The Cratylus begins with a paradox; it ends with a paradox; and it has a paradox in between. But this disturbing characteristic of the dialogue has been overshadowed, not to say ignored, in the literature. For commentators have seen it as their task to discover exactly what theory of language Plato himself, despite his declared perplexity, intends to adopt as he rejects the alternatives of Hermogenes and Cratylus. A common view, then, has been to suppose that the ⋯πορίαι of the dialogue are mere camouflage for the hidden dogma, whatever that may be. A favoured candidate, of course, has been the theory of transcendent forms, in some preliminary version. As a consequence, the dialogue has often been seen as a precursor to the great metaphysical works of Plato's middle period such as the Phaedo or the Republic.
Not so, I shall argue. My case is that this dialogue centres upon a series of paradoxes which are both powerful and unsettling. Their final effect is to attack the theory of forms, not to defend it. They are, I suggest, genuine proposals of philosophical difficulty, rather than mere artifice to disguise an idealist truth. As such, they belong, and may clearly be seen to belong, with works of the critical period which subject the theory of forms to scrutiny. Thus the ⋯πορίαι of the Cratylus have their counterparts in the Parmenides, the Theaetetus and the Sophist. I propose, then, that the dialogue was written during the late, critical period of Plato's philosophical activity.