistency emerge in Plato’s corpus. His Cratylist position, on the one hand, understands words as mediators in virtue of their mimesis—they are almost sacraments, as they make objects present to us by signing them. His Gorgian position, on the other hand, rejects the role of the supreme language artist—the rhetor and the poet. If we look closely though, we see that in fact, Plato’s condemnation of rhetoricians aligns perfectly with his sacramental view of language. He esteems truth as the highest value; he believes rhetoricians (and ultimately, poets) deceive their audiences, and perhaps even betray words by divorcing them from their transcendent objects of references. Thus the language artist becomes the villain rather than the hero.

And so we’re left with the ultimate questions: can poets and philosophers ever get along? Can truth and beauty ever coincide? While Plato seems to think they cannot, I contend that they can. Poetry, narrative, metaphor; sometimes these communicate truth more effectively than proposition.

Prove it, you say? Well, we’ve run out of time. Consider this a cliff-hanger.

[1] N.B. No assertions are made here about Platonic authorship or which characters in the dialogues are intended as the ones who hold the ‘right’ view. Part of the pedagogy of the dialogue genre is this very ambiguity, left for the reader to puzzle out.

[2] I am entirely indebted on this point to Catherine Pickstock’s lucid Modern Theology article on the nature of language in Cratylus.

[3] I’m offended by this more as a lover of baked goods than as a philosopher arguing that linguistic artistry too conveys truth.

[4] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Kenneth P. Winkler (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996), 214.

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  • Barney

    Thanks for this useful & interesting introduction to Western thought on language, Eva!

    There’s one thing I’m not clear on. Why can’t language be conventional AND representational? You said that modern people see language the way Hermogenes does, and yet we also tend to think that words point to ontological realities (realism). Many would argue that there is a real difference between a cat and a dog beyond the arbitrary categories of language, and yet the words ‘cat’ and ‘dog’ are nonetheless purely conventional and have no sacramental resemblance to their referents. So why don’t Socrates or the others talk about this possibility? Or is the dialogue only about whether words have a more-than-conventional connection to their referents, taking for granted the reality of those referents?

    • Kevin G.

      Ockham seems to have thought, if I recall correctly, that there was something of a pre-existent mental language necessary for the arising of social language. He was a nominalist, of course, so this language wasn’t populated with all the objects in the world, but encounter with objects did lead to a real impression of those objects upon the mental language. This idea has actually cropped up again in the work of one analytic philosopher, though I can’t remember who.

      Point being that this mental language acts as a natural link of reference between the mental words and their objects. Spoken language is arbitrary in the sounds it uses, but is constructed to be able to convey the mental words between speakers.

      As such, there’s something of an Aristotelian substance-accident thing going on here. The surface features of words, i.e. their sound (what we’d normally think of as the words themselves) are only accidental phenomena making manifest a more fundamental relationship of reference.

      So, there’s a potential fourth option.

      • I love that application of the substance/accident distinction! And also Ockham’s account of language acquisition in response to objects in the environment, such that words are in some sense arbitrary, but in another sense importantly connected to reality. Nominalism gets a bad rap too often.

      • Kevin G.


        Nominalism does get a bad rap, but it’s also a horribly simplified category. Okham’s nominalism is different from Locke’s nominalism is different from any modern analytic nominalist.

        And don’t even get me started on people calling Scotus a nominalism, that’s just a farce.

  • Thanks for the clarifying question Barney. One can be a conventionalist about the origin of words along with Hermogenes and still believe that words denote actual objects (like that cats and dogs do in fact fall into real, separate taxonomical categories, reflected by the fact that we have a different word for them). While some interpretations might cast him as a radical perspectivalist/relativist akin to, say, Foucault, Hermogenes can alternatively be read as the ‘common sense’ interlocutor who admits to the happenstance, humanly generated nature of language (and so would not be troubled by the fact that Spanish opted to talk about felines using ‘gato’ while English chose ‘cat’). What distinguishes Socrates’s view from Hermogenes is that he thinks words denote objects properly ONLY if those words have some kind of synaesthetic, onomatopoeic character. The word ‘breath’ in some way literally resembles that act of breathing. So yes, Socrates says that words must have a more-than-conventional/socially generated quality if they are to speak truthfully and communicate things about the world, which necessarily entails for him a magical/sacramental connection between sign and signified.

  • Lance

    I wonder if/how Marion’s concept of supersaturated phenomena would correlate to the discussion present? … perhaps I will return after a bit of rereading.
    Anywho, do you feel the postmodern views of language might offer something that is ‘sacramental’…and yet, poetic?

  • Kevin G.

    Thanks for the post Eva.

    What is Socrates/Plato’s answer to the common sense experience of linguistic variability. They lived in a pretty cosmopolitan world and should have been just as aware of us of different languages.

    Obviously I haven’t read either of those dialogues.

  • Paul W

    So, Eva, are you saying that Plato isn’t phased by the fact that there are tons of different words in different languages that refer to “cat” since he would say that the only words that do so truly are those that are somehow mimetic? It’s not that there is only word right word, but they all have in some way have to be mimetic? Does that allow for a degree of human construction but construction constrained by the thing referred to, or sometimes purely arbitrary, in which case Plato would poo-poo it?

    • If I understand right, both Paul and Kevin are asking how Plato deals with language variability, polyglots–basically the existence of multiple human languages in the world. I need to go back and reread both the dialogues and PIckstock to decide how I think he would answer (e.g. whether he thinks the Greek word for ‘breath’ is the only legitimate one, or if he thinks Latin and Hebrew and Ugaritic words for ‘breath’ also mime the real thing). It may be up to us to interpret whether he allows for a degree of human construction or not. (Sorry for the non-answer!)

      • Kevin G.

        Thanks anyway. Maybe that’s a future blog post ;).

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