Miscellaneous Encyclopedia Articles by Anthony F. Beavers

Cratylus, Follower of Heraclitus

Cratylus was a follower of Heraclitus, who, most notably, carried his doctrine of flux to its logical extreme. Consequently, according to Aristotle, he "ended by thinking that one need not say anything, and only moved his finger; and [he] criticized Heraclitus for saying that one cannot enter the same river twice, for he himself held that it cannot be done even once" (Metaphysics 1010a). He seems to have believed that true things cannot be said of things that change, because by the time words are uttered, things have changed. Words, therefore, falsify reality by introducing stability where there is none, and we would do well to say nothing at all.

Aristotle also tells us that "[i]n his youth Plato first became acquainted with Cratylus and the Heraclitean doctrines -- that the whole sensible world is always in a state of flux, and that there is no scientific knowledge of it -- and in after years he still held these opinions" (987a). Indeed, Plato named a dialogue after Cratylus in which he attributes the radical flux doctrine of Cratylus to Heraclitus (see Cratylus 402a) and then wrestles with the problems that such a view raises for understanding language. Whether Plato confuses Cratylus and Heraclitus in this dialogue for literary reasons or whether he is genuinely confused about the two is difficult to determine. In either case, Plato does adopt the radical view of flux to characterize the material world and, as Aristotle suggests, on this basis, determines that it is impossible to have knowledge of it. Aristotle maintains that this characterization is what caused Plato to develop his theory of transcendent ideas, or forms, (see Metaphysics 1078b), thereby rendering knowledge possible.

Written for Exploring Plato's Dialogues