Parables and the pursuit of everyday meaning

January 23, 1998

Bestselling academic Umberto Eco tells Domenico Pacitti why he thinks contemporary philosophy lacks common sense, and what Kant would have made of a platypus.

The Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco grants few interviews these days. Tormented by over-zealous critics, academics and budding writers pressing him to comment on his own work, (and often theirs), he has withdrawn into his shell, preferring to leave the interpretation of his writings to the reader.

As a result it has taken almost four months of patient correspondence to pin Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, down to a meeting. He has a weekly spot in the magazine L'Espresso in which he comments on every aspect of Italian life, but he has also recently written a long article in La Repubblica on journalists' misuse of their interviewees' quotations. Current international criticism of Italy's university system does little to alleviate his misgivings about our agreed rendezvous.

When we finally do get together, at the university's Institute of Communication Disciplines, of which he is also the director, he is charmingly apologetic: "Caro Pacitti," (despite his excellent English he decides we should speak Italian) "I should have to write a 700-page book to explain to you the various things that have happened to me recently, plus another just as long to answer the list of questions you sent me." I say that, given his publishing record, both would indubitably be bestsellers. He laughs; the ice is broken and we are away.

Writing bestsellers has indeed become second nature to Eco. His three novels have been translated into more than 30 languages. His best known, The Name of the Rose, about a philosopher's disciple who is sexually initiated by a retarded girl (who turns out in the end to be the rose) has sold 20 million copies; Foucault's Pendulum, ten million. His latest effort, The Island of the Day Before, appears to be following suit, although official sales figures are not yet available. Yet he seems untouched by the fame his writing of novels has brought him, preferring to speak simply of his "narrating" as a separate, secondary activity. At the moment, he reveals, there are no more novels in the pipeline. He is concentrating on philosophy.

Nonetheless he admits that his novels may be read as a sort of prelude to his academic work. They too are about the search for meaning in life, elaborating on what are for Eco recurrent themes - the complex relationship between appearance and reality, interpretation and misinterpretation, and word and object.

Semiotics is usually defined as the study of signs and symbols and what they refer to in the world, but Eco extends this: "Semiotics attempts to explore all possible systems of communication and leads to a philosophy of language which goes beyond verbal structures and usage to cover all forms of language from gesture to the visual image." He is not worried by the fact that semiotics is not even considered philosophy by many mainstream philosophers: "I firmly believe that semiotics is the only form of philosophy possible today," he retorts.

While he accepts the validity of Anglo-American and Continental approaches to philosophy, he feels they are too concerned with the internal relations of words within linguistic systems and have lost sight of the problem of how words relate to empirical reality. But a recent "cognitive revolution", he says, has upset system-oriented approaches and helped re-establish contact between the mind and the world out there. For Eco the central questions of philosophy are: how do we assign meaning and how do we perceive things?

His latest book, Kant and the Platypus, a collection of six philosophical essays, published in Italian in September (the English edition is not expected for another two years) is an attempt to answer precisely these questions. In it Eco elaborates on a question - how would Kant have gone about ascribing identity to a platypus, a creature he could not have known,seemingly made up, as it were, of bits of other animals? Eco's conclusion is that determining how words relate to reality has to be seen as an interpretive rather than a purely scientific enterprise. Objects and creatures do not come with God-given identity tags: rather identity is conferred by arrangement, by consensus, as a result of negotiation within a community of scientists or speakers. Yet, within the multitude of possibilities opened up by such negotiation, there are certain undeniable empirical facts which may not be ignored.

The book bristles with philosophical parables. Eco has readily adapted to this technique, commonly used in analytic philosophy to formulate problems: "I wanted to write a book which differed from my previous ones in being non-systematic rather than systematic. These anecdotes are useful for the formulation of questions or problems and go some way towards the avoidance of technical terminology," he says. Kant and the Platypus can be understood as a move away from his own earlier A Theory of Semiotics (1976), a classically systematic work.

In one splendidly colourful example we are asked to imagine Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton, Kepler and Epicurus, all with their very different cosmological theories, together at the top of Mount Arcetri near Florence, each intent on observing the sun. "While the contractual aspect of each one's system of ideas determines his mode of perception," Eco argues, "what cannot be denied is that they are all thinking about that red object out there, after which negotiation (about each one's perception of the sun) will obviously begin. I believe that much of contemporary philosophy of language has rather forgotten that in the end they are all talking about the same thing. Had Ptolemy pointed instead to a silver circle, the others would have said, 'No. That's the moon. We're talking about that object over there.' Now, I am especially interested in those things which cannot be said (about the sun or any other empirical object) because it is not true to the facts."

Fanciful interpretations of works of literature have provided Eco with no shortage of examples of what cannot be said: Dante's Divina Commedia, he points out, has been particularly plundered by paranoic freemasons, Rosicrucians and other conspiracy theorists convinced that esoteric symbols are present in the text. "Their interpretations are examples of things which cannot be said, which go beyond the limits. The text simply does not say (the things these readers suggest). There are certain lines of resistance in a text just as there are in reality." Eco is suddenly emphatic, agitated by his well-known intolerance of perverse readings. Lowering his voice again, he adds: "In The Limits of Interpretation (1990),an attack on some forms of literary criticism, I wrote that it was impossible to say everything about a text. But while it is true that a text is open to infinity in respect of possible interpretations, it is also true that certain things simply cannot be said. Kant and the Platypus is the transposition of this problem from texts to reality."

Eco accepts that the need to draw boundaries is a constant in both his literary and philosophical thinking. "I find I am discovering more and more," he says, "that the basic tool in philosophical thinking is common sense. All French philosophy over the past 30 or 40 years as well as recent American deconstructionism has forgotten common sense. I think it's high time this characteristic, so fundamental to the history of philosophy,was reintroduced to the scene. Aristotle was above all a man of extraordinary common sense, as was Aquinas." Rejecting the dictum that all philosophy begins with the loss of common sense, he points out: "Philosophy goes beyond common sense in that philosophers question facts that others take for granted. But to go beyond does not necessarily mean to reject. Nor does it mean to go against. What it does mean is that the philosopher continues to use common sense in order to tackle problems that ordinary everyday life does not raise."

The crucial question arises as to whether his position allows for the possibility of the existence of "truth" - a concept scorned by much recent philosophical thinking, which rather holds that there are many truths, each dependent on a person's viewpoint and all socially constructed. "I hold that there can be no truth which is not the effect of an interpretation, and hence of a social contract," he says. "But when we come across those lines of resistance which prevent us from making certain statements, that is the closest we can get to truth. There is something in reality that says, 'No, you cannot say this.' Negation is the closest thing to truth. What is true is that you cannot say this or that."

British philosophers have tended to know the names of few Italian philosophers (such as Benedetto Croce and Giambattista Vico). Eco has an explanation for this but is then dismissive of the very notion of "national" philosophy, which, he argues, "surely went out with the 18th century". But he accepts that the strong division between empirical and Continental philosophy, enshrined in the celebrated exchanges between the American philosopher John Searle and France's Jacques Derrida, persists. "It was evident in 1995 when three quarters of the Cambridge philosophy faculty protested against awarding Derrida an honorary degree. In my book I very often find myself saying to my mainstream philosopher friends: 'Look, you are doing the same things structuralist and semioticians are doing'. There tends to be a sort of academic defence owing to compartmentalisation. But on those occasions when we meet, we find we have much in common."

Such compartmentalisation is however, he feels, gradually disappearing. He cites the case of a major bookshop in Harvard which has tellingly resorted to a single enormous bookcase for "cognition" or "cognitive studies" which houses psychology, neural studies, analytic philosophy, logic, semiotics, linguistics, etc.

Eco has done much to promote international collaboration, even to the extent of founding a university in the tiny independent state of San Marino ten years ago: "We felt we could operate more efficiently by freeing ourselves from some of the bureaucratic shackles of the Italian state. For a while it worked well for us - Eric Hobsbawm, Jacques Le Goff, Hilary Putnam and many other international figures attended our conferences. Then teachers from the local liceo decided that they should be reclassified as university lecturers, it all became too much for me and I withdrew under the pressure."

As the University of San Marino continues to battle on without him, Eco has his hands more than full at Bologna, where thousands of students compete every year for just two or three hundred places on his courses - the most popular in Italy. It is a mark of his fame that my last question proves the most trying, throwing Eco into visible disarray: how many honorary degrees does he now hold? Summoning his secretary to bring him his Internet site number (where his full academic details are available to users), he suddenly remembers that it is months since it was updated. "Twenty-two at the last count, including three from Britain: the universities of Glasgow and Kent and in London, The Royal College of Art." The other 19 span 12 countries - Denmark, US, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Spain, Israel, Argentina, Greece, Poland, Rumania and Switzerland. "But I have a feeling there may be another couple not yet on the list. Can I email you an attached file?" Domenico Pacitti teaches American Literature at the University of Pisa.

A 'philosophical parable' or 'thought-experiment' designed to throw light on naming and perception, translated from Eco's latest book Kant and the Platypus.

"The Archangel Gabriel comes down to Nazareth where he has no trouble identifying the Virgin Mary. He just asks around for Joachim's house, flits into the thin, delicate colonnade, sees what is unmistakably a young lady, calls her by name in order to make sure that he has got it right (she reacts by looking at him in trepidation), and as far as the Annunciation is concerned, it's 'mission accomplished'.

At this point the real problems begin. How is Joseph to be identified? We are dealing with a human being of the male sex and Gabriel is perfectly capable of distinguishing a man from a woman by clothes and facial features. But how does he proceed from there? After striking it lucky in delivering his message to Mary he begins to walk about the village calling out for Joseph, but this does not turn out too well since a whole crowd of people begin to answer. He realises that in certain circumstances names may be rigid designators (he has read a bit about modal logic in the divine mind), but that they are rarely such in everyday life, where Josephs are in excess of requirements. Naturally, Gabriel knows that Joseph must be a virtuous man, and he has possibly received some typology instruction on how to recognise a virtuous person by his calm, serene expression, his kind and generous behaviour towards the poor and weak, and the acts of piety he performs in the Temple. The trouble is that there is more than one virtuous male in Nazareth".

Kant and the Platypus, Bompiani, Milan, 1997.

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