A&E » Book Review

Book Beat

by

comment
Umberto Eco's Kant and the Platypus is neither exactly popular scholarship nor precisely scholarly entertainment. It is, rather, a droll and rigorously logical exploration of the relationship between language and cognition. By turns thrilling and lyrical, it commands the accessibility of Eco's best fiction and the authority as his master treatise, A Theory of Semiotics, though it may finally have more in common with his collection of linguistic ruminations, The Limits of Interpretation.

As a novelist, semiotician and culture theorist, Eco has distinguished himself among his colleagues with crystalline argumentation and an extraordinary erudition that seems to reach as far beyond his immediate discipline as language itself. Indeed, it is central to his thesis that language does not merely mediate the energies of the world and the perceptual faculties but transmutes them into the substance of reality. That such a claim precipitates controversy wherever it is repeated hardly seems surprising. And certainly, his defense presumes to be largely self-evident, requiring as it does his opponent to employ language of some kind to assert an objection. But these are the constitutive rules of a game in which Eco remains undefeated, but not unchallenged:

"In [Eco and his colleagues'] obstinate idealism, they dispute everything that, one way or another, might oblige them to admit that reality -- in this case, the moon -- exists. This was how, in 1974, Tom's Maldonado, with regard to what I had written on iconic signs, reminded me of my Galilean duty to look through the telescope. ... "

Committed to the radical implications of his language theory, Eco took seriously Earnest Gellner's idea that words are things and, moreover, can make things. And for Eco, this was not a question of metaphor. He was prepared to go all the way.

Kant and the Platypus, thus, is a kind of post-memoir user's manual for mechanisms of perception and a document of that remarkable, bizarre, consuming quest for the mysteries of the word and the text. Eco insists these are not idle apocalyptic concerns, but are, in fact, questions containing the next important phase in philosophical investigation. He is the pre-eminent figure in the discourse of signs, and if his iconoclasm has left some recalcitrant critics in the dark, it has illuminated the rest of us in the shimmer of fantastical possibilities.

Add a comment