Serendipities: Language and Lunacy

Serendipities: Language and Lunacy

by Umberto Eco
     
 

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Serendipities is a careful unraveling of the fabulous and the false, a brilliant exposition of how unanticipated truths often spring from false ideas. From Leibniz's belief that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus to Marco Polo's mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Umberto Eco offers a dazzling tour of intellectual history, illuminating the ways…  See more details below

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Serendipities is a careful unraveling of the fabulous and the false, a brilliant exposition of how unanticipated truths often spring from false ideas. From Leibniz's belief that the I Ching illustrated the principles of calculus to Marco Polo's mistaking a rhinoceros for a unicorn, Umberto Eco offers a dazzling tour of intellectual history, illuminating the ways in which we project the familiar onto the strange to make sense of the world. Uncovering layers of mistakes that have shaped human history, Eco offers with wit and clarity such instances as Columbus's voyage to the New World, the fictions that grew around the Rosicrucians and Knights Templar, and the linguistic endeavors to recreate the language of Babel, to show how serendipities can evolve out of mistakes. With erudition, anecdotes, and scholarly rigor, this new collection of essays is sure to entertain and enlighten any reader with a passion for the curious history of languages and ideas.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Examines, with wit and elegance, some of the many cases in which a mistaken belief has led to a sound result . . . Delightful."-The Atlantic Monthly
"Rich in historical anecdotes . . . Throughout, his treatments are informative, intellectually sophisticated, and thoroughly entertaining."-Library Journal
Scott Gordon
Eco cajoles his readers to go out and learn more, and perhaps, to disagree with him.
Atlantic Monthly
Erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous. . . . The literary examples Eco employs range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Consider the platypus. With its famous molelike body carrying a beaver's tail and a duck's beak, the beast confounded the first Western scientists who studied it in 1798. Was it a mammal or a reptile? Did it lay eggs? Was it just a taxonomic hoax? The platypus eventually found its rightful place in the animal kingdom, but as Eco (Travels in Hyperreality, etc.) shows in these challenging essays, the questions it raised about language and perception still animate some sharply contested semiotic debates. Writing with his customary keenness of intellect, Eco ranges widely over metaphysical terrain, drawing on Aristotle, Heidegger and C.S. Peirce to inform his discussions. Revising aspects of Kant's philosophy in terms of cognitive studies, Eco ponders how we identify the things around us and argues that meaning in the world is ultimately contractual and negotiable. When Aztecs first saw horses ridden by Spanish conquistadors, for example, they used their previous knowledge to surmise that the invaders were riding deer. In another example, Eco investigates how we can recognize a Bach suite for solo cello, even when played by different soloists or transcribed for the recorder. Throughout, Eco gamely reconsiders his 1976 work, A Theory of Semiotics, over which many a gauntlet was testily thrown, and revisits other key moments in the history of semiotic research. This collection will certainly appeal to specialists. But Eco's ability to balance technical subject matter with broadly intelligible anecdotes and illustrations should make it valuable and pleasurable for anyone seeking a gallant introduction to the philosophy of language. (Nov.) FYI: Also in November Harvest will release Eco's Serendipities in paperback ($12, ISBN 0-15-600751-7) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Eco, a best-selling novelist and a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, unlocks the riddles of history in an exploration of the "linguistics of the lunatic," stories told by scholars, scientists, poets, fanatics, and ordinary people in order to make sense of the world. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.
Kirkus Reviews
Italy's most celebrated public intellectual gathers five essays that focus (more or less) on how lunatic misunderstandings concerning the perfect language have led to new discoveries (sort of). Eco (The Name of the Rose) remains Italy's most successful and prolific writer. He is a novelist, cultural commentator, essayist, literary critic, and scholar of language. The present volume of essays is spun off his work on the historical search for the "perfect language", i.e., the language that God gave Adam, the one that was lost in the catastrophe at the Tower of Babel. But the conceit with which he rather unsuccessfully attempts to unify the book is this: the search in the cases he explores always involves either outright errors or otherwise fictional inventions that have somehow led to positive discovery. After all, Columbus accidentally discovered the New World owing to miscalculations about the size of the earth. Eco sees similar situations in the history of language. For example, a 16th-century Jesuit, Father Athanasius Kircher, fancifully and elaborately interpreted ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics as the lost language of the Garden of Eden. "Kircher was wildly wrong. Still, notwithstanding his eventual failure, he is the father of Egyptology." This and similar disappointingly general findings do not satisfyingly deliver on the promise that the errors serendipitously produce truth. But all is not lost. The meandering erudition of Eco's book is interesting enough in its own right. He speculates, for example, that Dante believed his own Italian vernacular, as distinct from official Latin, was in fact an echo of Adam's perfect language. And, he examines philosophical attempts byLeibniz and others to recreate a perfect language and Joseph de Maistre's combination of linguistic mysticism and reactionary politics.

The genial Eco may have had the lay reader in mind when he wrote these essays (which were originally lectures), but his book of linguistic arcana is also of avowedly esoteric interest.

The Daily Yomiuri
Eco cajoles his readers to go out and learn more, and perhaps, to disagree with him.

— Scott Gordon

The Daily Yomiuri - Scott Gordon
Eco cajoles his readers to go out and learn more, and perhaps, to disagree with him.

The Atlantic
Erudite, wide-ranging, and slyly humorous.... The literary examples Eco employs range from Dante to Dumas, from Sterne to Spillane. His text is thought-provoking, often outright funny, and full of surprising juxtapositions.

Booklist
Fans of Eco's novels will not be left dissatisfied—his fictional players are still present: Templars, Illuminati, Jesuits, Theosophists, and Masons. They all have a part in this intriguing look at how the study of language can be full of surprises.

Review of Contemporary Fiction
Eco's insistent curiosity, his vital imagination and his almost overwhelming erudition work together like forces of nature to push and pull the book's five essays in unpredictable directions.

Scotland on Sunday
These essays are equally entertaining and unusual.

World Literature Today
Informative, instructive, and entertaining.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780156007511
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
11/01/1999
Edition description:
1 HARVEST
Pages:
144
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.34(d)

What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Examines, with wit and elegance, some of the many cases in which a mistaken belief has led to a sound result . . . Delightful."-The Atlantic Monthly
"Rich in historical anecdotes . . . Throughout, his treatments are informative, intellectually sophisticated, and thoroughly entertaining."-Library Journal

Meet the Author

UMBERTO ECO is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and the best-selling author of numerous novels and essays. He lives in Italy.

Brief Biography

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

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