Kant and the Platypus strives towards an experiential understanding of perception. In this latest book, Umberto Eco probes the roots of seeing. He explores how what we see, and how we understand what we see, differs between individuals. Eco begins with the familiar notion that language is a means of agreeing to disagree. Inherent in linguistic definition, Eco tells us, is the knowledge that we all possess different lexicons of meaning. How, then, does Eco know this? In fact, Eco appears to want us to ask this very question. The issue of how anyone knows anything, and, even more problematically, how anyone communicates that knowledge is what gives this book its impetus. However, because the book is a reworking of Eco’s earlier ideas, it sometimes feels in-bred–the constant corrective references to the author’s own earlier works makes one feel too implicated in the ongoing self-definition of an oeuvre.
The book also suffers from too much flippancy. In the essay ‘Kant, Peirce, and the Platypus,’ Eco tells us that his goal in positing the platypus as the ultimate perceptual wild card is not to introduce mere whimsy into the text. This is, of course, the partial effect. Indeed, the platypus is not Eco’s only whimsical signifier. In the essay ‘The Platypus between the Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia,’ Eco recalls the phenomenon of the Schtroumpfs — Smurfs in English. He points out that the Schtroumpf language ‘responds to the rules of a linguistics of the text, where the sense depends upon the identification of the textual topic.’ Thus the phrase, ‘He cannot see any farther than his own schtroumpf’ makes sense to us. However, Eco’s whimsy does get in the way of his point when he suggests that ‘[the listener] might well be stuck on hearing Schtroumpf is the schtroumpfest schtroumpf, because he may never have read T.S. Eliot before and may not know that some months are crueller than others.’ Being familiar with The Waste Land , and having still missed the reference, I would argue that the difficulty of this example is a simple matter of using ‘schtroumpf’ for too many grammatical parts of speech in the same sentence. This humorous but imprecise illustration, like many others in the book, tends to cloud Eco’s meaning, rather than clarify it.
When Eco isn’t being flippant, he writes with poised insight. It is in ‘On Being,’ the first essay of the series, that Eco appears at his most relaxed. Here, he examines symbol and metaphor on cultural and individual levels. In the essay’s section on poets, Eco concludes that, culturally, we attribute to poets the linguistic power to reveal the ‘unknowable.’ Far from denigrating the idea of the unknowable, Eco’s essential idealism is asserted in his belief in an ability to communicate it, although this ability is as yet undefined by philosophy. It is Eco’s deeply personal investment in understanding the nature of perception which makes ‘On Being’ moving to read. Further, in this essay Eco does an excellent job of placing the concept of the unknowable in the context of the philosophical tradition.
Basically, while Eco’s desire to engage the reader, manifest in stories and off-the-cuff remarks, is at times very endearing, it does detract from the potency of his overall composition. The actual exploration into the cognitive nature of perception has an extremely muscular stride, punctuated by piercing insights. In reading this important new book it is therefore necessary to separate the mask of manic amusement from the acute, questioning intellect.
Reviewed by Amanda Jeremin Harris