Plato developed an entire problematic around the issue of language and its relation to reality. In his writings he consciously adopted an accessible language through which he managed, nevertheless, to introduce a series of novel concepts.

The problematic around language

The importance that rhetoric and dialectics assumed during the 5th c. BC fostered a special interest in linguistic matters, which must have originated with the Sophists. It is mentioned that Protagoras cultivated the study of the correct use of words, that is, "orthoepeia." In this practice, one can recognise the first attempt to lay out grammatical and syntactical language rules in a period when written discourse gained significant ground. Plato shows Socrates in Phaedrus to have mastered a great tradition of rhetorical techniques, including even relevant textbooks (266b). At the same period, the philosopher Prodicus embarked on his first pursuits in the field of etymology, a field that Plato focused on with particular zeal in his dialogue Cratylus. The history of words, their Greek or foreign origin and their breakdown into syllables and letters led to the crucial issue of the relation of language and reality. Does language reflect reality faithfully, or is it in essence an autonomous realm vis-à-vis reality?

Plato on language

Plato dedicated an entire philosophical dialogue, Cratylus, to the issue of the relation of language to reality. Cratylus, the main character, holds that this relation is natural, therefore, words reflect accurately existing objects (the "appropriateness of names"). His interlocutor Ermogenes, however, will support the exact opposite position, namely that the relation of language to reality, the name and what it names, is arbitrary and the effect of convention. Socrates is invited to look into both perceptions of language, and performs his duty so thoroughly that it is difficult to trace Plato's exact views on the matter. Cratylus, nevertheless, bears indubitable witness to the fact that language was an object of philosophical analysis during Plato's time.

It could be argued that Plato, even if hesitantly, leans towards the physiocratic position, which is rendered through the imagery of a (mythical) law-giver who fabricates names with their appropriate meaning. He is, however, guided by the "dialectician," who knows how to use names. The emphasis on the dialectician's judgment shows that Plato holds doubts about the existence of a univalent correct relation between words and the perpetually transforming natural beings to which words refer -hence the criticism applied to the views expressed by Heraclitus and Protagoras. The dialectician avoids this obstacle by confining himself to the relation of names to certain fixed and unalterable beings (439c-d), which one can reasonably assume are the Platonic Ideas.

Plato's language

The language that Plato uses in his dialogues does not pose, at first sight, any serious challenge to understanding. It looks similar to the commonly spoken Greek of that era and is devoid of any jargon or neologisms. Plato seems to be appealing to a broad audience thorough his works; an audience that should not be discouraged by the presentation of complex and intricate terminology given, additionally, that the Platonic dialogues are meant to reproduce an apparently realistic context of debate.

The above, however, should not be taken to imply that Plato's language is simple. In fact, in the later dialogues in turns quite complex. Several commentators have stressed Plato's extraordinary writing and literary potential. His great art consists in his mimetic deployment of various expressive means and their rendering through the specific characters in the dialogues. Various interpreters, even today, argue on whether the myth of Protagoras is a text deriving from Protagoras himself or from Plato, whether Lysias' speech in Phaedrus comes from Lysias or not, or even whether Timaeus in its entirety is a work of Pythagorean provenance or not. I argue here that we should simply accept that such an "appropriation of alien voices" is part of Plato's writing and philosophical strategy. Plato does not only confront various philosophical outlooks through his body of works, but also different mindsets expressed by poets, rhetoricians and politicians.

But what is, also, complicated is the whole issue of Plato's philosophical terminology. One could argue as a general principle that Plato eschews the introduction of neologisms that, despite their semantic clarity, could possibly create a problematic distance between the writer and his readers. Philosophy, nevertheless, was a novel activity in Plato's time and needed to deploy its own language. Plato chose to appropriate several terms, or language topics, deriving from everyday language and gradually transform their meaning turning them, thus, into philosophical terms. Two classic examples of this appropriation strategy can be found in the case of the words eidos and idea, which had already been part of the Greek language yet signalled the shape, form or a category of objects before gradually assuming their Platonic meaning. The term "dialectic," on the other hand, is distinctly Platonic, and yet it comes from the commonly understood "dialegesthai" before it shows up in the form of an adjective in Plato's The Republic (dialectical course, dialectical research, dialectical man) and eventually assumes the form of an noun - dialectics. This way, even though a large part of philosophical parlance has its origin in Plato, it always remains accessible to the average reader.

Author: Vassilis Kalfas
  • McCabe, Μ.Μ. "Plato's Ways of Writing." Fine, G. ed. The Oxford Handbook of Plato. Οξφόρδη, 2008.
  • Rutherford, R.B. The Art of Plato. Λονδίνο, 1995.
  • Thesleff, H. Platonic Patterns. Λας Βέγκας, 2009.
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