From the Tree to the Labyrinth: Historical Studies on the Sign and Interpretation


The way we create and organize knowledge is the theme of From the Tree to the Labyrinth, a major achievement by one of the world's foremost thinkers on language and interpretation. Umberto Eco begins by arguing that our familiar system of classification by genus and species derives from the Neo-Platonist idea of a "tree of knowledge." He then moves to the idea of the dictionary, which--like a tree whose trunk anchors a great hierarchy of branching categories--orders knowledge into a matrix of definitions. In ...

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From the Tree to the Labyrinth

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The way we create and organize knowledge is the theme of From the Tree to the Labyrinth, a major achievement by one of the world's foremost thinkers on language and interpretation. Umberto Eco begins by arguing that our familiar system of classification by genus and species derives from the Neo-Platonist idea of a "tree of knowledge." He then moves to the idea of the dictionary, which--like a tree whose trunk anchors a great hierarchy of branching categories--orders knowledge into a matrix of definitions. In Eco's view, though, the dictionary is too rigid: it turns knowledge into a closed system. A more flexible organizational scheme is the encyclopedia, which­--instead of resembling a tree with finite branches--offers a labyrinth of never-ending pathways. Presenting knowledge as a network of interlinked relationships, the encyclopedia sacrifices humankind's dream of possessing absolute knowledge, but in compensation we gain the freedom to pursue an infinity of new connections and meanings.

Moving effortlessly from analyses of Aristotle and James Joyce to the philosophical difficulties of telling dogs from cats, Eco demonstrates time and again his inimitable ability to bridge ancient, medieval, and modern modes of thought. From the Tree to the Labyrinth is a brilliant illustration of Eco's longstanding argument that problems of interpretation can be solved only in historical context.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Do dogs have "voices" or do they merely make sounds? What language did Adam speak in the Garden of Eden? Eco, the celebrated novelist and semiotician (Kant and the Platypus), muses on these and other thorny interpretive questions in this collection of essays on the history of semiotics and philosophy of language. Beginning with a historical survey of models of semantic representation, Eco develops the idea of the "encyclopedia," a labyrinthian system of interconnected relationships that he sees in opposition to the flawed Neo-Platonic "dictionary" system, one whose rigid absolutism and hierarchy creates a closed system that Eco finds untenable. Seeking to interpret the Middle Ages within such an encyclopedic model, Eco then explores a miscellany of medieval topics in the essays that follow, making the occasional foray into classical or modern thought. Though no modern writer has proved more adept than Eco at translating medieval ephemera to a popular audience, this is not the semiotician at his most accessible. Eco's erudition will make this text a challenge for all but the most determined nonprofessional—a working knowledge of medieval thought and a functional grasp of Latin are practically prerequisites for keeping up with Eco as he moves through centuries of history in search of new connection and meaning. (Feb.)
Wlad Godzich
From the Tree to the Labyrinth is a sort of summa of one of our most important thinkers on matters of language, signification, and interpretation. It illuminates all of Umberto Eco’s earlier work by providing a great deal of the historical contextualization for his arguments. It provides important and fruitful ways of thinking about the organization of knowledge and of our attitudes towards it. It intervenes in a number of debates in the philosophy of language and in linguistics. It contains a myriad of insights on medieval thinkers, Kant, and Peirce, to mention but a few. This is a book that will enjoy a wide readership.
Kirkus Reviews
The acclaimed author of The Name of the Rose (1980) and Foucault's Pendulum (1988) returns with a deeply academic collection of previously published essays, speeches and a book review, all examining issues in semiotics, linguistics and medieval history. Not for the faint of heart--or for those who neglected their homework in Latin or world history--this anthology is for scholars, philosophers, historians, linguists and semioticians. Novelist and literary critic Eco (Emeritus, Semiotics/Univ. of Bologna; The Prague Cemetery, 2011, etc.) has revised each of the pieces, and they retain their full academic regalia: parenthetical citations, long block quotations and dense footnotes. He begins with a discussion of the semantic differences between dictionaries and encyclopedias and then proceeds to a historical analysis of metaphor and a tracing of the philosophical use of the dog--and the barking dog--in the thinking of some heavyweights like Augustine, Abelard, Aquinas and Roger Bacon. Among the more interesting selections is one about how people in the Middle Ages viewed fakes and copies. Since they had few ways to determine authenticity, they were more accepting of them. Dante figures prominently in a number of the pieces. We learn that he accepted the biblical account of the variety of Earth's languages, and Eco explains the notion that God perhaps gave Adam a sort of Chomsky-an universal grammar rather than an actual language--though he also acknowledges the long attempt to demonstrate that Hebrew was the language of Adam. Eco is generally generous to other scholars, but he does go after Benedetto Croce for a "lack of precision" and an "extremely limited familiarity with the arts." Another engaging essay deals with what he calls "natural semiosis," and he revisits and reaffirms some thoughts about Kant and the platypus. Lush, comprehensive scholarship aimed at a very limited academic readership.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674049185
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/17/2014
  • Pages: 640
  • Sales rank: 253,413
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bologna and is the author of many books, including Foucault's Pendulum.

Anthony Oldcorn is Professor Emeritus of Italian Studies at Brown University.


Back in the 1970s, long before the cyberpunk era or the Internet boom, an Italian academic was dissecting the elements of codes, information exchange and mass communication. Umberto Eco, chair of semiotics at the University of Bologna, developed a widely influential theory that continues to inform studies in linguistics, philosophy, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory.

Most readers, however, had never heard of him before the 1980 publication of The Name of the Rose, a mystery novel set in medieval Italy. Dense with historical and literary allusions, the book was a surprise international hit, selling millions of copies in dozens of languages. Its popularity got an additional boost when it was made into a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. Eco followed his first bestseller with another, Foucault's Pendulum, an intellectual thriller that interweaves semiotic theory with a twisty tale of occult texts and world conspiracy.

Since then, Eco has shifted topics and genres with protean agility, producing fiction, academic texts, criticism, humor columns and children's books. As a culture critic, his interests encompass everything from comic books to computer operating systems, and he punctures avant-garde elitism and mass-media vacuity with equal glee.

More recently, Eco has ventured into a new field: ethics. Belief or Nonbelief? is a thoughtful exchange of letters on religion and ethics between Eco and Carlo Maria Martini, the Roman Catholic cardinal of Milan; Five Moral Pieces is a timely exploration of the concept of justice in an increasingly borderless world.

Eco also continues to write books on language, literature and semiotics for both popular and academic audiences. His efforts have netted him a pile of honorary degrees, the French Legion of Honor, and a place among the most widely read and discussed thinkers of our time.

Good To Know

Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, though in 2002 he was at Oxford University as a visiting lecturer. He has also taught at several top universities in the U.S., including Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and Northwestern.

Pressured by his father to become a lawyer, Eco studied law at the University of Turn before abandoning that course (against his father's wishes) and pursuing medieval philosophy and literature.

His studies led naturally to the setting of The Name of the Rose in the medieval period. The original tentative title was Murder in the Abbey.

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    1. Hometown:
      Bologna, Italy
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 5, 1932
    2. Place of Birth:
      Alessandria, Italy
    1. Education:
      Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

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