CJ Online Review: Ademollo, The Cratylus of Plato

posted with permission:

Francesco Ademollo, The Cratylus of Plato: A Commentary. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xx + 538. Hardcover, £85.00/$140.00. ISBN 978-0-521-76347-9.

Reviewed by R. M. Dancy, The Florida State University

Plato’s Cratylus is about names, with Socrates as the lead speaker. There are two main theories under discussion, usually referred to as “naturalism,” according to which names do their naming through a natural connection such as resemblance between them and what they name, and “conventionalism.” The dialogue has received a good deal of attention in recent years, and will undoubtedly receive a lot more. There has been some disagreement as to whether Socrates comes out a naturalist or a conventionalist; most participants go for the latter.

For any serious study of the dialogue, this book is indispensible. It is a running commentary on virtually every line of the dialogue; all that is left out is a few passages containing etymologies (the gist of these passages is reported). Everything commented on is translated; often Greek text is included. Despite the translation, the book will be difficult for the Greekless, since a great deal depends on the interpretation of the Greek. And the translation, although unquestionably an improvement on existing ones, could not be detached for separate use, as Ademollo acknowledges, e.g. on p. 118:

… it is hard to devise a translation of the terms νόμος and νομοθέτης in our dialogue that will both sound convincing and mirror the fact that the latter contains the former. I have rendered νόμος as ‘custom’ and νομοθέτης as ‘lawgiver’ throughout; but that, strictly speaking, makes Socrates’ argument unintelligible.

And it should be added for the benefit of the Greeked that occasionally it will be very handy to have the 1993 OCT by your side, since even where the Greek is quoted, line numbers are not included within the text, and Ademollo refers to the text using them. But this is not insurmountable even without having the text available. (E.g., on p. 157 Ademollo, having given a translation of 393a1–b6, says “The heart of the passage is at lines a5–b1,” but there is nothing in his translation marking these lines; still, you can tell from what he goes on to say which part of the passage is in question.)

Ademollo provides a bibliography including hundreds of entries in various languages and a very serviceable index.

As far as I can tell, there is not an issue of any importance for the understanding of the Cratylus that is ignored. Very little is taken for granted, and by and large, Ademollo’s readings are convincing. They are hardly uncontentious, but they can never be rejected lightly.

Ademollo opts, quite persuasively, for the conventionalist reading (pp. 423–4 et passim). But not everything is quite so persuasive. For example, Ademollo ascribes to Socrates what he calls (p. 3) “the ‘Redundancy Conception’ of correctness” of names:

(R) ‘N’ is a correct name of X =df ‘N’ is a name of X.

This may look toothless. But Ademollo takes it to entail that

There are, strictly speaking, no degrees of correctness: as one name cannot be more of a name than another, so one name cannot be more correct than another.

This thesis is ubiquitous in Ademollo’s book. He cites a passage he takes to confirm (R) (see the index s.v. “correctness of names, Redundancy Conception of”). But one must note that (R) runs against the views of some of the best interpreters of the Cratylus, e.g. David Sedley (see pp. 151–2), and also seems to run against a number of passages in which Socrates is apparently saying that one name is more correct than another (e.g. 391e–392d, where the dispute with Sedley sets in). Ademollo explains some of these passages as “cases in which he [i.e., Socrates] adopts an innocuous façon de parler devoid of any serious theoretical significance” (p. 151; also p. 3). This dismissal is not altogether convincing; I have no doubt there will be dissent in the literature to come.

Ademollo claims that the theory of flux (everything in the universe is in constant change), which Socrates takes to underpin the naturalist reading of the correctness of names, and rejects, is entirely a matter of motion in space (pp. 210–15), and that context-relativity, which figures in other dialogues such as the Theaetetus as fitting in with the theory of flux, has nothing to do with it (p. 233). This needs more support than Ademollo supplies.

As for the etymologies that play such a large (and to a modern reader often tedious) part of the dialogue, Ademollo quite plausibly argues that they are intended seriously (pp. 237–41). But as to the question what their serious purport is, he opts for saying that they function in the way that Plato’s myths do. Obscurum per obscurius? Anyway, it is less than fully persuasive.

Occasionally a little too much time is spent on details that don’t seem to cut much ice. E.g., there is a long discussion (pp. 107–10, including a photograph of a vase painting) concerning the proper translation of κερκίς; Ademollo contends, quite possibly correctly, that the standard “shuttle” is wrong, and opts for “pin-beater.” But having commented that “students of Plato are curiously loath to acknowledge” the mistranslation, it turns out that it makes no real difference to the argument of the dialogue, and Ademollo summarily drops it.

But none of these cavils counts against the overall value of what is in fact an extremely good book; it sets a high standard for philosophical and philological commentary.

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