Reading reality and Umberto Eco
talks to Umberto Eco
Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco grants few interviews
these days. Tormented by over-zealous critics, academics and
budding writers who press him to comment on his work, he has
withdrawn into his shell, preferring to leave the interpretation
of his writings to the reader.
reply that, given his publishing record, both would indubitably be
best-sellers. He laughs, the ice is broken and we are away.
second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, centres on an
over-erudite narrator, who leads the reader on a wild-goose chase
of abstruse false tracks in an obsessive attempt to decipher a
fragment of French text which he takes to be a dark conspiracy to
rule the world but which, as his wife eventually informs him,
turns out to be no more than a laundry list. This lesson in the
foolishness of conspiracy theories and perverse readings of
literary texts, culminates in the spectacular death of the
hero’s friend, strangled by the actual Foucault pendulum in
in his most recent novel, The Island of the Day Before, a
lyrical tale clearly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s MS Found
in a Bottle, a Piedmontese shipwreck survivor in search of
love and the meaning of life, finds himself on board a deserted
ship in the South Pacific in 1643, headed for a mysterious island
of salvation. Love letters and memories of unquenched passions
alternate with images of the clocks and maps used by an old Jesuit
to sound the depths of the universe as an obsessive narrator on an
impossible voyage struggles to put names to the stream of unknown
objects he encounters.
the fact that his novels have sold millions, Eco seems untouched
by the fame they have brought, preferring to speak simply of his
‘narrating’ as a separate activity, secondary to his academic
study of philosophy. At the moment, he reveals, there are no more
novels in the pipeline; his plans are to concentrate on
Eco was born in Alessandria in Piedmont, forty miles east of
Turin, in 1932. He attended the University of Turin where he
studied under the celebrated Italian existentialist philosopher
Nicola Abbagnano, taking his degree in philosophy in 1954 with a
graduation thesis on ‘The Aesthetic Problem in Saint Thomas
Aquinas’, which marked the beginning of a lifelong interest in
medieval history and thought.
a few years after leaving university Eco worked as cultural editor
for the Italian national radio and television network, RAI,
leaving, in 1959, to become senior non-fiction editor for Bompiani
publishers in Milan. He was a founder member of ‘Gruppo 63’, a
radical intellectual group of the 1960s.
1961 he became lecturer in aesthetics at the University of Turin
while still working for Bompiani. He subsequently taught
aesthetics at Milan Polytechnic, visual communication at the
University of Florence and semiotics at Milan Polytechnic. In 1975
he was appointed professor of semiotics at the University of
Bologna, the position he currently holds.
is commonly defined as the theory of sign systems in language.
Eco, however, author of A Theory of Semiotics, is keen to
extend this definition. ‘Semiotics attempts to explore all
possible systems of communication,’ he says. ‘This leads to a
philosophy of language which goes beyond verbal structures and
usage. It includes all forms of language, from gesture to the
visual image.' He is unperturbed by the snobbery many philosophers
show toward the study of semiotics, with some even arguing that
its investigation cannot properly be considered philosophy. 'I
believe that semiotics is the only form of philosophy possible
today,' he says firmly.
Kant And The Platypus Eco concludes that words acquire
meaning as a result of negotiation with a particular community of
speakers. Objects and speakers do not come with God-given identity
tags; rather identity is conferred by arrangement and consensus.
Yet, argues Eco, amongst the many possibilities opened up by such
a process of negotiation, there are basic facts that place limits
on what words can be said to mean.
goes on: ‘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 at a
silver circle the others would have said, 'No. That's the moon.
We're talking about that object over there.' I am especially
interested in those things which cannot be said [about the sun or
any other empirical object] because they are not true to the
his voice again, he adds: 'In my book The Limits Of
Interpretation, an attack on some forms of literary criticism,
I argue that every text is open to an infinite number of possible
interpretations, yet there are certain limits.’ And the limits
are imposed by empirical facts; an interpretation that does not
fit the facts of a piece of writing cannot be accepted. 'Kant
And The Platypus is the transposition of this problem from
texts to reality,’ he adds.
the dictum that philosophy begins with the loss of common sense,
with the need to question the accepted, he says: ’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 subject of the many arguments and feuds that have riven
philosophy in recent years Eco is phlegmatic. He is in favour of
international collaboration and says that when philosophers meet
they often find that they agree on many issues. ‘In 1995
three-quarters of Britain’s Cambridge University philosophy
faculty opposed the award of an honorary degree to the French
philosopher Jacques Derrida. Academic compartmentalism leads to a
kind of defensiveness. But when we meet we find we have much in
As the University of San Marino continues to battle on without him, Eco has his work cut out at Bologna, where thousands of students compete every year for just three hundred places on his course – 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?
his secretary to bring him his website address he suddenly
remembers that it has not been updated for months. ‘Twenty-two
at the last count, including three from Britain.’ The other
nineteen span twelve countries, ‘but I have a feeling that there
may be a couple more not yet on the list. Can I e-mail you an