Book Review: Kant And The Platypus

Kant And The Platypus:  Essays On Language And Cognition, by Umberto Eco

I happen to like much of what I have read from Umberto Eco [1], and this book is no exception to that general enjoyment.  Unlike many people in his field, Eco had a firm grasp of the fact that communication and cognition do not operate by building castles in the air, but have to address a reality that may not be perfectly understood but that provides a test of the mental theories that various people or groups make.  This book is full of humorous references to the difficulty of understanding the platypus and the challenge such an animal possesses when it comes to proper categorization as an egg-laying animal with a duckbill that nevertheless otherwise resembles river-dwelling mammals.  The author also has something interesting to say about the development of the model of the horse by the Aztecs who encountered Montezuma, and how it was the experience of the Spanish conquest cut off the chance that the Aztecs and their leaders had to respond to the reality of the horse and best deal with it as an element of the Spanish military efforts.  These and other examples demonstrate Eco’s profound interest in the relationship between reality and efforts to understand it and communicate about it.

This book of nearly 400 pages is divided into six chapters and numerous section within each chapter.  The first chapter looks at the question of being and discusses the relationship between language and reality and how we talk about and deal with the problem of being (1).  After that the author discusses Kant, Pierce, and the platypus, with a look at how the platypus’ reputation was similar to the way that Polo claimed that the rhino was a unicorn (2).  The third essay looks at the relationship between cognitive types and nuclear and molar content (3), spending special time on stories about animals like the horse and oysters as well as a hilarious look at the theory of knowledge among angels that led to success for the archangel Gabriel.  There is a chapter on the place of the platypus between dictionary and encyclopedia, pointing out the problem of the negotiation of definitions (4).  After that the author provides a chapter that looks at the nature of reference and contract (5) before closing the main contents of the book with a debate on iconism and reality (6), after which there are endnotes, a collection of works cited, and an index.

One thing this author does well is demonstrate that semiotics need not be divorced from other fields but that it can provide an important link between how we think and the external world that we have to deal with.  By using animals (including the horse and platypus) as heroes of a journey into semiotics and its connections with other fields, the author does a good job at making the material relatable and deeply amusing.  Platypuses, for example, are generally funny animals because of their mosaic nature, and the long time it took to understand how it was that an egg-laying mammal with milk glands that acted like sweat glands more than like the nipples of most mammals ended up still being a mammal.  The word for horse in nahuatl was originally a word that was used to refer to deer, before the surviving Aztecs adopted words related to the Spanish caballo.  What we know, or what we think we know, and what is present challenges to our language as our understanding is shaped by our experiences while also shaping the way we interpret the reality around us.  If you want an enjoyable collection of essays about semiotics, this is certainly a worthwhile one.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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