Brigitte Boudon [1] Brigitte Boudon: Doctor in literature, teaches philosophy and published, among other texts, Plato, The
Art of Justice, Ed. Ancrages, 2016.

Where does the name of things comefrom?

“To know the name is to know the nature of things, Plato, Cratylus”.

How does language relate to the world? At the beginning of the fourth century BC, Plato (-428 / -348), a pupil of Socrates, opens a philosophical school in Athens that will be maintained for more than eight centuries. By using the form of dialogues, he develops a work considered to be the founder of philosophy in the West. Around -390, he finished one of his dialogues whose purpose is to decide whether language is pure convention between men, or if it has a direct relation with the world that surrounds us: it is the Cratylus in which Socrates is, as always, the spokesman for Plato.

Are names arbitrary?

This dialogue begins with the presentation of two opposing theses. The first is from Cratylus, who maintains the existence of a just denomination for each object, and that the names are just by nature. “Here Cratylus asserts that each of the beings has the exact name by nature. Not that this is the name that some impose by agreeing to a name and assigning a fraction of their own language, but that all men, both Greek and barbarian, have the same accuracy in their names.[2]Plato, Cratylus, Gredos Editorial, 1987”

The second thesis, defended by Hermogenes, maintains that nature is not entirely responsible for this rightness, and that words are the result of agreement or simple convention among men. “Well, Socrates, I, in spite of having often dialogued with this and with many others, I cannot believe that the accuracy of a name is anything other than pact and consensus. I believe, in fact, that whatever name someone puts, this is the exact name. (…) And it is that each one does not have its name by any nature, but by convention and habit of those who usually put names.[3] Ibid. ” Here is the challenge. Will the name of things be imposed by nature or perhaps by a convention, more or less, arbitrary? If the thesis of Hermogenes seems familiar to us, that of Cratylus raises some questions. What does a name “exact by nature” mean? For Plato, naming an object is an immediate act of ontological character. It consists in saying what is, and refers to the “being” of each thing. To know the names is to know the things. For example, etymology does not only serve to decorate speeches, but gives us the key to the deep and intimate significance of things.

There would then be a hidden wisdom deposited in the words thanks to its ability to reveal what it is. The concern of “speaking well” would not only be an ability to handle language, but the
possibility of going back to the essence, to the intelligible world of ideas, according to Plato’s terminology.

A bridge between the intelligible and sensible worlds

Plato develops his own thesis. According to him, there are two ways of seeing reality: either under the angle of change, of everyday space-time, of the sensible world in which all things come into existence, remain and disappear; or under the immutable and intelligible angle of the properties that form the essence of things. The famous enigma of Teseo’s ship illustrates this alternative: once returned from Crete, the Athenians decide to preserve it by changing the boards worn by new boards. After a certain time, there is not a single original piece, but the shape remains the same. From a conceptual point of view, it is the same boat, but materially, it is not.

According to Plato, language is an intermediary between the intelligible and sensible worlds. In fact, in his view, the name is the sign of an idea. “Apple”, “hat”, “scissors” or “house” are names
that can be applied to several unique and different objects. Thus, it turns out that language is the order of generality and not of particularity. In fact, no unique name is given to each object. When the spirit gives a name, it proceeds by categories. It draws an abstract notion of properties and brings them together under one concept. The name does not designate the object that we have before the eyes, but its idea (its mental image, as we would say today).

This typically idealist thesis opposes that of Hermogenes, who considers language as a simple human convention. Plato considers that if it is only man who gives meaning and value to things, then there is neither truth nor error; there is nothing that can be named or qualified accurately. What will be considered large by one person will appear small to another. And so, it will be in all things.

There will be no more dialogue. Everything that will be said will be equally true and equally false, or, to put it more correctly, everything will be neither true nor false. This is why, Plato, through the voice of Socrates, criticizes the thesis of Hermogenes.

The name is not even the imitation of the thing in what it has of sensible but in what it has of intelligible. The interjection, the onomatopoeia, the cries or the imitation of the sounds of nature are nothing more than the raw matter of the word. True language begins when the gross imitation of objects ceases and where thought begins. Language is like a dress of thought, even if Plato is forced to admit that convention plays a role in the formation of names, and that it is often more convenient to know things from themselves, rather than names that they have been given. “The accuracy of a name, whatever it may be, indicates the thing as it is.”

The misuse of the word

Throughout his career, Plato had the sophists as opponents; that school of thought affirmed that the art of language – rhetoric – has only one purpose: to persuade the other, whatever the price.
In the Gorjeas, Plato (through Socrates) reproaches his sophist interlocutors to pass as true what it is not. It is the main reproach formulated against rhetoric: not to be interested in truth, but to
concern itself only with appearance and what is likely, and above all to please the audience to which it is directed. The rhetoric of the sophists is an art of flattery, without rules or concern for good. Plato reproaches Polos by defending a morality of appearance that excuses the most terrible injustices. As for Callicles, who pretends to occupy a political career based on the crowd, it is the symbol of a radical immoralism that rejects all obligation of justice and truth. However, Plato does not condemn the art of speech. It rejects its misuse that consists in creating a fictitious reality, sometimes very convincing. It is its main danger, analogous to that of poetry, which led many exegetes to say that Plato did not like poets. But what Plato criticized throughout his life is the omnipotence of the simulacrum, of the illusion, of the pretext destined to flatter and please the public, leaving aside the truth. Plato shows that too often rhetoric is used for the people to adhere to the values of the dominant power. For us, today’s readers, the problem remains, somewhat, the same.

Aristotle, the power of the speaker

Aristotle, founder of rhetoric, is the first philosopher who formalized the art of handling speech and persuasion of his audience. Greek philosophers became very interested in the means of language. They were, in the etymological sense of the word, “philologoi,” “lovers of words.” They reflected on the nature of language, its origins, its relations with the true, the good, the beautiful, the useful, and they recognized it a human specification. Aristotle (-384 / -322) promoted the art of
speech and the text, Rhetoric, that was consecrated to him, as its founder. Very well known to the Greek and Roman philosophers, it has often been copied in the monastic schools of the Middle Ages, translated into Arabic and Latin, and innumerable times commented. It allows us to evaluate the power that man exerts thanks to language. Plato’s disciple for twenty years, Aristotle teaches rhetoric within the scope of the Platonic Academy, being still very young, and, as his teacher, recognizes the relationship between rhetoric and dialectics, accuses the Sophists of propagating falsification. The Platonic heritage is indisputable, but the founder of the lyceum gives rhetorical art an autonomy that Plato did not recognize. Aristotle is mainly interested in the logical arguments that allow to produce persuasive speeches. For him, this art is available to everyone, and not just to specialists.

Indeed, who could affirm that someday he should not back up a position, and defend himself. Aristotle invokes four arguments to demonstrate the usefulness of this art. In the first place, it can put itself at the service of the true and the just. Second, the fact that rhetoric is not in the realm of a totally rigorous science makes it capable of persuading a large audience. Thirdly, the art of rhetoric allows us to argue opposing positions, which allows us not only to defend, indifferently, a point of view or its opposite, but to reject adversaries driven by bad intentions. Finally, rhetoric is a more dignified means of defense than the use of force. However, Aristotle points out that the unfair use of the power of the verb can cause serious damage, but this is true of all goods, except virtue.

Three styles and modes of persuasion

According to Aristotle, all public speeches that point to persuasion can be summarized in three styles: the deliberative style, the apodictic style (from the Greek “epideiktikos,” which shows”) and the judicial style. The main criterion underlying this distinction is the role given to the auditor, quickly becoming traditional. He is judge in two cases, judge of a decision that must be taken in the future in the deliberative case, judge of a judgment that was already pronounced in the judicial case and spectator in the apodictic style, in which the present time predominates.

The functions and purposes of these three styles are equally distinct. The function of the deliberative style is the exhortation or deterrence, its function is to show the useful and the harmful; the function of the apodictic style is praise or admonition, its purpose is to show the beautiful and the noble, opposed to the ugly and the vile; the function of the judicial style is accusation and defense and its purpose is to oppose just and unjust. rational method that is common to all three, resorts to three different modes of persuasion. First is reasoned argumentation, but there are two other modes of persuasion inherent in the character of the speaker and the states of the soul of the auditor. Aristotle’s main contribution to rhetoric concerns the “logical” aspect. In fact, he is the first to present a coherent and elaborate theory of rhetorical argumentation. The same, can use two types of reasoning: deductive reasoning, which is a syllogism called “enthymeme” based frequently on likely premises, made of probabilities and clues. If the signs are true, they take the name of evidence. The “enthymemes” are meant to prove or reject a thesis or fact. As for the inductive reasoning in rhetoric, it is called “example”, and there are two categories: one that evokes past events, another that invents facts, as do the parable and the fable. These are some notions among many others of which Aristotle makes a call in his theory of oratory argumentation.

Speaker`s character, auditor´s soul states

In addition to its logical argument, speakers’ discourses are dependent on more subjective factors: the character of the speaker, the state of the soul of the auditor. To inspire confidence in the public, the speaker must manifest prudence, virtue and goodwill. It is also necessary to know his audience to be able to adapt to it, and to take advantage of kairos, the good oratory occasion. Is the audience composed of old people, nobles, rich people, powerful people? The speaker must know the characters of his audience. As for the persuasion obtained by the emotions of the audience, Aristotle evokes fourteen passions, in the broad sense of the Greek word pathos such as anger and sweetness, friendship and hatred, fear and security. The passions aroused by the speaker may have the effect of modifying attendance.

Aristotle often recalls that the means to be used by a speaker must conform to the spirit of the audience and to their convictions, which stem from their culture and deep values. It will use
rhetorical expressions and not technical jargon to demonstrate, convince, censor one subject or praise another. It is necessary to combine eloquence and naturalness to appear true and thus
change the spirit of the audience by linking it to his cause. This cause, being fair to the city, makes the speaker not a manipulator, but a man endowed with morality by focusing on good and harmony. The contribution of Aristotle is very abundant, since we find here the sociology, psychology, politics, and numerous elements of the modern science of language.

“Common places”, “species cases”

For the Estagirita (Aristotle was born in the city of Estagire), the speaker to whom he addresses is not the specialist of a discipline, but someone who must express himself on many subjects.
He must order in his memory, under titles of different chapters, numerous data containing arguments that will serve him according to the circumstances. Hence the notion of “place” (topo) that Aristotle uses in his work on rhetoric. Two types of places must be distinguished: some are called “common” because they are applicable to all areas. For example, the place that gathers the possible and the impossible trying to prove that an event will happen or not. Another common place is that of greatness: speakers intensify when they address an audience to advise,
praise or blame.

Other places are typical of an area and are called “species”. For example, war and peace, legislation, happiness, virtue, pleasure, etc. “Common places”, “species cases”: now we know to whom we owe such common expressions!


1 Brigitte Boudon: Doctor in literature, teaches philosophy and published, among other texts, Plato, The
Art of Justice, Ed. Ancrages, 2016.
2 Plato, Cratylus, Gredos Editorial, 1987”
3 Ibid.