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





  Translated by Anthony Oldcorn

  Harvard University Press

  Cambridge, Massachusetts

  London, England


  Copyright © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

  All rights reserved

  Originally published as Dall’albero al labirinto: Studi storici sul segno e l’interpretazione, by Umberto Eco, copyright © 2007 RCS Libri S.p.A.

  Chapters 11 and 12, “The Language of the Austral Land” and “The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre,” were originally published in Serendipities, by Umberto Eco, translated by William Weaver. Copyright © 1998 by Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

  Jacket design: Graciela Galup

  Jacket art: Magdolna Ban, Mystic (2004), oil on canvas. Private collection / The Bridgeman Art Library.

  The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:

  Eco, Umberto.

  [Dall’albero al labirinto. English]

  From the tree to the labyrinth : historical studies on the sign and interpretation / Umberto Eco ; translated by Anthony Oldcorn.

  pages cm

  “Originally published as Dall’albero al labirinto: Studi storici sul segno e l’interpretazione, by Umberto Eco, © 2007 RCS Libri S.p.A.”

  Includes bibliographical references and index.

  ISBN 978-0-674-04918-5 (alk. paper)

  1. Semiotics—History. 2. Language and languages—Philosophy—History. I. Oldcorn, Anthony, translator. II. Title.

  P99.E2613 2014





  1 From the Tree to the Labyrinth

  2 Metaphor as Knowledge: Aristotle’s Medieval (Mis)Fortunes

  3 From Metaphor to Analogia Entis

  4 The Dog That Barked (and Other Zoosemiotic Archaeologies)

  5 Fakes and Forgeries in the Middle Ages

  6 Jottings on Beatus of Liébana

  7 Dante between Modistae and Kabbalah

  8 The Use and Interpretation of Medieval Texts

  9 Toward a History of Denotation

  10 On Llull, Pico, and Llullism

  11 The Language of the Austral Land

  12 The Linguistics of Joseph de Maistre

  13 On the Silence of Kant

  14 Natural Semiosis and the Word in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I promessi sposi)

  15 The Threshold and the Infinite: Peirce and Primary Iconism

  16 The Definitions in Croce’s Aesthetic

  17 Five Senses of the Word “Semantics,” from Bréal to the Present Day

  18 Weak Thought versus the Limits of Interpretation




  At the second congress of the International Association for Semiotic Studies (Vienna, July 1979) I presented a number of “Proposals for a History of Semiotics.” I recommended that we intensify historical studies on the various theories of the sign and of semiosis over the centuries, first of all because I considered it a necessary contribution to the history of philosophy as a whole, and secondly because I was convinced that to do semiotics today one needed to know how it was done yesterday, however much it might have been disguised as something else. And what better place to begin than from that “Coup d’oeil sur le développement de la sémiotique” with which Roman Jakobson had opened the first international congress of the association five years earlier?

  I suggested three lines of research. The first had narrower ambitions, since it was confined to those authors who had spoken explicitly about the relation of signification, starting with the Cratylus and with Aristotle, down through Augustine and eventually to Peirce—but without neglecting the authors of treatises on rhetoric like Emanuele Tesauro or the theorists of universal and artificial languages like Wilkins or Beck.

  My second line of research involved a close rereading of the whole history of philosophy with a view to finding implicit semiotic theories even where they had apparently not been explicitly developed, and the chief example I gave was that of Kant.

  Finally, my third suggestion was intended to cover all those forms of literature in which symbolic and hermeneutical strategies of any kind were deployed or developed (among them, for instance, the works of the Pseudo-Areopagite). I cited as examples manuals of divination (texts like Guglielmo Dorando’s Rationale divinorum officiorum), the medieval bestiaries, the various discussions of poetics, down to the marginal notes of writers and artists who had reflected in one way or another on the processes of communication.

  Anyone familiar with the bibliography of semiotics over the last thirty years knows that my appeal was anchored on the one hand in already developed or developing historiographical interests, while on the other it voiced an urgency that was already, so to speak, in the air: over the past thirty years, the contributions to an historical reconstruction of theories of the sign and semiosis have been many, so many that we are already in a position (provided someone could be found with the will and the energy to take on the task) to plan a definitive history of semiotic thought, by various authors and in several volumes.

  For my own part, in the course of this thirty-year period, I have continued to elaborate the occasional personal offering, even returning from time to time to a topic previously explored—not to mention that chapter in semiotic history to which I devoted my La ricerca della lingua perfetta (1993), translated as The Search for a Perfect Language (1995). Such, then, is the origin and nature of the essays gathered in the present volume.

  They were conceived under various circumstances, some for strictly academic occasions, others as discourses addressed to a broader general public. I decided not to attempt to rewrite them in a more uniform style, and I have kept the apparatus of notes and references in the case of the more specialized contributions and the conversational tone in the case of the more essayistic pieces.

  I trust that even readers whose interests are not specifically semiotic (in the professional sense of the word) will be able to read these writings as contributions to a history of the various philosophies of language or languages.


  From the Tree to the Labyrinth

  1.1. Dictionary and Encyclopedia

  For some time now the notions of dictionary and encyclopedia have been used in semiotics, linguistics, the philosophy of language and the cognitive sciences, to say nothing of computer science, to identify two models of semantic representation, models that in turn refer back to a general representation of knowledge and/or the world.

  In defining a term (and its corresponding concept), the dictionary model is expected to take into account only those properties necessary and sufficient to distinguish that particular concept from others; in other words, it ought to contain only those properties defined by Kant as analytical (analytical being that a priori judgment in which the concept functioning as predicate can be deduced from the definition of the subject). Thus the analytical properties of dog would be ANIMAL, MAMMAL, and CANINE (on the basis of which a dog is distinguishable from a cat, and it is logically incorrect and semantically inaccurate to say of something that it is a dog but it is not an animal). This definition does not assign to the dog the properties of barking or being domesticated: these are not necessar
y properties (because there may be dogs incapable of barking and/or hostile to man) and are not part of our knowledge of a language but of our knowledge of the world. They are therefore matter for the encyclopedia.

  In this sense semiotic dictionaries and encyclopedias are not directly comparable to dictionaries and encyclopedias “in the flesh,” so to speak, to the published products, in other words, that go by the same name. In fact, dictionaries “in the flesh” are not usually composed according to the dictionary model: a normal dictionary, for instance, may define “cat” as a feline mammal, but usually adds details of an encyclopedic nature that concern the cat’s fur, the shape of its eyes, its behavioral habits, and so on and so forth.

  If we wish to identify a dictionary in its pure form—to which various contemporary theoreticians in the field of artificial intelligence still refer when they speak (see section 1.7 below) of “ontologies”—we must return to the model of the Arbor Porphyriana or Porphyrian tree, in other words to the commentary on Aristotle’s Categories written in the third century A.D. by the Neo-Platonist Porphyry in his Isagoge, a text that throughout the Middle Ages (and beyond) will be a constant point of reference for any theory of definition.

  1.2. The Dictionary

  1.2.1. The First Idea of the Dictionary: The Arbor Porphyriana

  Aristotle (Posterior Analytics, II, iii, 90b 30) says that what is defined is the essence or essential nature. Defining a substance means deciding, among its attributes, which of them appear to be essential, and in particular those that are the cause of the fact that the substance is what it is, in other words, its substantial form.

  The problem is coming up with the right attributes that can be predicated as elements of the definition (Posterior Analytics, II, xiii, 96a–b). Aristotle gives the example of the number 3: an attribute such as being certainly applies to the number 3, but also to anything else that is not a number. On the other hand, the fact of being odd applies to the number 3 in such a way that, even if it has a wider application (it also applies, for instance, to the number 5), it nonetheless does not extend beyond the class of numbers. These are the attributes we must look for “up to the point where, although singly they have a wider extension of meaning than the subject, collectively they have not; for this must be the essence of the thing” (II, xiii, 96a 35). What Aristotle means is that, if we define man as MORTAL, ANIMAL and RATIONAL, each of these attributes, taken on its own, can also be applied to other beings (horses, for example, are animal and mortal, and the gods, in the Neo-Platonic sense of the word, are animal and rational), but, taken altogether, as a defining “group,” MORTAL RATIONAL ANIMAL applies only to man, and in a way that is absolutely reciprocal.

  A definition is not a demonstration: to reveal the essence of a thing is not the same as to prove a proposition about that thing; a definition says what something is, whereas a demonstration proves that something is (II, iii, 91a 1), and, consequently, in a definition we assume what a demonstration must on the contrary prove (II, 3, 91a 35). Those who define do not prove that something exists (II, iii, 92a 20). This means that for Aristotle a definition is concerned with meaning and has nothing to do with processes of reference to a state of the world (II, iii, 93b 30).

  To find the right way to construct good definitions, Aristotle develops the theory of predicables, that is, of the ways in which categories can be predicated of a subject. In his Topics (I, iv, 101b 17–25) he identifies only four predicables (genus, proprium or unique property, definition, and accident), while Porphyry—as we shall see—will speak of five predicables (genus, species, difference, proprium, and accident).1

  In a lengthy discussion in the Posterior Analytics (II, xiii), Aristotle outlines a series of rules to develop a proper division, proceeding from the most universal genera to the infimae species, identifying at each stage of the division the proper difference.

  This is the method followed by Porphyry in the Isagoge. The fact that Porphyry develops a theory of division in a commentary on the Categories (where the problem of difference is hardly mentioned) is a serious matter for debate (see, for instance, Moody 1935), but it is not particularly relevant to our analysis.

  In the same way, we may sidestep the vexata quaestio of the nature of universals, a question that Boethius bequeaths to the Middle Ages, taking the Isagoge itself as his point of departure. Porphyry declares his intention (we do not know how sincere he is) of setting aside the question of whether genera and species exist in and of themselves or if they are concepts of the mind. However that may be, he is the first to translate Aristotle in terms of a tree, and it is certainly difficult to avoid the suspicion that, in so doing, he is indebted to the Neo-Platonic notion of the Great Chain of Being.2 We may safely ignore, however, the metaphysics that underlies the Arbor Porphyriana, given that what interests us is the fact that this tree, whatever its metaphysical roots, is conceived of as a representation of logical relationships.

  Porphyry delineates a single tree of substances, whereas Aristotle uses the method of division with a great deal of caution and, we might add, a great deal of skepticism. He seems to give it considerable weight in the Posterior Analytics, but to be more circumspect in On the Parts of Animals (642b et seq.), where he gives the impression of being prepared to construct different trees depending on which problem he is dealing with, even when it comes to defining the same species (see the whole discourse on animals with horns, apropos of which see Eco 1983a).

  But Porphyry outlined a single tree of substances, and it is through this model, and not the more problematical discussion in the real Aristotle, that the idea of a dictionary structure of definition is transmitted, via Boethius, down to our own day, even though present-day proponents of a dictionary-based semantics may not know to whom they are indebted.

  Porphyry, we were saying, lists five predicables: genus, species, difference, proprium, and accident. The five predicables establish the mode of definition for each of the ten categories. It is possible, then, to imagine ten Porphyrian trees: one for substances, which allows us, for example, to define man as MORTAL RATIONAL ANIMAL, and one for each of the other nine categories—a tree of qualities, for example, in which purple is defined as a species of the genus red.3 Therefore there are ten possible trees, but there is no tree of trees because Being is not a summum genus.

  There can be no doubt that the Porphyrian tree of substances aspires to be a hierarchical and finite whole of genera and species. The definition Porphyry gives of “genus” is purely formal: a genus is that to which a species is subordinate. Conversely, a species is what is subordinate to a genus. Genus and species are mutually definable and therefore complementary. Every genus placed on a high node of the tree includes the species that depend upon it; every species subordinate to a genus is a genus for the species subordinate to it, down to the base of the tree, where the specie specialissime, or “second substances,” such as man, for instance, are collocated. At the highest fork is the genus generalissimum (represented by the name of the category), which cannot be a species of anything else. A genus can be a predicate of its own species, whereas the species belong to a genus.

  The relationship of species to their superior genera is a relationship of hyponyms to hyperonyms. This phenomenon would guarantee the finite structure of the tree since, granted a given number of specie specialissime, and given that for two (or more) species there is only one genus, then, as we proceed upward, in the end the tree inevitably tapers off till it reaches the root node. In this sense the tree would fulfill all the functions required of a good dictionary.

  But a Porphyrian tree cannot be made up only of genera and species. If this were the case, it would take the form illustrated in Figure 1.1.

  In a tree of this kind man and horse (or man and cat) could not be distinguished from one another. A man is different from a horse because, though both may be animals, the first is rational and the second isn’t. Rationality is the difference for man. Difference is the crucial element, because accidents are not
required to produce a definition.4

  Differences may be separable from the subject (such as being hot, being in motion, being sick), in which case they are simply “accidents” (things that may happen—from the Latin accidere [= happen]—to a subject or not happen). But they may also be inseparable: among these some are inseparable but still accidental (like having a snub nose), others belong to the subject in and of itself, or essentially, like being rational or mortal. These are the specific differences and are added to the genus to form the definition of the species.

  Figure 1.1

  Differences may be divisive or constitutive. For example, the genus LIVING BEING is potentially divisible into the differences sensitive/insensitive, but the sensitive difference may be compounded with the genus LIVING to constitute the species ANIMAL. In its turn ANIMAL becomes a genus divisible into rational/irrational, but the rational difference is constitutive, with the genus that it divides, of the species RATIONAL ANIMAL. Differences, then, divide a genus (and the genus contains them as potential opposites) and they are selected to constitute in practice a subordinate species, destined to become in its turn a genus divisible into new differences.

  The Isagoge suggests the idea of the tree only verbally, but medieval tradition visualized the project as seen in Figure 1.2.

  In the tree in Figure 1.2 the dotted lines mark the dividing differences, while the solid lines mark the constitutive differences. We remind the reader that the god appears both as an animal and as a body because, in the Platonic theology that constitutes Porphyry’s frame of reference, the gods are intermediary natural forces and not to be identified with the One.5

  Figure 1.2

  From the contemporary point of view of a distinction between dictionary and encyclopedia, the Porphyrian tree certainly introduces, with its differences, encyclopedic properties into a dictionary structure. In fact, being Sensitive, Animate, Rational, and Mortal are accidents identifiable in terms of knowledge of the world, and it is on the basis of its behavior that we decide whether a being is animate or rational, whether, in other words, it expresses ratiocinative capabilities by means of language. In any case, the end purposes of the tree are those of a dictionary, in which the differences are necessary and sufficient conditions to distinguish one being from another and to make the definiens or definer coextensive with the definiendum or definee, so that, if ANIMAL RATIONAL MORTAL, therefore of necessity human, and vice versa.

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