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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.