Subscribe to

OMG. I disagree with Umberto Eco!

It makes me very nervous to disagree with Umberto Eco because he is so fathomlessly smart. But I think in this case I do. Sort of.

There’s a fabulous interview with Eco in Spiegel (in English) about why he loves lists. He is characteristically pithy, provocative and wise. A crucial paragraph, from the beginning:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

I read the first sentence and was provoked, as Eco intends. Lists are the origin of culture? Please say more! But Eco doesn’t really explain, in this interview, why lists — as opposed to other forms of collections and orderings — are so important. The urge to make order, yes, but not lists themselves.

A list is one particular way of creating order. Lists are sequential and one-dimensional: Wines listed by year, or by place, or by ranking, or by the chronology of when you first encountered them. (Lists can be hierarchical, but they’re only lists if they can be resolved back down to the one-dimensional.) Lists thus are one elemental way of ordering the world. And they have a peculiar fascination, which Eco expresses beautifully. But I think it’s wrong to say that they’re the origin of culture. I think it’d be more accurate and useful to say that culture originates with collecting: Pulling things around us because of their appeal (a word I’m purposefully leaving vague).

I’m sure I’m making too much of Eco essentially drumming of interest in his exhibit at the Louvre, but the issue matters a little bit. I think (based on little to nothing) that lists emerged as a stripping down of multi-dimensional collections. Culture first happened (I imagine) when we pulled together pieces of the world that spoke to us in ways we could not articulate. We assembled them as spaces through which we could wander, or piles through which we could collectively sort (“Oooh, I particularly like that green shiny stone!”). Lists are an abstraction, and culture began (I suppose) with an unarticulated sense that some things go together — and perhaps our first conversations were about why.

Eco goes on to say many wonderful things about why we have liked lists, including proposing that listing properties of an object can liberate us from looking for the definitional essence of things. (For more on this, read his important book, Kant and the Platypus.) In fact, Eco suggests that a mother defines a tiger to her child “Probably by using a list of characteristics: The tiger is big, a cat, yellow, striped and strong.”

I have a bunch of issues with that.

First, that type of definition really just makes explicit what’s implicit in the traditional approach to definitions as essence. In the traditional Aristotelian approach, the essence is the creature’s spot in the hierarchy of beings. So, a tiger is a species of cat, and thus would be specified by its difference from other cats but also by all of the properties of the classes above it (mammal, vertebrate, animal, etc.). The essential definition and the list definition both consist of a list of properties, but the essential definition nests them so that they don’t all have to be spelled out, and so we can see which differences “count.” Eco says, “The essential definition is primitive compared with the list,” but it seems to me that a beautifully nested, hierarchical system of essential definitions is in fact more advanced — it requires abstraction and systems thinking — than a mere list.

But, I don’t want to miss Eco’s essential (so to speak) point here, which is that defining something with a list breaks us out of the notion that there is a single, knowable essence. Absolutely. There’s no eternal essence, “just” a set of properties that are relevant depending upon our circumstances. With that I wholeheartedly agree.

My second problem with this is that — as George Lakoff says in Women, Fire and Dangerous Things, explicating and expanding the work of Eleanor Rosch — the mother (heck, maybe even the father) probably actually teaches the child what a tiger is by pointing at one, or at a picture of one. We learn through prototypes, not through essential definitions, and not by making lists. List-making is an abstraction and a secondary activity.

Third, the listing the parent does seem to me to not have the properties that make lists captivating to Eco. The parent isn’t trying to give a complete listing that brings a sense of mastery over the infinite and over death. She’s just pointing out some of the salient features. If it is a list, it’s not a list of the sort that Eco has charmed us about.

Fourth, while lists of properties are a useful corrective to thinking that things are exhausted by a definition of their essence, lists strip out so much that they don’t seem like much more adequate than essential definitions. A tiger isn’t a list.

This is just a fun interview in Spiegel, so I may be taking it too seriously. So, even if lists occur within culture — including the lists in literature he points to — rather than being the origin of culture, the interview does indeed help us to see why our fascination with lists is a fascination with something bigger than lists.

10 Responses to “OMG. I disagree with Umberto Eco!”

  1. on 16 Nov 2009 at 2:12 amClaus

    Well, cave paintings obviously are not sequential, but of course spoken word is and probably predates cave paintings. In that sense sequential lists are certainly right there at the origin. Stories are lists.
    – but as you say, one probably shouldn’t make to much of the statement in the first place.

  2. on 18 Nov 2009 at 4:21 pmUmberto

    You, sir, are clearly an animal.

  3. on 18 Nov 2009 at 11:09 pmMark

    Umberto uses the word list in several different ways. To list a number? 15. Mr. Eco uses the word both as a noun and a verb.

    He is speaking nonsense, and hoping that we all think he is just so brilliant that we can’t follow him. Then he allows US to provide the meaning to his (sometimes) gibberish.

    Congratulations for having the courage to say out loud that you disagree with this famous person! Shall I list the ways that you are on your way to finding the Truth?

  4. on 26 Nov 2009 at 7:42 amfelicity dodge

    It seems to me that Eco is not only challenging the way we define our self, but our surroundings and the way we interact with beings and the objects around us.

    When discussing water, he states that “The essential definition [H2O] is primitive compared with the list”. The explanation H20, isn’t enough! But as the list of ways to describe or explain water grows … it seems it still isn’t enough.

    Eco is a professor. I imagine he’d welcome you questioning his reasoning. But I find an elusive poetry to Eco’s reasoning that lures me in. Even in the literature and art, graphic lists are used to express something, without ever being complete or fully explanatory. We’re being drawn to the infinite.

  5. on 27 Jan 2010 at 3:21 pmDavid K.

    Perhaps “The list is the origin of culture,” in Eco’s idea because many of the first examples of writing (stone, clay, papyrus) we were able to decipher were lists from traders noting their wares or their purchases or their transactions. Consequently, if traders’ lists were the beginning of written language, and written language is the origin of culture, then “the list” would be “the origin of culture,” no?

  6. on 27 Jan 2010 at 11:09 pmTom Vest

    I think Eco’s being ironic here, if that’s not a redundant statement. Lists don’t destroy culture, they create culture — albeit by imposing a veneer of separability and commensurability on the raw stuff of experience; they make infinity comprehensible, and/or finitude less terrifying, but only by interposing a reassuring but false unidimensionality.

    Or perhaps that’s entirely off base, and here Eco is using culture in the sense of “material culture,” which would make sense given his innumerable extended literary explorations of the uniqueness-locality-periodicity of various things, many of which seem to play no particular role in his narratives other than to serve as hermeneutical object-lessons. In this sense his claim about lists being at the foundation of culture would be consistent with the stories that some monetary theorists and economic historians tell about the emergence of “liquidity mechanisms” like money and credit as the impetus for the development of writing itself.

  7. on 27 Jan 2010 at 11:16 pmTom Vest

    Re: …stories that some monetary theorists and economic historians tell about the emergence of “liquidity mechanisms” like money and credit as the impetus for the development of writing itself…

    One good, recent exemplar of the above is:

    Basu, Kirk, & Waymire, “Memory, Transaction Records, and The Wealth of Nations,” in
    Accounting, Organizations and Society
    Volume 34, Issue 8, November 2009, Pages 895-917

  8. on 14 May 2010 at 9:09 amJonathan Stray

    All this talk about the elemental nature of lists — I think we should really be talking about “sets”, which are simpler and more fundamental (and not coincidentally, the basis of modern mathematics.) A set is just a collection of things, without order. That seems very basic. A list is a more complex idea because it adds the concept of an ordering to the collection. That said, humans probably understand lists through a spatial metaphor, so I’m sure lists have been around for a long, long time.

    – Jonathan

  9. on 19 May 2010 at 12:32 pmBruce

    Re: …stories that some monetary theorists and economic historians tell about the emergence of “liquidity mechanisms” like money and credit as the impetus for the development of writing itself…

    One good, recent exemplar of the above is:

    Basu, Kirk, & Waymire, “Memory, Transaction Records, and The Wealth of Nations,” in
    Accounting, Organizations and Society
    Volume 34, Issue 8, November 2009, Pages 895-917

  10. on 20 Oct 2011 at 11:05 amImam

    Really love lists! The conversation so fun.

Leave a Reply