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Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition Paperback – November 9, 2000

ISBN-13: 978-0156011594 ISBN-10: 015601159X

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books (November 9, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 015601159X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156011594
  • Product Dimensions: 1.2 x 5.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #844,625 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Describing Umberto Eco as a writer is like describing the platypus as an animal. What do readers expect when they see the author's name on a book jacket? It's a tricky question to answer, given his range and versatility: he has produced studies of semiotics, children's books, medieval history, essays on contemporary culture, and, of course, novels--most notably The Name of the Rose and The Island of the Day Before. So first, a word of warning. Anyone familiar with Eco the novelist or essayist might well be dismayed by Kant and the Platypus, for this new book returns to his preoccupations of the 1960s and 1970s--to semiotics and cognitive semantics. As such, it can be a daunting volume (the initial chapter, for example, riffs on the numerous philosophical concepts of being). And second, a word of encouragement: this is a wonderful engagement with the issues of language itself. Even as he beckons the reader into one linguistic thicket after another, Eco always keeps a commonsensical perspective, using stories to explicate the knottiest concepts.

Why did Marco Polo describe the rhinoceros as a type of unicorn? Why couldn't 18th-century observers figure out how to classify the duck-billed platypus? Given a dictionary or encyclopedia definition of a mouse, how easy would it be to identify one if we had never seen one before? These are some of the examples that Eco uses to explore the ways in which we see and describe the world--the ways, that is, in which cultures develop taxonomies. If you want to know "why we can tell an elephant from an armadillo," or why mirrors do not in fact reverse images, this book will tell you. In fact, it will also tell you why you know what I am talking about when I say "this book." Got it? No? Then get it. --Burhan Tufail --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers 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 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

More About the Author

Umberto Eco (born 5 January 1932) is an Italian novelist, medievalist, semiotician, philosopher, and literary critic.

He is the author of several bestselling novels, The Name of The Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of The Day Before, and Baudolino. His collections of essays include Five Moral Pieces, Kant and the Platypus, Serendipities, Travels In Hyperreality, and How To Travel With a Salmon and Other Essays.

He has also written academic texts and children's books.


Photography (c) Università Reggio Calabria

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By N N Taleb on April 25, 2004
Format: Paperback
I read the review of Simon Blackburn trashing the book: Eco made a few mistakes concerning the two dogmas of empiricism (he confused Davidson's work with Quine's first dogma). So I am sure many readers hesitated after a review by such a rigorous big gun thinker as Blackburn.
When I started reading the book I was taken aback by the combination of depth and the vividness of the style. Eco is sprightly and alive, something that cannot be said of many philosophers dealing with the subject of categories.
The notion of categories is not trivial: you need a simple conditional prior to identify an object; it is a simple mathematical fact. You need to know what a table is to see it in the background separated from its surroundings. You need to know what a face is so when it rotates you know it is still the same face. Computers have had a hard time with such pattern recognition. A PRIOR category is a necessity. This was Kant's intuition (the so-called "rationalism"). This is also the field of semiotics as initially conceived. Eco took it to greater levels with his notion of what I would call in scientific language a compression, a "simplifation". This leads to the major problem we face today: what if the act of compressing is arbitrary?
Not just very deep but it is a breath of fresh air to see such a philosophical discussion nondull, nondry, alive!
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19 of 24 people found the following review helpful By David M. Giltinan on January 6, 2008
Format: Paperback
Why only two stars? I'm fascinated by books about the origins and evolution of language, but this one definitely belongs on the "philosophy", rather than the "linguistics" shelf (I suppose the mention of Kant in the title should have been sufficient warning). And, though I have a decent enough training in logic and mathematics, my philosophical chops are non-existent. So that paragraphs like the following just stick in my craw, like an indigestible platypus-burger:

"First of all, so that these most partial notes may be understood, I must clarify what I mean by the term "referring". I intend to exclude a "broad" use of the term, and I think it would be appropriate to limit the notion of referring to what is perhaps more properly describable as cases of designation, that is to utterances that mention particular individuals, groups of individuals, specific facts or sequences of facts, in specific times and places. From now on I shall also be using the generic notion of "individual" for identifiable spatiotemporal segments, such as 25 April 1945, and I shall hold to the golden decision by which nominantur singularia sed universalia significantur."

So, here's the thing. I actually had five years of Latin in high school, so I can reasonably figure out that that last part means something along the lines of 'although the specific is named, the general is to be understood' (e.g. 'the platypus' can be taken to mean that particular platypus over there, but it can also mean 'platypuses in general').

So I can figure it out. But I RESENT HAVING TO.
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37 of 49 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 19, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I am a student at Rutgers University and this novel is the crown jewel of the philosophy program. Enchanting and mystical, this book is to the field of philosophy of language what the Bible is to Christians. Umberto Eco is to philosophy of language and cognition as Henry Kissinger is to foreign policy. Kant and the Platypus is as easy to read as USA Today, but is as powerful as a yoga session. You simply must own it.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 19, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I give this book two platypuses up for its outstanding, superb, and insightful analyses of language and cognition. The end was disappointing but only compared to the exceptional beginning and middle. All fans of Kant and marsupials are in for a treat.
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15 of 20 people found the following review helpful By osiris on July 25, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Dont get me wrong, Im generally big on Eco, not only his novels, but also the other essay books and Travels in Hyperreality really was an eye opener in my intellectual development. But Kant and the Platypus was a real disappointment. First, the reference to Kant is rather misleading, for Kant's work is reviewed rather summerally and reduced to an absurdity. Kant's categories of cognition are not geared towards semiotics as such, but towards formal logical operations, the space time structure of thinking. To say that the Kantian categories fall short of an analysis of meaning is to suggest that the faucet was deficient in putting out the fire at Macy's. Second, to say the perceptual categories of every day meaning are negotiated contracts with a community of parlants, does not require almost 400 pages. The essays are like pastries oversaturated with sacharine. After the initial taste or two, u just feel like putting it down. It was a labor to honor the man by finishing the book.
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11 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on November 18, 1999
Format: Hardcover
What is the boundary between cognition and mere philosophy of language? What is the role of language in cognition? What is the platypus' place in a mammalian dominated world? These are just a few of the probing questions that Umberto Eco asks and brillantly answers in Kant and the Platypus. There should be no cognition issues involved in the purchase of this book: it simply is a must-own.
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