Peter Jones

Party-naming with Plato

If the party is to discover its core values, its name may be a good place to start

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In order to make a sensible choice of new leader, the Labour party is trying to work out what its ‘core values’ are. Perhaps it would be helpful to begin by thinking about its core name: does ‘Labour’ still correlate with the party’s function any more?

In Plato’s dialogue Cratylus, Socrates and chums discuss the significance of the names we apply to the world around us. Does a name give the clue to the real nature of the object to which it is applied, or is it a convention, merely an arbitrary sound or sign? At one level, Socrates argues, names are significant. Anthrôpos, ‘human’, for example, distinguishes humans from animals; and the name itself correlates to man’s nature, since Socrates derives it from the Greek for ‘someone who reflects on what he sees’. This derivation is nonsense, but almost certainly not to Greeks, who knew nothing about etymology. Further examples back up the case. Thus Zeus, whose accusative form is Dia, is significant because dia in Greek means ‘because of’; so the name Zeus correlates to his creative capacity.

Then comes the ‘but…’ — for there are surely varying degrees of accuracy of correlation. So it is quite possible that names have in fact been inaccurately assigned (examples follow). Second, if the name ‘Cratylus’ perfectly represented the person Cratylus, one could not (on Plato’s reasoning) distinguish between them.

‘Labour’ did once correlate with the party’s function; but it now merely recalls its musty Victorian origins, and is mainly associated with childbirth and prison. How about ‘Progressive’, then, as an early group of Labour’s founding fathers was called? But the Conservatives, whose function should surely be preservation rather than (ugh) progress, have now collared that epithet; while if Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, its most suitable title would surely become ‘The Preservatives’.

All very confusing. But one must help the afflicted. ‘The Industry Party’ might serve, as in the party of business and of hard work.