Umberto Eco Kant and the Platypus: Essays

ISBN 13: 9780151004478

Kant and the Platypus: Essays

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9780151004478: Kant and the Platypus: Essays

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.

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Review:

Describing Umberto Eco as a writer is like describing the platypus as an animal. What do readers expect when they see the author's name on a book jacket? It's a tricky question to answer, given his range and versatility: he has produced studies of semiotics, children's books, medieval history, essays on contemporary culture, and, of course, novels--most notably The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before. So first, a word of warning. Anyone familiar with Eco the novelist or essayist might well be dismayed by Kant and the Platypus, for this new book returns to his preoccupations of the 1960s and 1970s--to semiotics and cognitive semantics. As such, it can be a daunting volume (the initial chapter, for example, riffs on the numerous philosophical concepts of being). And second, a word of encouragement: this is a wonderful engagement with the issues of language itself. Even as he beckons the reader into one linguistic thicket after another, Eco always keeps a commonsensical perspective, using stories to explicate the knottiest concepts.

Why did Marco Polo describe the rhinoceros as a type of unicorn? Why couldn't 18th-century observers figure out how to classify the duck-billed platypus? Given a dictionary or encyclopedia definition of a mouse, how easy would it be to identify one if we had never seen one before? These are some of the examples that Eco uses to explore the ways in which we see and describe the world--the ways, that is, in which cultures develop taxonomies. If you want to know "why we can tell an elephant from an armadillo," or why mirrors do not in fact reverse images, this book will tell you. In fact, it will also tell you why you know what I am talking about when I say "this book." Got it? No? Then get it. --Burhan Tufail

About the Author:

UMBERTO ECO is the author of five novels and numerous essay collections, including The Name of the Rose, The Prague Cemetery, and Inventing the Enemy. He received Italy's highest literary award, the Premio Strega, was named a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government, and is an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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