Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It's a small world, even smaller if you're a professional Platonist

On the subway last night, I turned to the man to my right to see what he was reading. He was reading Plato's Cratylus, a dialogue that deals with the seemingly ridiculous question of whether the names we give to things have any intrinsic meaning, or whether they're just arbitrary. For example, why do we call it 'red'? Is there some special reason that we refer to the colour red as 'red'?

A good example of names that have some intrinsic meaning would be onomatopoeia, sounds which are named because of the way they sound. We don't call a thud a screech because the sound thud matches the meaning of the word. Now, this might not be a very good explanation, considering that I've never actually read the Cratylus.

I heard about it from my professor of Platonic philosophy four years ago. If I recall correctly, she either wrote her dissertation or a book on the topic (possibly both). I always wanted to read the Cratylus, but life being what it is, I ended up in Korea about eight months after the course, and it's not easy to find obscure Platonic dialogues translated into English.

But here was this man next to me, reading Cratylus in Korean peppered with the original Greek, a case of two misunderstandings somehow leading to a greater understanding. I almost interrupted him to say, "you know, I had a professor who specialized in this topic", before considering how obnoxious it would be of me to say that.

When I looked over to the next page, a handful of footnotes on the page mentioned what looked like recent scholarship in the area, one such footnote being reserved for the very professor I was going to bring up. I thought this would be a good time to interrupt the man to note that I learned a great deal from her, but for all I knew, he learned under CDC Reeve, he whose name appears on just about every translated work of ancient philosophy.

As a sidenote, while writing this, I discovered that my former professor, Rachel Barney from the University of Toronto, ran for the Green Party in the Trinity-Spadina riding in Toronto. Surprisingly for a riding populated by hipsters and yuppies, she finished a distant fourth with five percent of the vote, well behind even the Conservative candidate. As everyone who has ever been enchanted by philosophy consoles themselves, the purity of philosophy and the filth of politics simply don't mix.

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