Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition

Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780156011594
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 11/01/2000
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 478
Sales rank: 639,338
Product dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

UMBERTO ECO (1932–2016) was the author of numerous essay collections and seven novels, including The Name of the Rose,The Prague Cemetery, and Inventing the Enemy. He received Italy’s highest literary award, the Premio Strega, was named a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by the French government, and was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Bologna, Italy

Date of Birth:

January 5, 1932

Date of Death:

February 19, 2016

Place of Birth:

Alessandria, Italy


Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954

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On Being

The history of research into the philosophy of language is full of men (who are rational and mortal animals), bachelors (who are unmarried adult males), and tigers (though it is not clear whether we should define them as feline mammals or big cats with a yellow coat and black stripes). Analyses of prepositions and adverbs (what do beside, by, or when mean?) are less common (but the few we have are very important), while there are some excellent analyses of emotions (such as anger in Greimas), and some fairly frequent analyses of verbs, such as to go, to clean, to praise, to kill. On the other hand no semantic study seems to have provided a satisfactory analysis of the verb to be, despite the fact that we use it in everyday speech, in all its forms, with a certain regularity.

This was more than evident to Pascal (in a fragment from 1655): "One cannot begin to define being without falling victim to this absurdity: one cannot define a word without beginning with the term is, be it expressly stated or merely understood. To define being, therefore, you have to say is, thus using the term to be defined in the definition." Which is not the same as saying, as Gorgias said, that we cannot speak of being: we speak about it all the time, too often perhaps; the problem is that this magic word helps us define almost everything but is defined by nothing. In semantics we would speak of a primitive, the most primitive of all.

When Aristotle {Metaphysics IV, 1.1) says there is a science that studies being as being, he uses the present participle to on. In Italian this is translated by some as ente, by others as essere. In point of fact this to on can be understood as that which is, as the existing being, and finally as what the Schoolmen called the ens, whose plural is entia, the things that are. But if Aristotle had been thinking only of the things of the real world around us, he would not have spoken of a special science: entities are studied, according to the sector of reality, by zoology, physics, and even by politics. Aristotle says to on e on, the being as such. When we speak of an entity (be it a panther or a pyramid) as an entity (and not as a panther or a pyramid), then the to on becomes that which is common to all beings, and that which is common to all entities is the fact that they are, the fact of their being. In this sense, as Peirce said, Being is that abstract aspect that belongs to all objects expressed in concrete terms: it has an unlimited extension and null intension (or comprehension). Which is like saying that it refers to everything but has no meaning. For this reason it seems clear why in philosophical language the substantive use of the present participle, normal for the Greeks, gradually shifted to the infinitive, if not in Greek, certainly in the Scholastic esse. This ambiguity is already to be found in Parmenides, who talks of t'eon, but then affirms that esti gar einai (DK 6), and it is hard not to take an infinitive {to be) that becomes the subject of an is as a substantive. In Aristotle being as an object of knowledge is to on, but the essence is to ti en einai {Met. IV, 1028b, 33.36), what being was, but in the sense of that which being stably is (which was later to be translated as quod quid erat esse). Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that to be is also a verb, which expresses not only the act of being something (and hence we say that a cat is a feline) but also the activity (and hence we say that it's good to be in sound health, or to be on vacation), to the point that often (when one is said to be glad to be in the world) it is used as a synonym for to exist, even though the equation leaves room for a great many reservations, because originally ex-istere meant "to leave-from," "to manifest oneself," and therefore "to come into being."

Therefore, we have (i) a substantive, the ens, let's call it the existing entity, (ii) another substantive, being, and (iii) a verb, to be. The perplexity is such that different languages react in different ways to it. Italian and German have a term for (i), ente and Seiende, but only one term for both (ii) and (iii), essere and Sein. It was on the basis of this distinction that Heidegger founded the difference between the ontic and the ontological. While French has only one term, être, it's true that the philosophical neologism étant has been in use since the seventeenth century, but Gilson himself (in the first edition of L'être et l'essence) had difficulty in accepting it, and opted to use it only in subsequent editions. Scholastic Latin had adopted ens for (i), but in a spirit of tormented casualness it also toyed with (ii), sometimes using ens and other times using esse. In current English there are only two terms, to be and being, the second usually covering both senses (i) and (ii): for instance, the current translations of Aquinas's De ente et essentia read On Being and Essence. Some of Heidegger's translators (see for instance Ralph Manheim's translation An Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959) use essent for (i) but others (see Being and Time, translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, New York: Harper, 1962) translate "Was ist das Seiende, das Seiende in seinen Sein?" as "What is being, what is beingness in its Being?" Peirce proposed to use ens (or entity) for all the things that may be spoken of, including not only material entities but also entities of reason, like the laws of mathematics; and that is how ens came to be the equivalent of being, in the sense that it is a totality that includes not only what is physically around us but also what is below, or inside, or around or before or after, and founds it and/or justifies it.

But in that case, if we are talking about everything that can be spoken of, we need to include the possible too. Not only and not so much in the sense in which it has been maintained that even possible worlds really exist somewhere (Lewis 1973), but at least in Wolff's sense (Philosophia prima sive ontologia methodo scientificopertractata, 134), according to which an ontology regards the entity quatenus ens est, regardless of all questions of existence, and so quod possibile est, ens est. A fortiori, therefore, not only speculations but also past events would come within the sphere of being: what is, is in all the conjugations and tenses of the verb to be.

By this point, however, temporality (both of the Dasein and of the galaxies) has inserted itself into being, and there is no need for us to be Parmenideans at all costs: If Being (with a capital B) is everything that can be spoken of, why shouldn't the future also be a part of it? The future looks like a flaw in a vision of being as a compact and immutable Sphere: but at this point we still cannot know if being is not so much inconstant as mutable, metamorphic, metempsychotic, a compulsive recycler, an inveterate bricoleur....

In any case, the languages we speak are what they are, and if they contain ambiguities, or even confusion regarding the use of this primitive (ambiguities that philosophical reflection does not clear up), may it not be that this perplexity expresses a fundamental condition?

In order to respect this perplexity, in the pages that follow we shall use Being in its widest and most open sense. But what sense can be held by a term that Peirce defined as being of null intension? Could it have the sense suggested by Leibniz's dramatic question "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

Here is what we mean by the word Being: Something.


Why should semiotics deal with this something? Because one of the problems of semiotics is to say whether and how we use signs to refer to something, and a great deal has been written on this. But I do not think that semiotics can avoid another problem: What is that something that induces us to produce signs?

Every philosophy of language finds itself faced not only with a terminus ad quem but also with a terminus a quo. It must ask itself not only "To what do we refer when we talk, and with what degree of reliability?" (a problem certainly worthy of consideration) but also "What makes us talk?"

Put phylogenetically, this was the fundamental problem — which modernity has prohibited — of the origins of language, at least from Epicurus onward. But while it can be avoided phylogenetically (by pointing to the lack of archaeological evidence), it cannot be avoided ontogenetically. Our own day-to-day experience provides us with the elements, perhaps imprecise but in a certain sense tangible, with which to answer the question "But why have I been induced to say something?"

Structural semiotics has never addressed the problem (with the exception of Hjelmslev, as we shall see): the various languages are considered as systems that are already constituted (and synchronically analyzable) the moment users express themselves, state, indicate, ask, or command. The rest appertains to the production of words, but the reasons why we talk are psychological and not linguistic. Analytical philosophy has contented itself with its own concept of truth (which deals not with how things really are but with the conclusions that should be drawn if a proposition is understood as true), but it has not considered our prelinguistic relation with things. In other words, the statement Snow is white is true if the snow is white, but how we realize (and are sure) that snow is white is delegated to a theory of perception or to optics.

Beyond a doubt the only person who made this problem the very foundation of his theory — semiotic, cognitive, and metaphysical all at the same time — was Peirce. A Dynamical Object drives us to produce a representamen, in a quasi-mind this produces an Immediate Object, which in turn is translatable into a potentially infinite series of interpretants and sometimes, through the habit formed in the course of the interpretative process, we come back to the Dynamical Object, and we make something of it.

It might be observed that, as soon as we get back to the Dynamical Object and start speaking about it again, we are once more at the point of departure, and so we have to rename it using another representamen, so that in a certain sense the Dynamical Object always remains a Thing-in-Itself, always present and impossible to capture, if not through semiosis.

Yet the Dynamical Object is what drives us to produce semiosis. We produce signs because there is something that demands to be said. To use an expression that is efficacious albeit not very philosophical, the Dynamical Object is Something-that-sets-to-kicking-us-and says "Talk!" to us — or "Talk about me!" or again, "Take me into consideration!"

We are familiar with the indexical signs, this or that in verbal language, a pointing finger, an arrow in the language of images (cf. Eco 1978, 3.6); but there is a phenomenon we must understand as presemiotic, or protosemiotic (in the sense that it constitutes the signal that gets the semiosic process under way), which we will call primary indexicality or attentionality (Peirce spoke of attention as the capacity to direct the mind toward an object, and to pay attention to one element while ignoring another). Primary indexicality occurs when, amid the thick stuff of the sensations that bombard us, we suddenly select something that we set against that general background and decide we want to speak about it (when, in other words, while we live surrounded by luminous, thermic, tactile, and interoceptive sensations, only one of these attracts our attention, and only afterward we say that it is cold, or we have a sore foot); primary indexicality occurs when we attract someone's attention, not necessarily to speak to him but just to show him something that will have to become a sign or an example, and we tug his jacket, we turn-his-head-toward.

In the most elementary of semiosic relations, the radical translation illustrated by Quine (1960: 2), before knowing what name the native has assigned to a passing rabbit (or to whatever he sees where I see and understand a passing rabbit), and before I ask him, "What is that thing?" — with an interrogative gesture while, in a way he perhaps finds incomprehensible, I point my finger at the spatiotemporal event that interests me — to ensure that he replies with the celebrated and enigmatic gavagai, there is a moment in which I fix his attention on that spatiotemporal event. I may cry out, I may grasp him by the shoulders, but I shall do something so that he notices what I have decided to notice.

This fixing of my own or someone else's attention on something is the condition of every semiosis to come; it even precedes that act of attention (already semiosic, already an effect of thought) by which I decide that something is pertinent, curious, or intriguing, and must be explained by a hypothesis. This fixing comes before curiosity itself, before the perception of the object as an object. It is the as yet blind decision whereby I identify something amid the magma of experience that I have to reckon with.

The whole problem of whether, once a theory of consciousness has been worked out, this object becomes a Dynamical Object, noumenon, or the still raw material of an intuition not yet illuminated by the categorical comes afterward. First there is something, even if it is only my reawakened attention; but not even that, it is my attention as it sleeps, lies in wait, or dozes. It is not the primary act of attention that defines the something, it is the something that arouses the attention, indeed the attention lying in wait is already part (is evidence) of this something.

These are the reasons why semiotics cannot avoid reflecting on this something that (to link us with all those who throughout the centuries have tormented themselves over it) we decide to call Being.


It has been said that the problem of being (the answer, that is, to the question "What is being?") is the least natural of all problems, the one that common sense never poses (Aubenque 1962: 13–14). "Being as such is so far from constituting a problem that apparently it is as if such a datum 'didn't exist'" (Heidegger 1973: 1969). To the point that the post-Aristotelian tradition ignored the question and, as it were, removed it, which perhaps explains the legendary fact that the text of Metaphysics disappeared, to resurface only in the first century B.C. On the other hand Aristotle himself, and with him the entire Greek philosophical tradition, never posed the question that Leibniz was to put to himself in his Principes de la nature et de la grace: "Pourquoi il y a plutôt quelque chose que rien?" — adding that, at bottom, nothingness would have been simpler and less complex than something. As a matter of fact this question also represents the distress of the nonphilosopher who sometimes finds it too difficult to think of God in His inconceivable eternity, or worse still, of the eternity of the world, while it would be much simpler and more reassuring if nothing existed or had ever existed, so that there would never have been even one mind prepared to rack its brains over why there is nothing rather than being. But if we aspire to nothingness, by this act of aspiration we are already in being, albeit in the form of frailty and sin, as Valéry suggests in Ebauche d'un serpent:

Soleil, soleil! ... Faute éclatante!
Incidentally, if the normal condition were nothingness, and we were only a luckless transitory excrescence, the ontological argument would also collapse. It would not be worth arguing that, if it is possible to think id cujus nihil majus cogitari possit (that is, possessed of all perfections), since part of this being's due should also be the perfection that is existence, the very fact that God is thinkable demonstrates that He exists. Of all the confutations of the ontological argument, the most energetic seems to be expressed by the question "Who says that existence is a perfection?" Once it is admitted that absolute purity consists of Nonbeing, the greatest perfection of God would consist of His nonexistence. Thinking of Him (being able to think of Him) as existing would be the effect of our shortcomings, capable of sullying with the attribution of being what has the supreme right and incredible good fortune not to exist. It would have been interesting had there been a debate not between Anselm of Canterbury and Gaunilon but between Anselm and Cioran.


Excerpted from "Kant and the Platypus"
by .
Copyright © 1997 R.C.S. Libri S.p.A..
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1(12)
On Being
Semiotics and the Something
An unnatural problem
Why is there being?
How we talk about being
The aporia of being in Aristotle
The duplication of being
The questioning of the poets
A model of world knowledge
On the possibility that being might abscond
The resistances of being
The sense of the continuum
Positive conclusions
Kant, Peirce, and the Platypus
Marco Polo and the unicorn
Peirce and the black ink
Kant, trees, stones, and horses
Perceptual judgments
The schema
And the dog?
The platypus
Pierce reinterpreted
The Ground, qualia, and primary iconism
The lower threshold of primary iconism
Perceptual judgment
The grain
Cognitive Types and Nuclear Content
From Kant to cognitivism
Perception and semiosis
Montezuma and the horses
The Cognitive Type (CT)
The recognition of tokens
Naming and felicitous reference
The CT and the black box
From CT toward Nuclear Content (NC)
Instructions for identification
Instructions for retrieval
Molar Content (MC)
NC, MC, and concepts
On referring
Semiosic primitives
Semiosic primitives and interpretation
On categories
Semiosic primitives and verbalization
Qualia and interpretation
The CTs and the image as "schema"
Empirical cases and cultural cases
The story of the archangel Gabriel
CT and NC as zones of common competence
From type to token or vice versa?
The CT archipelago
Types vs. basic categories
Tiny Tim's Story
Quadruped oysters
CTs and prototypes
Some misunderstandings regarding prototypes
The mysterious Dyirbal
Other types
If on a Winter's Night a Driver
Physiognomic types by individuals
CTs for formal individuals
Recognizing SC2
Some open problems
From the public CT to that of the artist
The Platypus between Dictionary and Encyclopedia
Mountains and Mountains
Files and directories
Wild categorization
Indelible properties
The real story of the platypus
Watermole or duck-billed platypus
Mammae without nipples
A la recherche de l'oeuf perdu
Eighty years of negotiations
Hjelmslev vs. Peirce
Where does the amorphous continuum lie?
Contract and meaning
Meaning of the terms and sense of the texts
Meaning and the text
Notes on Referring as Contract
Can we refer to all cats?
Referring to horses
The true story of the sarkiapone
Are there closed white boxes?
The Divine Mind as e-mail
From the Divine Mind to the Intention of the Community
Quid pro quo and negotiations
The strange case of Doctor Jekyll and the brothers Hyde
Is Jones mad?
What does Nancy want?
Who died on the fifth of May?
Impossible objects
The identity of the Vasa
On Ahab's other leg
Ich liebe Dich
Iconism and Hypoicon
The debate on iconism
Not a debate between madmen
The arguments of the sixties
Dead ends
Likeness and similarity
Surrogate stimuli
Back to the discourse
Seeing and drawing Saturn
More on mirrors
Chains of mirrors and television
Rethinking painting
Alpha and beta mode: a catastrophe point?
From perceptual likeness to conceptual similarities
The Mexican on a bicycle
Endnotes 393(40)
Works Cited 433(20)
Index 453

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Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
There are small, incandescent points of brilliance in this book, surrounded (and usually buried) by pages of offal. A patient reader will spend hours wading through muck for the occasional gem. Will you?
Guest More than 1 year ago
What makes this collection of essays so good? Is it the philosophical insight? Or is it the image of man's best friend, the platypus? Or is it the overbearing image of the philosopher, UMBERTO ECO, himself? To find out, buy 'Kant and the Platypus'.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This endearing work on cognition will be the hallmark of philosophical insight for many generations to come.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I smile. "Okay."