Signs of the times
talks to Umberto Eco
The Italian philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco is notoriously difficult to pin down. Teaching and administrative commitments at the University of Bologna where he is professor of semiotics, regular spots in the press - where he writes at times controversially but always entertainingly on a host of subjects from culture to current affairs - and an interminable flux of invitations to international conferences, not to mention his own private research, have all taken their toll on his free time.
Added to this, he is predictably uncooperative when it comes to commenting on his own novel writing, which he considers to be rather the business of his readers as the title of his 1979 classic work on critical theory, The Role of the Reader, suggests.
When we do finally meet at his department in Bologna, he confirms that he has been tempted by the opportunity to talk about his philosophy - to which, he concedes, his novels provide a fitting introduction. He seems as unaffected by the success his "narrating" (as he calls it) has brought him as by the 22 honorary degrees he has collected from 14 countries. At 66 he displays an exuberance, forthright manner and sense of humour which together form a disarming combination.
The Name of the Rose (1980), Foucault's Pendulum (1988) and The Island of the Day Before (1994), which may be read as variations on Eco's favourite themes of the pursuit of meaning and the perils of misinterpretation, have been translated into over 30 languages with estimated sales of almost 40 million copies. They are respectively about the symbolic search for a missing book of Aristotle's poetics, the mistaking of an old shopping list for an encoded plot to take over the world, and the self-referential attempt by an author to judge his own novel in the course of its writing from future and timeless perspectives. He has at present no plans for a fourth novel, and is totally absorbed in his philosophy.
Semiotics, he explains, attempts a philosophy of language that goes beyond verbal structures to cover all forms of language, from gestures to images. That semiotics is not seen as philosophy by most mainstream philosophers does not trouble him: "Semiotics is the only form of philosophy possible today," he counters, adding with an ironical smile, "although I am prepared to admit that I may be mistaken."
Eco's irony is directed at both Anglo-American and Continental philosophers, who have long dominated the scene while outlawing the essential concepts of mind and reality. "'Mind' and 'reality' have for too long been four-letter words in philosophy," he complains. "Serious philosophers were thus forced to engage in self-contained, system-oriented approaches which had no need of these two concepts. But a recent 'cognitive revolution' is now changing all of this for the better."
He sees common sense as the basic tool in philosophical thinking and feels that it is high time it made its comeback on the philosophical scene. "All French philosophy over the past thirty or forty years," he says, "as well as deconstructionism, has totally forgotten common sense."
The clearest exposition of Eco's philosophy is to be found in his latest book, Kant And The Platypus, published in Italian last September but not due out in English for at least two years. It is designed to throw light on how we assign meaning and how we perceive things. "The mental experiment I attempt to visualise is this: what would Kant have done had he come across a platypus, an anomalous creature, which he could not have known, and which it took the scientific community 80 years to 'schematise' satisfactorily?" What emerges is that in the course of the complex processes of contractual negotiations which are seen to be necessary, certain undeniable perceptive data may not be disregarded.
"In 1990," he continues, "I wrote The Limits Of Interpretation, an attack on deconstruction in which I argued that it was impossible to say everything about a text. It is true that a text is open to infinity, but there are some things which are not in the text and which cannot be said - just as there are in reality."
Kant and the Platypus turns out to be the transposition of such problems from the textual world to the real world. Eco defines his philosophy as one of "contractual realism": faced with a reality of sorts, a community engages in discussion until it finds a negotiated ('contractual') solution.
The crucial question arises as to how truth can be accommodated within his position. "I can't tell you what is true - but what I can tell you is that such-and-such a thing is simply not in the text and if you insist that it is then you are either mad or paranoic. Similarly, in the real world you can't say that rivers flow up rather than down or that the sun is the moon, and so on. Negation is the closest you can get to truth."
Eco is critical of what he believes to be excessive compartmentalisation within universities, and calls for more international cross-disciplinary collaboration. He has even gone so far as to found a university in the tiny independent enclave of San Marino.
"In '88 I set up a committee and we founded our university with a history doctorate," he recalls. "For a while it worked, well with many international figures attending our symposiums. Then local schoolteachers decided they should be reclassified as university professors, other similar headaches arose; in the end I withdrew under pressure."
Asked what progress he foresees in the field of meaning, Eco is unwilling to make predictions. He explains: "As I cannot work on the 'black box' (i.e. the mind/brain) itself, I work only on its input and output. What happens in our 'black box' when we perceive something is a problem for the cognitive scientists: does the outside world supply all the information necessary without the constructive intervention of our mental or neural apparatus, or is there selection, interpretation and reorganization on the part of the mind? Fresh insights could result in a sort of Babel or impasse, or else they could radically alter many of our philosophical ideas."
Note: This interview first appeared in The Guardian on March 24 1998.