Sunday, November 18, 2007

Nonfiction: Kant and the Platypus

Published by Harcourt Brace, this work – the English translation of 1997’s Kant e l’ornitorinco – is another collection of essays revolving around semiotics and philosophy. The publisher’s description is as follows:

How do we know that a cat is a cat? Why do we agree on calling the beast a cat? Interesting questions, but an even more intriguing question lies at the heart of all modern philosophy – how much of our perception of things depends on our cognitive ability and how much on linguistic resources? At this point semiotics becomes inextricably linked to epistemology, or cognition. In these essays, Umberto Eco explores in depth such subjects as perception, the relationship between language and experience, and iconism that he only touched on in A Theory of Semiotics. Forgoing a formal, systematic treatment, Eco engages in a series of explorations based on common sense, from which flow an abundance of illustrative fables, often with animals as protagonists. Among the characters, a position of prominence is reserved for the platypus, which appears to have been created specifically to “put the cat among the pigeons” as far as many theories of knowledge are concerned. In Kant and the Platypus, Eco shares with us a wealth of ideas at once philosophical and amusing.

David Hornbuckle reviews the book for The Modern Word:
In Kant and the Platypus, Eco reiterates and updates much of the research that he published in 1976 as A Theory of Semiotics. Platypus is marketed as a general interest book, but the content presumes of the reader a fairly intimate knowledge of philosophy of language and complex logic, particularly certain writings of Kant, Heidegger and Peirce, which, more than one pundit has noted, almost nobody understands. Eco himself has even been reported as commenting on the difficulty of reading this book warning, “Don’t buy it if you are not Einstein.” To make things more difficult, or perhaps as a strategy of intimidation, Eco uses Latin, Italian, French and German quotations liberally with no translation whatsoever.
The essential subject matter of the book is the relationship between the things we perceive and the words we use to communicate about those things, name them, and describe them. Eco suggests a number of categories of meaning based largely on a language user’s linguistic competence, cultural background and technical expertise, and he illustrates this theory with a number of colorful and charming anecdotes, many borrowed or extended from other philosophers.
The title comes from an analogy Eco uses throughout the book, postulating a problem that Kant might have had in classifying a platypus had he ever come across one in his lifetime. The problem, specifically, is a bit unclear. Eco is a fine writer and certainly well-read, but his interpretations of other philosophers are sometimes suspect. Even so, the points he wishes to illustrate tend to boil down to plain common sense for the most part.
Some readers might be irritated by Eco’s frequent references to his own previous work as well as references to his skirmishes with various other philosophers over the years. However, fans of Eco’s fiction and lighter essays will still appreciate the playful humor and broad eclectic knowledge displayed in his writing, provided they can follow the subject matter being discussed. (DH)