Umberto Eco: Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1999, 464pp. $28.00

 

I

The title gives due advertisement of Eco’s trademarks: high themes, arcane learning, strange corners of philosophy and history and natural history, large intellectual vistas, above all a sense of play. Readers excited by these prospects will probably already be familiar with The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum. They should be warned that the intellectual temperature is here supposed to be much higher, as Eco reverts to his academic interest in semiotics, or the theory of signs and communication. The book makes no concessions to the reader. It takes us into difficult writers, such as Heidegger, Kant and Peirce, and into their worst parts. This is entirely self-conscious, since Eco himself is reported as saying: ‘This a hard-core book. It’s not a page turner. You have to stay on every page for two weeks with your pencil. In other words, don’t buy it if you are not Einstein.’ (CBS, Sunday December 5th, 1999). Such braggadocio (Eco-terrorism, perhaps) certainly fits the work, which is clearly that of a person in whom the sense of doubt is less developed than other ambitions, such as cutting an intellectual figure, or appearing as something of a priest or magus.

Eco’s book resists classification, like the platypus of the title. It is not a work of philosophy, nor of scholarship, nor cognitive science, although it bears resemblances to such works. Unlike, say, Alice in Wonderland, it is not an entertainment either, although it is entertaining in some places, and often tries to be so. Like the platypus, it comes across as a bit of this and a bit of that. Its nature is indicated by the publisher’s disclaimer: ‘Forgoing a formal, systematic treatment, Eco engages in a series of explorations…’— although this is also a little disingenuous. It gives the impression that a formal systematic treatment of something is just around the corner, extant even, but that Eco modestly hesitates to give it to us. In truth, however, it is hard to imagine what has been forgone, just as it would be if someone said the same thing about the Alice books. Eco is not one to concentrate on one thing at a time, which is presumably a precondition of formal and systematic thought. He is a polymath who likes to sidetrack us, and the topics tumble over one another and compete for attention. I nearly said that we are watching the flight of the butterfly, not the stoop of the hawk. But both creatures fly in the clear air, whereas here we are in the swamps, and much of the time we are close to suffocation. Sometimes you might manage a wry smile when you finally surface, but generally speaking, Eco’s warning not to buy the book is sound, whether or not you are Einstein.

              

II

It is fair to start with the more positive side. This is the book of a very clever man who has read enormously. The individual chapters or essays give the impression of contributing to serious philosophical questions and problems. Furthermore, when Eco does allow us to come up for air, we often find ourselves pretty much on the side of the angels. He has noticed, for example, that it is not true that anything goes. There is a real world that, even if it admits of different descriptions or interpretations, nevertheless offers ‘lines of resistance’ to false or inadequate thinking. If there is a boulder in your path and you fail to perceive it, things go worse. They go worse in ways painfully apt to show what is wrong with the idea that there is nothing beyond the text. You know reality when you come up against it. Language, as Eco puts it, does not create being ex nihilo (p. 54). It is sad that this still needs to be said, and it is well worth remembering that even the idealist Berkeley said it. Still, given that there are parts of the academy where truth and reality are still endangered species, it is good to find a large-scale intellectual like Eco getting this right. Incidentally, Eco’s notion of resistance pleasantly echoes the motto (‘Les choses sont contre nous’: things are against us) of the resistentialist school of philosophers invented by the humorist Paul Jennings. In Jennings’s parody, the French derived this by remorseless logic (‘From this it follows, or it does in the French…’), whereas the empirical English established it by dropping pieces of buttered toast on carpets, and finding that the toast fell buttered side down with a frequency in direct proportion to the value of the carpet. Eco thinks that resistance is a manifestation of Being, or, as one might say less gravely, it is just one of those things. 

Eco can also be good on constraints on interpretation—as one might again expect, given that Foucault’s Pendulum is a long allegory on the idiocies of unconstrained frenzies of taking one thing as a sign of another. The problem with that book is that the skepticism is muted. It requires of us a lot of devotion to numerology, the cabala, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Knights of the Rosy Cross, and the rest of the menagerie before we are permitted to dismiss them, and even then the permission is curiously half-hearted. In the current book, Eco is more forthright, perhaps abjuring a wilder youth. Indeed, philosophically the most interesting part of the book is Eco’s defense of rocks of genuine fixed meaning that stay put among the seas of reinterpretation. He reports a debate with Richard Rorty, who had alluded to the right we have to interpret a screwdriver as something useful to scratch our ears with, and Eco’s reply is surely exemplary:

 

A screwdriver can serve also to open a parcel (given that it is an instrument with a cutting point, easy to use in order to exert force on something resistant); but it is inadvisable to use it for rummaging about in your ear precisely because it is sharp and too long to allow the hand to control the action required for such a delicate operation; and so it would be better to use not a screwdriver but a light stick with a wad of cotton at its tip.

 

It may be hard to believe that Rorty had really got himself into a state in which it would seem strange that a plumber carries tools different from those of a doctor. But perhaps he had. As the philosopher J.L. Austin once remarked, there is always the bit where you say it, and the bit where you take it back.

Eco is deft on truth in fiction:

 

It has been said that narrative worlds are always little worlds, because they do not constitute a maximal and complete state of things…In this sense narrative worlds are parasitical, because, if the alternative properties are not specified, we take for granted the properties that hold good in the real world. In Moby Dick it is not expressly stated that all the sailors aboard the Pequod have two legs, but the reader ought to take it as implicit, given that the sailors are human beings. On the other hand the account takes care to inform us that Ahab had only one leg, but, as far as I remember, it does not say which, leaving us free to use our imagination, because such a specification has no bearing on the story.

 

A final example of dexterity also introduces a reservation. Consider the hoary old problem: ‘Why do mirrors reverse left to right and not up to down?’ Eco talks of mirrors at length, and he gives a short but very confident solution to the problem. This is itself unusual, since in general Eco cherishes mysteries rather than solving them. Eco claims that mirrors do not reverse anything at all. He invites us to think, not of a mirror, but of a ‘prosthetic eye’, a third eye situated in our index finger. If we point this at ourselves we will obtain the view somebody has who is facing us, which, he seems to think, is equally the view the mirror gives us. It is this point of view that ‘reverses’ left to right, but that just means that it is facing in the opposite direction to our normal point of view. In a footnote Eco tweaks the psychologist Richard Gregory:

 

Gregory also quotes Gardner…who had also made the obvious observation that mirrors do not reverse anything at all. But not even this is enough for Gregory, and he adds another reason for surprise: that mirrors also reverse depth, and that is to say, if we walk away from a mirror, say toward the north, the image moves away from us toward the south, and it gets smaller (I would add that it’s hardly likely to come running straight at us). But, Gregory says, mirrors do not reverse concave and convex. All you have to do is think of the mirror as a prosthesis, or an eye on the index finger, and it will let me see what I would see if someone were standing in front of me: if that someone moves away, his image gets smaller, but if he has a potbelly, then it will stay that way, nor will the pit of his stomach contract toward the inside.

 

Again, this is amusing. The playfulness works well. The problem is that it begins to look a little uncritical when a moment’s thought shows that if this is Eco’s theory, it is incorrect. The view in a mirror is not the view obtained by looking at someone standing in front of you, nor is it the view obtained by an eye looking at you. To see this, hold an ordinary book on your chest and look in a mirror. You will have difficulty reading the writing. But to a person looking at you, the writing reads normally, and of course if you now ask your partner to hold the book outwards and face you, you have no difficulty reading it either. Mirror-writing does not appear in either of these views. Incidentally, I say ‘if this is Eco’s theory’ deliberately, because here, as throughout, he shows a gift for evasion, and it is extremely hard to be sure what he actually believes.

The quotations I have given strike me as pleasantly humorous. But as Bernard Williams observed in a review of earlier works of Eco’s (New York Review of Books, 1995), his genuine wit is juxtaposed with things that seemed unfunny to a bewildering degree. In the present work we could contrast the passages I have just quoted with a long and labored exercise in which Eco draws a ‘map’—in fact, two maps— of an imaginary town called ‘Vanville’. The streets and landmarks of this town are labeled with names and terms found as examples in the writings of the philosopher Quine. The only intellectual point of the exercise, which stretches over ten pages, is to show that it is difficult to locate things by referring to landmarks once the landmarks have vanished. The ulterior motive seems to be to display a cosy intimacy with Quine’s writing, and indeed with Quine personally (‘Van is how Willard Van Orman Quine was known to close friends’). I do not know whether the claim is justified (and why the past tense?), but the thing is excruciating either way.

 

III

Before we get to Kant or the platypus, the book begins with a chapter on Being. Here is a fairly typical sample, from p. 30:

 

As Heidegger says in Being and Time (§490), angst constitutes the opening of being-there to its existence as being thrown for its own end; agreed, and the (grammatical) subject of this thrown being is the Dasein. But then why is it said immediately afterward that “because of it [angst], being opens to being-there” and the “being of being-there is totally at stake”? The being of being-there is pure tautology. Being-there cannot be based on something, given that it is “thrown” (why? because it is). Whence comes this das Sein that opens itself to being-there, if the being-there that opens itself is an entity among the entities?

 

Whence indeed. Now, it would be wrong to ridicule this before explanation, for philosophers must be allowed their bits of terminology. It is much better to ridicule it afterwards. So: to say that something opens to being-there means that people think about it. Angst we all know about: fear of death and absurdity and all that. Something is said to be thrown at us if we can’t do anything about it, although admittedly that does not explain why our existence is thrown ‘for its own end’, whatever that may mean. If we want to know what Being is, we will have plenty to look back upon. ‘Here is what we mean by the word Being: Something’ (p. 12). On the other hand ‘Being is the horizon, or the amniotic fluid, in which our thought naturally moves’ (p. 17). I don’t know if I live an unusually cluttered life, but I find it difficult to reconcile these two statements. Something bumped into my car last week, but I don’t believe it was either a horizon or an amniotic fluid (all right, we are not supposed to take it literally—but then we must ask ourselves if we know how to take it). Anyhow,  ‘Being is even before it is talked about’. Being also pops up in Latin: ‘Being is id quod primum intellectus concipit quasi notissimum’ (p. 19). We have also been told the answer to the question, ‘Why is there being rather than nothing?’ The answer, adverted to above, is: ‘Because there is’ (p. 17, Eco’s italics). This answer, which Eco insists must be taken ‘with the maximum seriousness’, is nevertheless in danger of being retired two pages later when we are equally told that ‘there is no need to wonder why there is being; it is a luminous evidence’.

All this may help the reader understand the quoted paragraph, or there again it may not. P. G. Wodehouse talks of family occasions best avoided, when Aunt is calling to Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primeval swamps, and Eco’s sparring with Heidegger reminds me of them. In fact, insofar as we can keep score here, it seems to go like this. Heidegger holds that it is only because people are afraid of death that they become self-conscious, or perhaps conscious of the world around them. This is analogous to the Stoics’ view that it is only because people are afraid of death that they seek political office and want to have statues erected to themselves. These are not very convincing ideas, but if this is Heidegger’s stumbling at a thought, then Eco’s reply that consciousness is ‘thrown’, or even ‘pure tautology’, is clearly off-target. Consciousness and self-consciousness are worth explaining, and in principle at least an emotion like fear of death might be part of the explanation, unlikely though it sounds.

What has gone wrong? Meditation upon Being has roots in Parmenides, Plato, Plotinus, Anselm, or Aquinas, and need not be disreputable. What is disreputable is the way these meditations become hijacked by oracular obscurity, in which Eco collaborates with Heidegger, who at least had the excuse of being a theologian by training. It might seem merely tiresome when intellectuals trick out some banal thoughts (Nature turns up people who think; Sometimes they get worried; They think about death; The modern world is horrid) in terms of Being, Being-there, Being revealing itself, angst, and the rest. But in fact it matters a great deal, as the famous double dactyl reminds us:

 

Higgledy piggledy

Herr Rektor Heidegger

Said to his students:

“To Being Be True!”

 

“Lest you should fall into

Inauthenticity.

This I believe—

And the Führer does too!”

 

In other words, lament that we have lost the shelter of Being, and soon you start wanting a recipe for recovering it. Clearly this requires authenticity, best discovered through nineteenth-century Romantic visions of inarticulate ancient purity, the Fatherland, blood, and destiny. You then find that the quest requires a political expression, such as, for instance, the Nazi party, whose unique rapport with primordial Being was so striking to Heidegger, just as that of the Prussian state had been to Hegel. The sleep of reason produces monsters, or as Voltaire said, those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.

Eco is not dangerous enough to produce monsters, and his interest is not really in ontology or cosmology. The bouts with Heidegger come across as mere rites of passage, certificates of profundity. His real interest is in the nature of signs and cognition.

 

IV

If there is a single central theme in this work, it is the problem of universals, or of the relation between particular things and general categories. Eco introduces this topic by means of cases where we come across things that stretch previous classifications. When Marco Polo arrived in Java, he came across the rhinoceros and was only able to regard it as a rather scrubby unicorn. When Spanish cavalry arrived in the New World, Montezuma’s subjects did not know what they were seeing, or even whether they were looking at one animal or two.

Kant never came across the platypus, unless possibly by hearsay towards the very end of his life. But Eco finds interesting the question of how Kant might have reacted to a beast that resisted familiar biological categories. I am not sure why this is an interesting question: Kant, like anybody else, would be faced with the problem of warping his scientific heritage to fit the new experience. It is not clear that the critical philosophy gives him any special understanding of this process, or any reason to conduct it in some special way. In fact, as Eco admits, the question is speculative, for Kant does not tell us much about small-scale, everyday empirical concepts, like those of a dog or a chair or a platypus. He is happier with highly abstract concepts, like those of substance or time, or space or causation, and even a platypus is a thing that lasts for a time, occupies space, resists penetration, and is subject to gravity.

Still, Eco wants to link Kant to the platypus. So he directs us to one chapter of the Critique of Pure Reason where Kant seems to address the way in which concepts become applicable in experience. Even here it is not really clear that Kant intends to be talking about everyday empirical concepts. Kant’s chapter is entitled ‘The Schematism of the Pure Concepts of Understanding’, which certainly suggests otherwise, since the pure concepts of understanding are the big abstract categories. In any case, the chapter was a notorious show-stopper even in Kant’s own time. Jacobi called it ‘the most wonderful and most mysterious of all unfathomable mysteries and wonders’. Many modern commentators have dismissed it out of hand. Their view is that Kant had set himself an unanswerable question, along the lines of, ‘What is the rule for applying rules to experience?’ or, ‘What is the recipe for making use of recipes?’ The complaint is that there cannot be a rule for applying rules in general. Any answer would be regressive, having to consist in producing another rule or recipe, about which the same question would then, inevitably, be asked. 

               This moral is often credited to Wittgenstein, who is indeed adept at uncovering hidden regresses in various accounts of our understanding. For example, we are apt to feel that spontaneous judgements might be explained by our having, in our mind’s eye, diagrams or templates or little pictures telling us what we are looking at. So if I am told to pick a red flower, perhaps I do so by conjuring up my red picture, and picking a flower that bears a sufficient resemblance to the picture. Wittgenstein’s comment on this in The Blue Book is lethal—one of the best short refutations in philosophy:

 

But this is not the only way of searching and it isn’t the usual way. We go, look about us, walk up to a flower and pick it, without comparing it to anything. To see that the process of obeying the order can be of this kind, consider the order “imagine a red patch”. You are not tempted in this case to think that before obeying you must have imagined a red patch to serve you as a pattern for the red patch which you were ordered to imagine.

 

Wittgenstein points out that there has to be a stop to producing interpretations of words (or diagrams or images). There has to be a point at which we just go ahead and do what we were told, without consulting any mental diagrams or templates or words at all.

But this is also a point that Kant himself makes, immediately before the chapter on schematism. So charity seems to require that we find something for Kant to be doing other than committing mistakes against which he has just warned us. The best suggestion, I believe, takes seriously his own warning that he is talking about ‘an art concealed in the depths of the human soul, whose real modes of activity nature is hardly likely ever to allow us to discover, and to have open to our gaze’. The art is the art of judgment, and the reason that it is concealed in the depths of the soul is precisely that it cannot be reduced to the grasp of rules, or recipes, or criteria. Nor can it be reduced to the presence, before the mind, of a thing like a picture or a even a word, and for Wittgenstein’s reason. Even when pictures, diagrams, and words float before our

mind’s eye, judgment only comes about when we have taken them the right way. Judgment then requires something spontaneous, outside the domain of reason; yet this “something” is a precondition for making any application of reason.

This can all sound very mysterious. We are not comfortable with arts concealed in the depths of the soul. But what we are facing is bedrock, the unthinking deployment of customs and routines that make up the way in which we are usually at home in the world. When it comes to recognizing things, we just do it. Common sense and philosophical reflection can tell us no more. There can indeed be a further science of the functions of the brain that enable us to just do it, and of course there exist remarkable data on what happens when those functions are damaged. But Eco is explicit that he intends to offer no contribution to any such science.

So what is he doing? He talks at length of the particular and the general, and the nature of symbolization, yet it is never clear that he has grasped Wittgenstein’s point, or Kant’s. He reverts constantly to the idea of us applying a diagram, or icon, or schema as if this is the essential but mysterious element in explaining the process of judgement. Perhaps semiotics is an open invitation to this idea. Semiotics is the study of what occurs when one thing is a sign of another. To suppose that it is fundamental to cognition is, then, to suppose that cognition is essentially a matter of comparing one thing with another; and this is precisely the model that Wittgenstein and Kant oppose.

              

V

Where it is hard to see what is going on, it is equally hard to tell whether Eco is manufacturing paradoxes and mysteries, or addressing them. But this is not always the case, because, perhaps unwisely, he does engage, confidently and combatively, with relatively clear themes of modern philosophy. And here a more definite verdict is possible.

Prominent literary intellectuals often like to make familiar reference to the technical terminology of mathematical logic or philosophy of language. A friend of mine overheard the following conversation in Cambridge during l’affaire Derrida, when the proposal to grant an honorary degree to that gentleman met serious academic opposition in the university. A journalist covering the fracas asked a Prominent Literary Intellectual what he took to be Derrida's importance in the scheme of things. ‘Well,’ the PLI confided graciously, unblushingly, ‘Gödel showed that every theory is inconsistent unless it is supported from outside. Derrida showed that there is no outside.’

Now, there are at least three remarkable things about this. First, the thing that Gödel was supposed to show could not possibly be shown, since there are many demonstrably consistent theories. Second, therefore, Gödel indeed did not show it, and neither did he purport to do so. Third, it makes no sense to say that an inconsistent theory could become consistent by being ‘supported from outside’, whatever that might mean (inconsistency sticks; you cannot get rid of it by addition, only by subtraction). So what Derrida is said to have done is just as impossible as what Gödel was said to have done.

These mistakes should fail you in an undergraduate logic or math or philosophy course. But they are minor considerations in the world of the PLI.  The point is that the mere mention of Gödel (like the common invocation of  ‘hierarchies’ and ‘metalanguages’) gives a specious impression of something thrillingly deep and thrillingly mathematical and scientific (theory! dazzling! Einstein!).  And, not coincidentally, it gives the PLI a flattering image of being something of a hand at these things, an impresario of the thrills. I expect the journalist swooned.

               Eco is not in the same league as the PLI above. He has clearly taken the trouble to read a good deal of modern philosophy of language. He talks familiarly of Quine, Putnam, Davidson and Kripke. Perhaps the Anglo-American tradition should be grateful for that, since few enough figures in continental Europe take this trouble. He also talks intelligently of real problems for some positions in that tradition, notably the problems of fictional and empty names. But there is still a disturbing tendency for him to go right off the rails. I apologize in advance for needing a little bit of detail to show this, but it is Eco who strews the technicalities in the path of his audience.

A good example is Eco’s use of the notion of ‘rigid designation’. This is a technical term due to Saul Kripke, for a feature belonging to names and indexical expressions (‘this’ ‘I’, ‘here’) in natural languages, and distinguishing them from other referring expressions, notably descriptions (‘the first dog born at sea’, ‘Kant’s home town’). In a nutshell, the ‘rigidity’ in question means that when you use a name, even to talk about strange and different possibilities, you are still interpreted as talking about whatever it is to which the name actually refers. So if I say, ‘Had the political boundaries been slightly different, the people of Königsberg might have spoken Latvian,’ I am still talking about that very town, Königsberg. But if I say, ‘Had his parents moved south, Kant’s home town might have been Berlin,’ the description ‘Kant’s home town’ has become detached, as it were, from Königsberg. For I am not trying to say that had Kant’s parent’s moved south, Königsberg might have been Berlin. I am saying that Berlin is where he might have been born and raised. This is what is meant by saying that descriptions are not rigid, whereas names are.

               Eco talks much of rigid designation. Unfortunately he identifies it by the ambiguous formula that a rigid designator refers to the same thing ‘in all possible worlds’, and then takes that formula in the wrong sense, as meaning that there is no possibility of the same name referring to something different. This is actually a misunderstanding against which Kripke explicitly and clearly warned, more than once. Given this misinterpretation, of course, the idea of rigid designation would be outrageous, since you can always take a term and use it to refer to something different. People like giving their pets names like ‘Aristotle’ or ‘Toscanini’. It is particularly bizarre of Eco to think that Kripke and the tradition following him failed to notice that the indexical ‘this’ may refer to different things on different occasions. It would be as if having said, ‘This is a rose,’ pointing to one flower, you could not go on to say, ‘But this is a daffodil,’ pointing to another.

The blunder leads Eco to suppose that rigid designation is ‘independent of all knowledge or intention or belief on the speaker’s part’ (p. 297, and see n. 17 to the chapter). It leads him to some strained speculations about the reference of terms being fixed by the Divine Mind or the Infinite Mind, as if it were God who forges the link between names and things. It also leads him to misunderstand another celebrated episode in modern philosophy of language. The philosopher Hilary Putnam once proposed a ‘twin-earth’ thought experiment, in which we imagine an earth just like this one, except that the stuff playing the role of water is some different chemical, XYZ.  We can imagine the persons on twin-earth talking happily of ‘water’. Eco interprets Putnam as proposing that persons on twin-earth would thereby be referring to water (H2O), because he takes rigidity to imply this. Whereas Putnam’s point was exactly the opposite, namely, that they would not be, but would be referring to the stuff that surrounds them, XYZ, which is not water (only a good substitute for it). Eco not only gets this wrong, but even implies that Putnam is somehow inconsistent, having forgotten his own earlier opposition to the idea that reference is fixed somehow by magic, by something outside of us like a Divine Mind.

On another occasion Eco squares up to one of the most famous papers in modern philosophy, ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’, written in 1951. In that paper, Quine attacked the entire positivist program as dependent on two carefully described dogmas. Later, in 1973, in an almost equally famous paper, ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, Davidson claimed that even a sanitized empiricism, free from Quine’s two dogmas, depended on yet a third dogma. Eco, of course, presents himself as knowing all this. ‘I am well aware’, he writes on p. 256, ‘that advocating the existence of observation sentences independent of a general system of propositions was said by Davidson to be the third dogma of empiricism…’

 The problem is that it wasn’t.  That was Quine's second dogma of empiricism, the one that he called reductionism, and to which his counter was that ‘our statements about the external world face the tribunal of sense experience not individually but only as a corporate body’. Davidson's third dogma of empiricism was that there is a defensible dualism of ‘scheme and content’, or, in other words, a distinction between, on the one hand, the world waiting to be organized, and, on the other hand, the conceptual scheme that does the organizing. And, like Kripke, Davidson explicitly insisted on the distinction in the course of introducing his third dogma.

               Anyone can make a slip, but I suspect Eco could not bring himself to face Davidson’s third dogma fairly and squarely, since he is heavily invested in it himself, constantly speculating on how the mind uses categories, schemata, cognitive types, language and inference in order to organize and impose order on an undifferentiated ‘continuum’. Or perhaps an ability to misread is encouraged by semiotics. There are other examples: I would have liked to add a description of Eco’s nightmarish attempt to engage with Tarski, but that is not suitable for family enjoyment.

 

VI

Does all this matter? To anyone who knows anything about Kripke, Putnam, Quine, or Davidson, these things seem like the thirteenth strike of the clock, the one that casts doubt on all the rest. But Eco brushes the details aside, and his intended audience is unlikely to be any the wiser. In the wider scheme of things, some might think that it doesn’t really matter if here and there a PLI goes astray. If all you want to do when you have the stick is to twirl it around in the carnival, then it is not important whether you get hold of the wrong end of it. So whatever else it may be, Eco’s playfulness is certainly a good defensive posture. It makes it hard for the critic to take a stand, and harder still for the audience to admit that any shortcoming may be involved in its admiration of the work. You cannot effectively criticize the Alice books on the grounds that they make no sense, for this is part of their charm. But in Eco’s case the lapses of sense are not part of the charm. His words are presented as if to be taken seriously, as a contribution to a little bit of science, a modest chamber in the storehouse of valuable human thought. And they may be so taken by many, including in large part their author.

The problem here is not the hip, glib, parodic, style of a postmodernism that has fundamentally nothing to say. But it has similar roots. In a famous review in the philosophical journal Mind in 1961, the biologist Sir Peter Medawar talked of the perfectly bogus nature of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man and asked how it could ever have gained an audience. He perceptively identified the state of mind expressed as ‘Really it’s beyond my poor brain, but doesn’t that just show how profound and important it must be?’ This is an intellectual version of passive-aggressive syndromes in psychology, an attitude also like that of taking pride in one’s own abasement. The novice is to trust the master all the more because the master humiliates him, but his trust in the master numbers him with the elect.

The comparison with the novitiate is telling. Until we make it, we might be merely irritated by some of the more overt discourtesies of Eco’s book. He provides no translations of other languages, and Latin especially is strewn around liberally. His book is marketed as a trade book, not as a specialist monograph. Yet it presumes that the reader is acquainted with things such as Peirce’s philosophical terminology—something that almost nobody understands—and, as we have seen, it presumes an acquaintance with difficult and technical logic and philosophy of language. Eco also makes an unappetizing number of back references to his own previous works and skirmishes with fellow semioticians. Very, very few readers will not be insidiously humiliated. And we can now see that this is deliberate, like the hazing routines in a fraternity or the military. The audience for a book like this must want to enjoy its own bewilderment. At the same time, however, the audience is not supposed to think of this as playtime. It is not like the model audience of the Alice books, which might enjoy its own confusion, just because it enjoys testing the boundaries of ordinary logic and ordinary courses of events. The model audience for Carroll has to be perceptive, in a way that the model audience of Teilhard de Chardin or of Eco must be blind. Theirs cannot be an audience educated into thinking. It must take active pleasure in the sleep of reason and take comfort in the presence of mysteries.

It is important to realize that the fault has almost nothing at all to do with one school of philosophy rather than another. After all, Eco is marvelously eclectic. Nor does it have anything to do with the alleged right of the intellectual to imitate the scientist, by adopting technical terms and difficult vocabularies. The suffocation I have mentioned is not usually due to difficult vocabularies. Yet Eco can leave you for pages distressed or infuriated because you do not know if he has got hold of a real problem, or what he is really trying to say about it. The fault, I believe, is a kind of conceit or a knowingness. It is a complacency that blurs the difference between genuine mastery of a technique and a self-deceived appearance of it. So, when I finished reading the book, I had a recurring image of the Roadrunner cartoons, in which the character Wile E. Coyote is forever finding himself running off the edge of the cliff. And it just doesn’t matter. He stays up, so long as he keeps running, and doesn’t look down. Eco never looks down. And if he refuses to notice the cliff, perhaps he can judge rightly that his audience will not notice it either. In this, like the platypus, he has perhaps adapted himself perfectly to a particular environment. But in this case that should make us deeply worried about the environment.

 

6, 150 words

 

Simon Blackburn

Chapel Hill, December 1999.