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Literary philosophy

By Domenico Pacitti

Kant e l'ornitorinco [Kant and the Platypus] by Umberto Eco. Published October 1997 by Bompiani, Milan, 454 pages, GB Pounds 17.00, ISBN 88 452 2868 1.

Umberto Eco believes that mainstream philosophers working within the field of meaning have been unduly insular, restricting themselves to technical questions concerning the logical consequences of true statements and neglecting relations between mind and reality. Compatibly with this, he holds that semiotics, which studies signs and what they refer to in the world, is quite literally the only legitimate form of philosophy today since it is the only one to have kept such relations intact.

In order to clarify the basic nature of existing objects in the world and ascertain what exactly the semiotician's signs are referring to, Eco devotes the first of his book's six chapters to the question of being, concluding that even inanimate objects are, like the mind, dynamic and play an active role in causing us to speak. Invoking the Danish linguist Louis Hjelmslev and the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, he postulates a "Something-which-gives-you-a-kick and says: Speak!". Objects, according to Eco, have the power to say "no" to us, rejecting our questions when misplaced.

Having meanwhile accepted on higher authority and without argument that nothing and negation are purely linguistic and that being always presents itself positively, Eco now sees that this active role attributed to objects is contradictory, verging even on the absurd, and decides to resolve the matter by declaring his position to be metaphorically and not literally true. What he fails to see is that everything built on these figurative foundations will similarly be at best only metaphorically true and therefore literally false.

His abrupt treatment of Leibniz for having asked why there is something rather than nothing and Heidegger for having posed a similar question (Eco's impatient answer is "Because there is") reveals poor sensitivity to metaphysical problems. But worse still, we are left with no clear idea of what sorts of entities populate Eco's universe.

Eco's animistic and other difficulties can be at least partly explained by the fact that he is consciously attempting to fashion a new philosophy by transposing interpretive approaches from the world of literary criticism to the real world. In the same way that there are certain things which a text forbids one to say, he maintains, there are certain things that the external world, too, vetoes. The trouble is that the parallel between how words communicate and how inanimate objects communicate is a limited one - unless, of course, one happens to be a pantheist or a poet.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the presentation and development of a key principle of negotiation, from which Eco derives the overall position and proposed panacea for philosophers' ills, which he calls contractual realism. By way of illustration, he recounts how 80 years of negotiations were necessary before scientists were finally able to classify the platypus as an anomalous egg-laying mammal and a work of art in design rather than a clumsy attempt by nature, as it were, to produce something better out of bits of other animals.

The story serves to show that our first attempts to understand what we see are framed within a categorial system that can be continually adjusted in the light of new information. According to Eco, the fact that the negotiators compared the platypus to beavers, ducks and moles but not to cats, elephants or ostriches, and that no one argued that it had wings and could fly, proves not only that there must be a concrete basis to negotiations, but also that there are certain lines of resistance in reality that veto inappropriate comparisons.

The long-awaited thought experiment conceived in order to clarify what Kant might have made of a platypus is, disappointingly, summarily dismissed with no more than the banal assertion that Kant would have recognised it as a living creature but could not have foreseen the final results of scientists' negotiations. Perhaps significantly, problems would have arisen for Kant only on Eco's forced, empirical account of the Kantian notion of schema as a static 3D mental image, but not on Kant's own conceptual account of the schema as a sort of dynamic model-constructing capacity produced by the imagination.

Extending these two accounts of the schema for his own purposes, Eco posits a cognitive type to cover both the individual and social processes of constructing unknown objects, stressing that such processes are invariably characterised by constant negotiation which, again, cannot disregard certain perceptive data. Nuclear content and molar content, designating respectively our shared public knowledge and more comprehensive knowledge of such objects, complete Eco's tripartite theory of meaning. All the traditional problems of analytic philosophy including meaning and reference, he concludes, can now be more profitably "re-read" on the basis of this contractual notion.

Such delightfully narrated tales as "Montezuma and the horses", "Marco Polo and the unicorn" and "Archangel Gabriel", enthusiastically recounted as thought experiments in the analytic tradition with the purpose of throwing light on naming and perception, counterbalance Eco's deep-seated misgivings about analytic philosophy and contribute to the overall impression that his is something of a love-hate relationship.

Finally, in the second of two appendices, Eco attempts to banish the spirit of Croce, Italy's 20th-century philosopher par excellence, describing him as a master of oratory and style whose beauty of expression is such that it unfailingly convinces the reader of its truth, while at the same time masking unresolved contradictions beneath the surface. It is paradoxical that Eco alone does not see that he could also be describing himself.

Note: This review was first published by The Times Higher Education Supplement on January 22 1999.