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Essays on Language and Cognition

by Umberto Eco translated by & Alastair McEwen

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-15-100447-1
Publisher: Harcourt

            All (and probably more than) you ever wanted to know about how cognitive linguistics and semiotics have risen to the challenge of Kant’s Copernican Revolution in philosophy.

            Before he became a best-selling novelist (The Name of the Rose, 1983, etc.), globe-trotting intellectual (Serendipities, 1998, etc.), and media darling, Eco was a linguist and semiotician, and it is to this academic discipline that he returns in this collection, first published in Italy in 1997.  In other words, don’t be fooled by his characteristically playful title.  As the more revealing subtitle suggests, what Eco offers this time is a set of erudite and interrelated studies for highly specialized scholars.  The essays are even broken up into numbered divisions and subdivisions, in the style of a German habilitation.  Eco wrote these pieces in order to explore and redefine some of the loose ends left dangling in his much-praised Theory of Semiotics (1976).  The good professor writes as lucidly as ever; McEwan’s translation is both fluent and exact; but Eco here, making assumptions and demands more characteristic of academic presses than trade hardbacks, takes for granted a working knowledge of the basic developments in the discipline of semiotics since the late 1960s which will exclude a good deal of his customary audience.  For those with the price of admission, however, Eco offers a great deal.  In a concise, intellectually aggressive, and lucidly penetrating survey, he considers fundamental questions that have arisen in the course of his impressive scholarly career:  How do we understand our always strange world – symbolized here by his eponymous platypus – in and through language?  Why do we arrange dissimilar objects like cats and beetles into larger groups, and what happens when we do?  Above all, what is the relation between language and cognition?

            A substantial volume that makes a case for Eco’s novels as window-dressing, and his scholarship as the real thing.