on August 9, 2003
Please note: This book is approximately 75% paraphrased from Eco's "The Search for the Perfect Language," which contains a more thorough treatment of the material that the two books share. The material that is new in this book is interesting, making the read worthwhile for the dedicated reader who has already enjoyed "The Search..". For the casual reader, "Serendipities" is much shorter and more accessible than "The Search for the Perfect Language", making it a suitable alternative or possibly an introduction to the longer text. However, if you take offense at paying to read the same information twice, simply do not purchase both books. Enjoy!
on June 26, 2002
Serendipites is a collection of five essays where Eco is debating questions that arose from his preceding text - The search for the Perfect Language. His style here is to debate several intrinsic problems in history that are tied to language and how human reaction to them has shaped our thinking. The essays neither seek to advise or educate, only to debate without answer, other than to nudge the reader towards areas that are yet open to answers and you leave the five with a multitude of thoughts, conjectures.
The first essay - The Force of Falsity - gives rise to that scholarly need to provide polarity. Eco states that if there be a force of Truth, then surely, there must be an opposite force. He acknowledges the danger for understanding of falsity requires a kernel of truth to exist and that the real discourse is, rather, to prove that which claims authenticity, is in reality, that. The essay provides many canonical examples of where a belief which is incorrect - such as Ptolemy, Columbus, the Donation of Constantine and others - has led to a truth. Simply put, experience and thus knowledge, is often only obtained by theorizing and then practical trial and error. The driving force is merely proof of curiosity. Eco proves that serendipity is perhaps a separate force in itself but it is no great surprise because, without absolute knowledge, enlightenment must follow a path of conjecture and proof.
The second essay - Languages in Paradise - of the five has the greatest capacity for disagreement. Eco opens by stating that Adam was the Nomothete yet claims that his use of the name Eve "is evident that we are dealing with names that are not arbitrary". This effectively contradicts the concept that Adam was nomothete, as a name-giver ascribes name first and meaning is a resultant. Either Adam was nomothete or, if he was not, then the names he gave were intrinsically correct. They cannot be both. A further question arose in that perhaps we are newly attempting to reach a primal language rather than return to one - to create, if you wish, a nomothete when we have a single universal language. There is a further problem with Eco's usage of Dante's statement that: "only a man is able to speak". You only have to point to modern studies of Dolphins to realise that speech in whatever form communication may take, is not unique to man. Indeed, communication is not limited to the oral sense, but also encompasses the other four senses, at the very least. The bulk of the essay is given over to Dante's attempt to take the vernacular and compose the perfect language but there is some intense debate over his use of four words and variants thereof which fundamentally alter the meaning of his philosophy. You could argue that if Dante's meaning is so obscure then he can hardly be using a perfect language. Eco proceeds to analyse Dante's search to create the perfect language, to become a linguistic Adam. He comments on Dante's apparent reversal of theory of the perfection of Hebrew by Adam and his potential connections to Abulufia who espoused that each letter already possessed meaning.
The third essay - From Marco Polo to Leibiniz - speaks of the five possiblities resulting from cultural meetings, though the predominant would seem to be acculturation and uses Marco Polo to demonstrate that naming conventions are based on a cognitive understanding. He briefly touches on the development of phonograms (hieroglyphs the example - though there are more detailed books out there on the matter) and proceeds to the reconciliation of the antiquity of Chinese language with that of Hebrew, discussing at length Kirscher's work on such a reconciliation. Liebniz's later efforts on searching for such a utopian language highlights, according to Eco, where understanding attempts to fit the unknown to a pre-guessed condition. It is searching for similarities with the known, rather than researching the differences.
The fourth essay - The Language of the Austral Land - begins by examining how we have tried to find the perfect language and how we have developed our existing. The usual theory was that experience dictated language. Then this was reversed to suggest that language dictated our experiences which does tie in with the concept of Adam as nomothete. Eco spends considerable time contemplating the Foigny Austral land utopia whose communication is designed to provide philosophers as everything is based on the elements. There is a very detailed technical discussion on Foigny and Lull's and Wilkin's additions and development of such a priori philosophical language and commentary on Descartes' criticisms of it. Ultimately, we see that the attempt to create such perfect languages results in an understanding of how linguistic imperfection can create some our greatest literary works.
The fifth essay - The Linguistics of Joseph De Maistre - is concerned with mimologism and achieving a recognition of the decscent of language. Theories that each language is able to rectify its own inconsistences reflects back a primal source. As such Eco shows the four theses of how languages achieve this development and Maistre's conclusion that in order to be able to reason one must accept a linked network of the development of language and its associated ideals.
Serendipities is Eco at his semiotic best and, whilst he espouses it to be a footnote or appendix to `The Search for the Perfect Language', it is much more than that. Highly recommended.
on December 15, 2001
Umberto Eco's large oeuvre can be divided into four groups: his scholarly work on semiotics, his amusing essays and plays on genre, his fiction, and his works for the mythical "general reader." This last group, to which Serendipities belongs, is the least effective and worthwhile, and this book is not a major contribution to that group.
Let's begin by assuming that you are interested in the history of language, intellectual history more generally, and/or the history of folly (or "lunacy," as Eco calls it). If none of these fit you, you won't probably like the book much; but let's assume you are so interested.
Serendipities is a group of five short essays about various oddities of European intellectual history as it relates to ideas about language. If you have read Eco's The Search for the Perfect Language, this collection is a sort of addendum, unfortunately rather repetitive. If you haven't, you will probably have little context into which to fit these discussions of Athanasius Kircher's theory of Chinese characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs, Leibniz's binary-mathematical interpretation of the Yi Ching, etc.
Assuming, however, that you have that context --- and note that we are now talking about a very narrow audience indeed! --- you will find a number of amusing bits of trivia, but little analytical depth. One has the sense that Eco is describing some little bits of things he stumbled on, which might be interesting to follow up but which are, for him, tangential or marginal.
The most valuable discussion in the book is the first chapter, which considers the problem of a history of folly. What are we to do when we encounter an extremely influential set of ideas based upon an entirely incorrect premise? For example, the Donation of Constantine, or the existence of Prester John's Christian Empire of the East, or the existence of the Rosicrucians, etc. --- all of these influential ideas are based upon some massive misrecognition, some completely erroneous interpretation of the authenticity of some text or texts. So how are we to interpret that historical influence?
It is an interesting and important question, closely allied to the problem of a history of magic or the occult. Unfortunately, Eco does not attempt a methodological solution, but rather places these ideas into their respective historical trajectories and points out how influential and odd are the conclusions drawn.
But so what? If you think it's great fun to expose the confusions of our intellectual ancestors, and have the background to understand specifically linuistic confusions of this sort, you might find this book enjoyable. For certain it is well written and charming, after all. But as for any conclusions, well, Eco doesn't draw them. As such, this is more or less a list of things which would ordinarily be found in footnotes to abstruse scholarly works. And without a serious and in-depth analysis, they should go back there.
If you are a big fan of Eco in all his genres, and thus have read and made sense of a good deal of his serious scholarly work (e.g. his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, or The Limits of Interpretation), you will probably want to add this to your collection. Otherwise this is not the place to start with Eco, and probably not the place to end either.
on December 1, 1999
This book is a collection of essay/lectures Eco has presented. They range over a variety of interesting philosophical issues -- which are well presented and thought out. The theme throughout is that incorrect ideas can result in useful results. Like all of Eco's writing (with which I am familiar) his ideas require some attention and thought on the part of the reader. But this was for me a very accessible book, perhaps reflecting its origin as lectures, and well worth reading.
on May 26, 2016
History and language tracings combined made many connections for me, so I which that I had read it when I was yet not retired from teaching humanities. Because I have an ex-student who has a zest for semiotics, I passed it on to him.
First, I must assume that if you're considering reading this book you are a student of history, language, or perhaps the history of language. I am none of these and was given the book as "something I thought you'd enjoy". Even so, I found the book thought provoking and well written. I feel that the failing in this endeavor was my own, for I do not posess enough historical knowledge to relate to the constant references and source material quoted by Eco. I'll just say that I still found the book more worthwhile than the latest "bestseller".
As stated above, I must assume that most anyone reading this, or considering the book will have more of an interest in the subject matter.
on January 9, 2003
Do you know what Christopher Columbus was trying to prove with his historic ocean voyage, and why the church elders insisted it couldn't be done? Eco asks this question in the first essay of this book, "The Force of Falsity", and you may be surprised by the answer. Throughout, Eco gives you that delightful taste of history that he's known for, while asking provocative questions about the philosophy of language and even the nature and value of truth itself.
Language is definitely the focus of this book, but each essay is more of an examination than a thesis, and the material is not as heavy as Eco's essays about language often are. On the other hand it is not as light and playful as, for example, "Misreadings" (also a worthy read). It's a casual, engaging read with some substance to it, and well worth reading if you like to think.
on June 15, 2006
If you like Eco's nonfiction musings on semiotics, history, literature and philosophy you will love this wild ride.
The first chapter details some instances in history when false beliefs have resulted in benefits to society, provided some impetus to discovery or exploration, helped advance our understanding or correct some other misunderstanding. Examples include the Ptolemaic system, the notion of the flat Earth, the Donation of Constantine and the letter of Prester John, the Rosicrucians and the Protocols of Zion.
The second chapter addresses the ideal of a perfect language. Dante's Divine Comedy leads off. The Tower of Babel myth leads to a discussion on why Dante chose to write in vernacular. There is mention of radical Aristotelianism of the 14th century in Paris and the Modistae grammarians, including Boethius of Dacia. Then the Kabbalah, Abraham Abulafia and the Torah, the Tetragrammaton and the yod of YHWH. (Each letter represents a code for a whole name.)
The third chapter extends the idea of a perfect or constructed language and includes the idea presented in the first chapter of serendipitous misunderstandigs or misconceptions. People are said to react to meetings with new cultures in three ways, conquest, pillage or exchange. People base their interpretations on their own background books, their cultural frames.
Marco Polo in the Orient is given as an example of someone interpreting a new culture through the lens of his own. He apparently identified a rhinoceros as a unicorn, because he was firmly convinced that unicorns existed. Egyptian hieroglyphs are another example of how one culture applies its own cultural bias on a new discovery. Athanasius Kircher is cited as an example of another credulous explorer, who, although his conjectures were all false regarding the translations, provided a useful service in reproducing the originals so lovingly, that later scholars were able to discover some true meanings hidden within. Again, serendipitous misunderstanding. Francis Bacon and John Wilkins also appear in the search for a real character. Next we address the early study of the chinese ideograms and then Diego de Landa and the Maya hieroglyphs. The accident that the Maya writing were deemed early to be either heretical, diaboloical, or meaningless lead to their wholesale destruction. Yet Chinese and Egyptian were somehow deemed learned, correct or mysterious and worthy of preservation and study. The unexpected connection between Leibnitz, Boolean algebra and the I Ching was presented. Hermes Trismegistus ends the chapter.
Chapter four is a whirlwind of references; Dante, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Ramon Lull, Francis Bacon, Delgarno, Wilkins and Lodgwick, Kircher again, and particularly the Austral language of de Foigny, or rather a novel featuring a consturcted language. The arbitrary nature of assigning catagories, touching on Descartes, Leibnitz, d'Alembert, and Borges.
I would also recommend Six Walks in the Fictional Woods by Eco.
If you occasionally savor pushing yourself intellectually, here's a candidate for a cool summer read way out in the deep end. Eco is popularly best known for THE NAME OF THE ROSE and THE ISLAND OF THE DAY BEFORE, and is Professor of Semiotics at the University of Bologna. His forte is exploration of the history of language and ideas and his biologic CPU is running at full throttle in this short collection of lectures originally delivered to the Italian Academy. The theme of SERENDIPITIES is the way in which falsity or misunderstanding has shaped our world for the better. Ptolemy, for example, was wrong about the structure of the solar system but that error fired his passion for observation which later inspired Kepler. Kircher, the founder of Egyptology, was wildly imaginative and wholly innacurate in his decipherment of hieroglyphics (including an effort to explain Chinese ideograms by fitting China into the history of the Egyptian civilization), but his scholarship provided the historical record which Champollion later unscrambled with benefit of the Rosetta Stone -- as well as fueling Europe's Chinaphilia which led, roundabout, to Leibniz getting hold of a table from the I Ching. (Leibniz inadvertently read the chart sideways, found confirmation in that mis-reading of his newly invented binary calculus, and was convinced to publish his own work. That you are reading this on a computer screen owes thanks to Kircher's inability to read King Tut's obituary.) The author notes that we each carry our own books everywhere we go, whether they are the ones we have personally read or the "books" of our culture. Every new experience is always viewed through old lenses. Some of Eco's brainstorming is too erudite and abstruse to amuse this reviewer. Chapter Two wanders around medieval Europe on Dante's heels seeking Adam's original language and the question of whether God spoke in hailstorms and wind or natural language, wonders why Augustine ignored Hebrew and Greek biblical texts in favor of Latin and sidetracks into the early Christian belief that a baby never instructed in speech would automatically speak Hebrew. Whew! Diff'rent strokes, no? (How many pins can dance on the head of an angel?) Woven throughout is a wonderful excitement about the nature of knowing; whether it be the inside joke that became Rosicrucianism, the confusion about who believed in a flat earth, unicorns and rhinosceri in Marco Polo's diary or the search for Adam's tongue which resulted in modern linguistics with its exploration of Indo-European lingual roots. Altogether, a challenging mental weight room which will leave your synapses sweaty and breathless. Plus, "Can I carry your books?" will take on a whole new meaning.
on January 21, 2002
Ezra Pound notes in ABC of Reading: "One definition of beauty is aptness to purpose. Whether it is a good definition or not, you can readily see that a good deal of BAD criticism has been written by men who assume that an author is trying to do what he is NOT trying to do."
What an indictment of the many reviews here that rest on big, declarative assumptions about Eco and/or his body of work. The writers of these reviews then use these assumptions to make further assumptions about me, John Q. Averagereader. Dangerous stuff.
I know this may be revolutionary, but, how about a review of the book for what it is?
Eco himself warned you in the Preface: "In other words, I feel what links the essays collected here is that they are about ideas, projects, beliefs that exist in a twilight zone betwen common sense and lunacy, truth and error, visionary intelligence and what now seems to us stupidity, though it was not stupid in its day and we must therefore reconsider it with great respect."
Why not accept this conjecture as an invitation to thought, debate? It seems to be offered as such.
Now, let's think. If you have just been dropped off into a twilight zone of hard sayings and real thought, how much sense does it make to offer damning patronage such as :
"For certain it is well written and charming, after all. But as for any conclusions, well, Eco doesn't draw them".
(As misguided as this comment is, woe to anyone who seeks conclusions in a twilight zone.)
Or, how much sense does it make to take the invitation to thought so lightly with the arrogant suggestion to add Serendipities to your collection only if "you are a big fan of Eco in all his genres, and thus have read and made sense of a good deal of his serious scholarly work "
(Critical thinking be damned??? Long Live Eco???)
Mr. Eco has made a compelling argument on the very real consequences of our belief in and manufacture of folly. There are many polemic examples in the book. Here's one that's not in the book but fits well for illustration: Did not the survival of US slavery depend in large part upon convincing fair-skinned masses of the sub-human status of the Negro? This thought did not seem stupid in its day (or today even??). Drop this topic into the "Force of Falsity" essay and see how a great nation was built -- by real people chained to powerful folly.
In cases like these, Mr. Eco invites us to think with him and reconsider history. I would take that invitation any day from a man whom so many admire as such a great thinker. I imagine that Mr. Eco, too, would prefer your honest debate on the work at hand over your circumscribed ideas on him as a great intellectual. This man seems to need neither your real flowers nor your faint praise. Intellectual integrity would probably be most welcome, though.