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Reading reality and Umberto Eco

Domenico Pacitti talks to Umberto Eco

The 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 Tormented by over-zealous critics, academics and budding writers who press him to comment on his work, he has withdrawn into his shell, preferring to leave the interpretation of his writings to the reader.
So I am delighted when, after almost four months of patient correspondence, Eco, professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, finally agrees to meet me for an interview. The days before the meeting are fraught. I know that Eco has a weekly spot in the magazine L'Espresso, in which he comments on various aspects of Italian life, but just before our meeting, a long article by him appears in La Repubblica, one of Italy’s leading newspapers. It is about the way journalists misuse quotations. The fact that criticism of Italy's university system is also being widely aired in the media in the days leading up to our rendezvous does little to alleviate either his or my misgivings about our arrangement.
Yet, when we finally meet, 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 have sent me.'

I reply that, given his publishing record, both would indubitably be best-sellers. He laughs, the ice is broken and we are away.
Writing best-sellers 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, a detective thriller set in the year 1327, tells how a medieval Holmes and Watson, sent to investigate a series of murders at a Benedictine monastery in northern Italy, are led to the culprit following their discovery that the pages of an ancient Aristotelian text have been treated with poison. Eco’s book, which may also be read as a historical novel, a Bildungsroman, and a discourse on literature, invites the more philosophically minded reader to consider the extent to which investigations into the true nature of objects in the world are obstructed by language itself.

His 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 Paris.

And 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.

Despite 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 philosophy.
Nonetheless he admits that his novels can be read as a prelude to his academic writing. They too are about the search for meaning in life and elaborate on what are for Eco recurrent themes – the complex relationship between appearance and reality, between interpretation and misinterpretation and, between words and the objects to which they refer.

Umberto 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.

For 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.

In 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.

Semiotics 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.
For Eco the central issues of philosophy are: how do we assign meaning and how do we perceive things? One of his most recent books, Kant And The Platypus, a collection of six philosophical essays, addresses the problem. In it Eco elaborates on the question of how the German philosopher Immanuel Kant would have set about ascribing identity to a platypus, an animal he would not have been familiar with, and which would have seemed to Kant to be nothing more than an assemblage of parts of other creatures.

In 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.
Unlike his previous highly technical philosophical writing, Kant And The Platypus bristles with philosophical parables. Eco says that the new formula was a deliberate move away from his more difficult writing. ‘I wanted to write a book which differed from my previous ones in being non-systematic rather than systematic,’ he says. ‘These parables and anecdotes are useful for the formulation of questions and problems and go some way towards the avoidance of technical terminology.’
In one example we are asked to imagine Ptolemy, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Kepler and Epicurus together at the top of Mount Arcetri near Florence. All of them are looking at the sun, though each one espouses a different cosmological theory. ‘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 the nature of the sun’s identity] will obviously begin.’

He 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 facts.’
Fanciful readings of works of literature have provided Eco with plenty of examples of ‘things which cannot be said’. As he points out, Dante's Divina Commedia has been plundered by Freemasons and Rosicrucians who have written elaborate justifications for their convictions that esoteric symbols are discernible in the text. ‘Their readings are examples of things which cannot be said because they go beyond the limits,’ says Eco. ‘The text simply does not say what 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 interpretations of literature.

Lowering 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.
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. For the past thirty or forty years French philosophy has forgotten common sense. I think it's high time that common sense, 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 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.’
So does Eco’s view of philosophy allow for the possibility that ‘truth’ exists? Truth is a concept scorned by postmodernist thinkers, who hold, rather, that there are many truths, each dependent on an individual’s viewpoint and all constructed by consensus within a community. ’I hold that there can be no truth which is not the result of people interpreting reality, and hence resulting from a social contract,’ says Eco. ‘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 decrees: “No, you cannot say this.” Negation is the closest thing to truth. What is true is that you cannot say something because it crosses the limits.’

On 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 common.’
He has even tried to promote international collaboration by 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 the bureaucratic shackles of the Italian state. For a while it worked well for us – the British historian Eric Hobsbawm and the American philosopher Hilary Putnam were among the many international figures who attended our conferences. But differences arose over the direction we should follow, over future programmes. 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 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?

Summoning 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 attached file?’

Note: This article appeared in
Predictions: 30 great minds on the future, edited by Sian Griffiths and published by Oxford University Press in 1999. It was reprinted with the new title "Reading reality and Umberto Eco" by JUST Book Reviews on January 4 2003. The article is an extended version of an interview which first appeared in The Times Higher Education Supplement on January 23 1998 titled "Parables and the pursuit of everyday meaning".