Sign Language

It is perhaps fitting that a book that frets about the limits and possibilities of interpretation should be hard to pin down. The title itself is a riddle crying out to be deciphered. Eco anticipates this on page one:

What has Kant got to do with the platypus? Nothing. As we shall see from the dates, he couldn’t have anything to do with it. And this should suffice to justify the title and its use of an incongruous set that sounds like a tribute to Borges’s ancient Chinese encyclopedia.

He goes on:

So what is this book about? Apart from the platypus, it’s about cats, dogs, mice, and horses, but also chairs, plates, trees, mountains, and other things we see every day, and it’s about the reasons why we can tell an elephant from an armadillo (as well as why we don’t normally mistake our wife for a hat). This is a formidable philosophical problem that has obsessed human thought from Plato to present-day cognitivists, and it is one that even Kant (as we shall see) not only failed to solve but didn’t even manage to express in satisfactory terms. So you can imagine how much chance I’ve got.

Playful, paradoxical, exasperating, oblique, disarming: this is the Eco style, take it or leave it. Not that Eco pretends that the dazed reader’s problems are his alone; he admits to a certain unclarity in the ruminations that make up the six essays of Kant and the Platypus:

Written therefore in a spirit of indecision and beset by numerous doubts, these essays spring from my feeling of not having honored certain debts incurred when I published A Theory of Semiotics in 1976…. These debts concerned the problems of reference, iconism, truth, perception, and what in those days I used to call the lower threshold of semiotics.

Nothing, characteristically, is said to explain that last opaque phrase, which seems to capture the predicament of the struggling reader. (Semiotics, for the uninitiated, is the general study of signs—whether they take the form, to name only a few examples, of letters, words, pictures, sounds, musical notes, or physical gestures or characteristics. Semiotics is concerned with the syntax, semantics, and pragmatic function of signs; it seeks to show how they serve as symbols, convey meaning, can be interpreted.)

Eco’s six chapters take up each of the subjects in the paragraph I have just quoted, with many examples aimed at showing how we use language to refer to one object rather than another and how we classify many different kinds of objects from oysters to planets. How, then, to proceed? I am going to try to distill some clear theses from Eco’s shifting text, and evaluate their cogency. This may not do justice to Eco’s historical and linguistic erudition, which ranges from cartoons to medieval history, from structuralism to neurophysiology, from obscure Latin texts to an imaginary town called Vanville (named after Willard van Orman Quine), but it should focus the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.