Naturalism, Conventionalism, and Forms of Life: Wittgenstein and the "Cratylus"


  • Paul M Livingston University of New Mexico


form of life, Plato, naturalism, conventionalism, Cratylus


I consider Plato’s argument, in the dialogue Cratylus, against both of two opposed views of the “correctness of names.” The first is a conventionalist view, according to which this relationship is arbitrary, the product of a free inaugural decision made at the moment of the first institution of names. The second is a naturalist view, according to which the correctness of names is initially fixed and subsequently maintained by some kind of natural assignment, rooted in the things themselves. I argue that: 1) Plato’s critical challenge to both views anticipates considerations introduced by Wittgenstein in the Philosophical Investigations’ consideration of rules and rule-following; 2) Understanding Plato’s appeal to the “form” [eidos] of a thing in resolving the problems of both views helps to explicate Wittgenstein’s own appeal to “forms of life” as the “given” ground of linguistic practice; and 3) We should not understand the grounding of language in form-of-life either as a (conventionalist) basis in the plural practices of different communities, or as a biological/anthropological basis in the specific nature of the human organism. Rather, it points to an autonomous dimension of form, which articulates the relationship between language and life as it relates to the possibility of truth.

Author Biography

Paul M Livingston, University of New Mexico

Paul Livingston is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Mexico. He has published widely on the history of twentieth century philosophy and topics in contemporary analytic and continental philosophy. He is the sole author of three books; the most recent of these, The Politics of Logic: Badiou, Wittgenstein, and the Consequences of Formalism (Routledge, 2012), considers the implications of formalism and formal structures for contemporary thought about politics, social organization, and the possibility of radical change. His book, The Logic of Being: Realism, Truth, and Time, which investigates the relationship of truth and time from a perspective informed by Heidegger’s ontological project, drawing also on the work of Frege, Tarski, Davidson, and Dummett, will be published by Northwestern University Press in 2016 or 2017. He is also working on an ongoing project (of which this paper is a part) on parallels and connections between Plato and Wittgenstein.


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